30 years may have passed since the last significant film to involve scrappy underdogs battling the paranormal, but it might have felt like longer. Ivan Reitman’s initial Ghostbusters duology equated to a watershed moment for sci-fi fantasy comedies in the 80s, building a cult following and a long-standing franchise seeing its offshoots of varying quality. The less spoken about Paul Feig’s failed 2016 experiment that could never count as the third film we deserved, the better. Only someone who could best understand the lore could pull off an acceptable continuation, and through Reitman’s son Jason, finally that has been achieved. Ghostbusters: Afterlife arrives with a pent-up desire for an all-quadrant picture. And a fanbase impatient to witness an adventure true to form with its predecessors, cartoons included while also factoring in maybe a few questionable creative choices.
The events of Afterlife go down with a firm grip on the mythology Reitman, Dan Aykroyd, and the late Harold Ramis delicately established. A blueprint where the presence of apparitions is squarely placed within a sleepy Oklahoman town. The younger Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan (Monster House) quickly introduce us to burned-out single mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two kids, geeky Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and unsophisticated Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). The trio has moved into this isolated community, fighting eviction while attempting to pick up the pieces of her father’s life, the recently deceased Egon Spengler. Various antiques roam around his rec room, basement, and dusty garage, pulling Phoebe’s attention for the better, finding a newfound role model in her grandpa.
Phoebe’s unique coming-of-age affinity perhaps plays antithesis to Reitman’s hesitancy toward falling in his father’s footsteps. The inventive Jason had previously blazed a path all his own, his motifs gravitating on character weakness, narrowly escaping trouble but growing up from adverse events all the same. Heck, even The Front Runner carried a few streaks of that ideal, steering clear of Ivan’s penchant for the absurdist, the ridiculous displacing the mundane. There is perhaps a momentary waving of the white flag, but I don’t see it as a surrender of directorial freedom. At least, entirely. Call it an olive branch for unity, and especially closure, as another studio nut is finally cracked. Rejuvenating a brand name completely locked in development hell, while assuring its future legacy.
For that to work, there must be some digging into the past, to piece together both a family and a team separated. Phoebe isn’t alone in solving both mysteries while inadvertently building a new crew of amateur paranormal scientists, with a Goonies-like attitude. Among them, big bro Trevor, hip influencer-in-training Podcast (a delightful Logan Kim), sheriff’s daughter Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), and reluctantly bored science teacher/amateur seismologist Gary (Paul Rudd). And this group goes to work, learning the trade and tools necessary to catch ghosts before their small town reaches a likely doomsday. To go into further detail would mean skating past spoiler territory, even if one’s familiarity with what the elder Reitman championed years before can’t quite avoid a pattern being revisited.
There’s teambuilding, the welcome kind to better personalities, and air out the dirty laundry. Miss Coon, whose performance came off as underserved for the plot, is easily the figurehead for unchecked regret. But Afterlife also oozes with fanservice both admirable and morally questionable. Rob Simonsen’s diligent nods to the classic Elmer Bernstein themes incited a few shivers and an occasional eye-roll. And how far Reitman goes to tip his cap to Ramis for his contributions does skew somewhat overboard, but it does still emerge from a heartfelt place leaving small easter eggs, and at least one significant callback which was a no-brainer for the marketing. In short, marshmallow men are adorable while small. But not so much inorganic character interactions blending the past and present, despite their improv consistencies. Nothing seemed like an overwhelming surprise, merging universes in an otherwise pleasing moment of passing the torch. The mere concept should leave audiences in a whir. Unlike myself, where the entire third act does tap the skids a bit while strolling down memory lane.
When Reitman does shift his lens on the here and now, with longevity the action word, his unbridled eye for humorous, low-key spectacle takes hold. Reigniting a mild slice of life attitude not seen since likely Tully or Young Adult, it benefits his lead cast with no end in sight. Grace levels up from her star-making turn in Troop Zero to rewrite the rulebook on cinema’s legendary nerds, complete with dry science jokes and a skillful chess hand. Kim possesses catchy street smarts while recording every step for posterity; his comic slickness proved no equal while eradicating Slimer’s likely son (it’s possible), Muncher.
Wolfhard and O’Connor are magnetic in their teenage rebellion, the former joyful in treating the relic Ecto-1 vehicle for a speed run amid majestic wheat fields. Rudd picks up whatever slack is left, rediscovering his adoration for the scientific arts, and falling victim to its pitfalls in a steady arc. Going from showing 80s horror in class like a burnout, to playing along like a mild superfan, his evolution runs in grand parallel to Grace’s slowly unlocking potential.
It is not a perfect experience, as many of the decisions play out of pigeonholing while looking to course-correct. Having never seen the 2016 reboot (that designation is bound to change before long), the desperation on Sony’s part to forget and atone for past sins isn’t all that bothersome. The Reitmans waited perhaps a bit too long to pick up the reins once more, but their aptitude to answer back from swirling clouds of backlash has not lost any luster. Ghostbusters: Afterlife delivers on what it promises, with a few rocks slowing down its logical forward-thinking. Unfazed by its not-so-bright rulings in execution, it plays well to reawakening nostalgia with a fine promise on just who to call in the future. Realigning and revisiting these spooks in the present with a flexible grasp on the hilarity is a fair start. (B+; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens in theaters this weekend, make sure to stay through the end credits; rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some suggestive references; 124 minutes.