Review: Ghostbusters: Afterlife Channels as Much Nostalgia as Science in a New Take on a Classic Franchise
The use of nostalgia in movies is a curious thing, if for no other reason than there are two camps of thought in how (or even if) it should be used at all. In that vein, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a film I wasn’t a fan of) is a title that has been brought up a great deal of late. When I consider that film, I think of a story structure that went far beyond dropping in easter eggs here and there as a treat for eagle-eyed audience members. Instead, the film actually recreates entire sequences and the overall arc of the storyline of an entire earlier Star Wars film. On every level, The Force Awakens couldn’t exist with the original trilogy, to the point where it goes beyond nostalgia to being a straight-up ripoff.
With the new Ghostbusters: Afterlife, nostalgia is one of the tools in the toolbox used to construct its story, but with a few exceptions, the film could exist outside of the realm of the 1980s Ghostbusters movies. Naturally, Afterlife is more fulfilling if you’ve seen those films, but screenwriters Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman (who also directed) have built a tonally different, more foreboding tale of outsiders, teen angst, and a family dealing with a legacy they have no initial interest in investigating. The film uses the first two previous Ghostbusters films as backstory without leaning so heavily into them that it couldn’t stand on its own if someone hadn’t seen them.
After a prologue that establishes that a particular dirt farm is more than what it seems, we meet single mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two teen kids, mechanically resourceful son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) and super-smart daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace, Annabelle Comes Home, Malignant). They find out that Callie’s father has recently died, leaving her the aforementioned farmland, which she thinks will help them out of the financial straits that they’re in. But when they arrive, they discover the place is rundown and barely worth more than the land it stands on. As they dig around the property, they begin to discover bits of equipment and other oddities that make them (especially Phoebe) realize that the gentleman who lived there was more than just an old farmer who couldn’t be bothered to give his family the time of day. This coupled with the occurrence of daily earthquakes makes it clear this small town is hiding a terrible secret that most of the townspeople know nothing about.
We also meet Phoebe’s summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a seismologist who teaches on the side and is attempting to figure out why the place is shaking so much despite not being built on the fault line. As mentioned, the overall tone of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is different than what we’re used to: it’s less jokey, more science-based (at least at first), and while the ghost-filled events of New York City in the 1980s are fully acknowledged, the kids don’t really know anything about them. The kids find new friends—Logan Kim as Podcast and Celeste O’Connor as Lucky—to help them investigate the strange goings-on, and it becomes clear that these four youngsters are our new Ghostbusters, whether they know it yet or not.
I’m going to be venturing into spoilery territory from here on out, so consider yourself warned.
It turns out that the grandfather who owned the farm was in fact Egon Spengler (originally played by the late Harold Ramis, who also co-wrote the original Ghostbusters). I guess this is meant to be a big reveal, but I think it’s pretty clear from the opening sequences that Egon is the dirt farmer in question and that he’s set up his property to be a giant ghost trap. When Phoebe finds a ghost trap on the property, Mr. Grooberson thinks it’s a replica, until he starts examining it. Naturally, he and the kids open it, releasing a fairly harmless ghost who seems to enjoy eating metal, which they must recapture using the proton packs and the original Ghostbusters Ecto-1, an ambulance-style 1959 Cadillac Miller-Meteor Sentinel, also both recently discovered. And before long, this serious-minded tale of discovery (or rediscovery) becomes a full-bore action movie.
The town’s bigger problem is a volcano-like mountain nearby that houses an evil force that is ready to explode if certain elements fall into place and unlock the only thing keeping the gates of hell from opening and unleashing a horde of demons and ghosts. The stakes feel higher, Rudd seems like the only performer in the film that understands the sandbox he’s playing in, which is meant to be funny, scary and thrilling all at once—not always an easy combination to pull off. An encounter he has with an army of mini Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men in a Walmart captures the proper tone beautifully, while maintaining a mildly creepy/silly vibe. Also, Afterlife isn’t afraid to get as scary as a PG-13 movie allows.
I don’t know how much of a secret it is about who shows up in the final moments of the film (I mean, they’re doing press for the movie, so I’m thinking it’s not much of one), but I think it’s important in Afterlife establishing its own identity and future (the film does set up a possible sequel in one of two post-credits sequences) that it isn’t front-loaded with goofball humor, even when a few familiar faces show up to help deal with the ghost issues that the original films set up. And I was genuinely stunned by how emotional I got at the way the film honored Ramis, even though I’m sure many will recoil at the idea. It somehow wouldn’t have been right to not acknowledge his importance to the history of these movies, and I think director Reitman (whose father is Ivan Reitman, who both directed the original films and acts as producer on this one) makes a gutsy but effective call in how he chooses to do so.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t also stick the landing when it comes to how it uses the older films as a jumping-off point into its own story. There are some elements and creations I wish had been left out or replaced, but Reitman makes the decision to go all in with the toolbox he has at his disposal. If they do attempt a follow-up movie, perhaps an entirely new story with the younger characters is in the cards, if only to give these new faces a chance to have their voices heard independent of what came before. Or maybe that isn’t possible. We shall see. But this new film achieves the right balance of new and familiar in a way I wish more cinematic revisits would try more often.
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Whether on its own fearless terms or as an update of a zeitgeist-charged smash, here’s a pop-culture popcorn picture designed to raise spirits in more ways than one.
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