I was 3-years-old when the original Ghostbusters was released in theaters. My brother loves to tease me about how the ghostly librarian in the New York City Public Library early in the film scared me so much my mother had to whisk me from the theater. Though I, like so many of my generation, would grow to love the genre-bending, brilliance of that flick.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife, directed by Jason Reitman (son of the original film’s director Ivan Reitman, who also produces this installment) meets all the criteria of a soft reboot of Ghostbusters (1984). It exists in the same universe as the original and maintains its continuity while also passing the torch to new characters and targeting the nostalgia of older fans. It makes frequent callbacks to the original. And it plays out familiar plot beats with the new characters standing in for the old while cameoing some of those legacy cast members largely to provide their reassuring seal of approval.
The good news is that, in terms of quality, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is probably on the better end of the list of soft reboots in recent years. I can only guess how the film will play in front of a normal moviegoing crowd because I saw the film in front of 1,000+ New York Comic-Con attendees, whose enthusiasm is no doubt higher than the usual theater-goer. Comic-Con crowds who waited in a long line to see the Ghostbusters: Afterlife panel are already Ghostbusters fans, they’re coming off the high of the cast and crew panel that preceded the screening, and they’re getting the thrill of seeing the film a month before anyone else. With that in mind, the fans went crazy, cheering every nod to the original film as well as each time a new, fun piece of ghostbusting tech was introduced.
I suspect the general reaction to the film will be a bit more of a Rorshach Test when it finally hits real theaters. Like with The Force Awakens, there will be happy fans just looking for a light, fun return to a familiar world that they love who will be pleased by the results while others will be disappointed by the film’s over-reliance on fan service. In other words, it’s going to be the same conversation we have every time we get a Jurassic World or The Force Awakens.
The first half of Ghostbusters: Afterlife refreshingly charts its own course. Sure, there are references to the first installment. In fact, within the first few seconds of the film, there’s a familiar name drop. But the first hour is primarily focused on telling the story of these new characters. It’s somewhere around the midpoint that Afterlife goes full The Force Awakens and starts to become an almost beat-for-beat recreation of its source material.
This will bother some audiences more than others. I think the movie would have been better served with fewer callbacks. Certainly, no one will accuse it of too few, save only perhaps for a tragic lack of a William Atherton cameo as the legendary Walter Peck (hashtag #JusticeForWalterPeck). The most controversial moment comes towards the end. You’ll know it when you see it. Though I ultimately think the moment is handled with enough respect and sensitivity that its existence itself will likely be less an issue than how much of it we’re given.
Another controversial choice by Reitman was taking this franchise outside of New York City, a setting so integral to the original films that it was practically the fifth ghostbuster. Afterlife actually navigates this transition well. Not only did I not miss New York but moving the story to the podunk, rural town of Summerville proves to be one of the film’s strengths. It allows an otherwise familiar story to feel more distinct. It almost feels like this is a town that time forgot with its old diner and undercrowded main street.
I don’t recall the kids in the film ever pulling out a mobile device once. In school, their teacher just puts on 80s horror films on VHS screened on the same old CRT televisions that were ubiquitous in my middle and high schools. The new setting has a way of teleporting you back to the films of the 80s. Reitman has deftly replicated the style of Steven Spielberg’s Amblin teen Sci-Fi adventure pictures inside of a Ghostbusters flick.
In 1984, Ivan Reitman and Dan Aykroyd caught lightning in a bottle by assembling a cast of young comic actors in their prime, so Jason Reitman was wise to not try to catch lightning again and seek out this generation’s analogs to Aykroyd, Bill Murray, and Harold Ramis but to go in another direction. I appreciated that the new team not only avoids one-to-one comparisons to the OG Ghostbusters but also has more clearly defined roles within the unit: driver, shooter, trapper.
McKenna Grace is the film’s MVP as Phoebe. She manages to capture a bit of that Harold Ramis vibe without devolving too much into mimicry. Young newcomer Logan Kim, who plays the character Podcast, also demonstrates surprisingly strong comedy delivery and holds his own nicely in scenes with far more experienced veterans. And Paul Rudd is Paul Rudd. If you enjoy his Scott Lang in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he brings similar energy and humor here. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, It) is also giving us more of the same, for better or worse. He’s perfectly adequate in the role, but one almost feels like Grace was provided better material to work with and more of an opportunity to shine.
Then there are the underutilized stars. Celeste O’Connor, who plays Lucky, has her moments but feels largely sidelined by the third act. And if you’ve seen Carrie Coon’s performances in The Leftovers or the Fargo TV show, she’s not quite as wasted here as her barely-there role of Proxima Midnight in Avengers: Infinity War, but is definitely not used to her full potential.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife has its leaps of logic too. It strains credibility its protagonists would be this in the dark about their own extraordinary family history. A few extra minutes delving deeper into the painful experiences that drove Coon’s Callie to turn her back on her ghostbusting father could have not only resolved lingering questions but also fleshed out her character in interesting ways.
The special effects team uses practical effects as much as possible, and the effects closely match the look of the 1984 film. The ghosts and proton pack streams all certainly look more polished and believable, but everything still looks like you remember it. Even the new gadgets introduced in the film such as the Ecto-1 gunner seat and the trap drone look like they were macgyvered together by Ray or Egon out of spare parts decades ago as if they could have easily appeared in 1989’s Ghostbusters II and you’d only forgotten. For instance, the trap drone and its remote control appear to be an old, repurposed RC toy truck.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a fun throwback. It works best when its callbacks to the original come organically and aren’t driving the action. It becomes less interesting as it goes along. This film doesn’t take big risks and is content to just be a fun return to this universe, but if you’re sick of fan-service-heavy soft reboots, you may come away hating it. The film is not without its charms. The Ecto-1 chase sequence was thrilling, and I laughed out loud during the Gremlins-esque marshmallow men scene. Living up to its beloved predecessor would have been a herculean task and an unfair expectation. This won’t be the classic Ghostbusters (1984), but it’s nice comfort food as America begins to return to the movies again after a difficult 18+ months.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife comes to theaters November 19
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