If I had to guess that Ghostbusters: Afterlife will end up gifting anything lasting to contemporary cinema, it will be as an unequivocal litmus test for what kind of moviegoer you are: One who appreciates a tsunami of callbacks from a much better film cobbled together into some semblance of something, or as someone who begs for an exit strategy from any nostalgia onslaught that completely takes over after the first act.
I’m in the latter camp, as someone who desperately hoped to receive a fresh installment of Ghostbusters mythology that might rival the comedic/supernatural genius that almost 40 years ago birthed into existence Gozer the Gozerian, The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, terror dogs, and the concept of crossing the streams. As a kid, I remember sitting in a darkened summer theater witnessing what felt like my first grown-up comedy where the jokes were so great, you missed a lot of the dialogue amidst the roars of laughter.
Sadly, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not our savior.
And to add insult to injury, writer/director Jason Reitman dangles the carrot of a fun and exceptionally cast sequel that was ready to stand on its own merits until the nostalgia itch got so bad, he had to unleash the beast which, like Slimer in that hotel hallway, devours everything original in its path.
Positioned as a direct sequel to Ghostbusters II, set thirty years after the supernatural events of that film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens with a prologue that sets up a spectral disturbance centering on a rural farmhouse protected by strange scientific gadgetry that seems to be the work of a shadowy man with Dr. Egon Spengler’s silhouette. But he’s overcome by that supernatural entity, and whatever he captured in a familiar Ghostbusters trap is lost under a tattered chair that also looks oddly familiar.
The not-so-subtle connections are in overdrive from the get-go, including a score that steals so heavily from Elmer Bernstein’s brilliant Ghostbusters work, I don’t know how someone from his estate isn’t suing. But gratefully, the script then pivots to Egon’s grown daughter, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), a single mom who lives in the city with her tween daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and teen son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). Long estranged from her dad, the news of his demise serves only to spur her to pack up their life and relocate to Summerville, Oklahoma in hopes of being left something worth selling in his will. It’s a bleak inciting incident but the trio are so charming from the start—with Callie’s acerbic mood playing well against Trevor’s sass and Phoebe’s dead-on channeling of grandpa Egon’s singular, socially awkward personality—that it all works.
As they settle into the one-street town to excavate the decrepit house for anything of value, Phoebe is put into summer school to keep her mind active. There she meets Podcast (Logan Kim), a motor-mouthed, true crime-obsessed middle schooler more than ready to get to know the new Spenglers. And there’s also summer school teacher Chad Grooberson (Paul Rudd), whose personal research about the area’s daily earthquakes spark’s Phoebe’s astute scientific mind as she connects those dots with some weird things she’s observed in Egon’s house. Emboldened by one another, the trio conducts a very ill-advised science experiment that ends with a lot of explosions. This brings Callie to the school and, voila, some other sparks ignite for Chad too.
Oh, that Reitman had only trusted these characters to be enough for Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Grace and Kim alone are worth the price of admission, with their oddball back-and-forth patter earning all of the real laughs in the movie. Their performances deftly mirror the chemistry of Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis from the original films, yet the kids are also ably doing their own things. With astounding comedic timing for their ages, they even give Rudd a run for his money.
But everything falls off the rails the minute Trevor and Phoebe discover the Ecto-1 in the barn, where it one, miraculously still works and two, now drives like an ATV on steroids despite tons of Egon-added modifications that make the original hearse chassis even lower to the ground. That’s just the tip of the illogical iceberg as the discovery of occultist Ivo Shandor’s local selenium mine reveals it to be the location for the second coming of the Cult of Gozer.
From that reveal onwards, Ghostbusters: Afterlife ceases to be its own movie and devolves into a repository for recycling visuals, props and characters from the original films. Every single base element from those movies is mined. No matter how specious or dumb the setup, there’s a callback to be found popping up randomly like an exploitative game of whack-a-mole, or a deranged game of bingo where screaming any Ghostbusters terminology will surely win a whoop of delight from the audience.
For example, take those “darling” baby Stay-Pufts that suddenly appear in a rural Oklahoma Wal-Mart to terrorize the store, and one another, in a montage of destruction cribbed right from Gremlins. Never mind that a walking Stay-Puft existing anywhere outside of that specific conjuring of happiness in Ray’s mind in Ghostbusters makes absolutely no sense. But if it came from before, then dammit, it’s coming back again to assault you like a nostalgia Howitzer loaded with unlimited bullets for an exhausting third act that you will love—or else!
Whatever promising story teased in the first act is also lost. Perhaps most egregious is that Reitman betrays his new cast by sidelining them for returning faces and a ridiculously maudlin climax that makes Ghostbusters II’s Statue of Liberty bit look emotionally tempered in comparison. I can’t remember another movie throwing such a competent cast under a bus so badly. How they turn out and how they could continue in the mythology is just iced in service of a reunion that doesn’t land, coupled with a ghoulish use of technology that is downright uncomfortable to watch. Let me add that the movie isn’t even given a proper ending. It’s more of an abrupt shoulder shrug that rolls into three non sequitur credit scenes that confirmed for me that if I ever feel the need to recapture my love of Ghostbusters, I’ll just re-watch the untarnished original.
Director: Jason Reitman
Writer: Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman
Starring: Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, McKenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim
Release Date: November 19, 2021
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.