*Spoiler Alert: Main plot-points revealed below.
With the likes of 1980s throwback fare such as Stranger Things, Cobra Kai and the IT film series pleasing both Gen Z and X’ers, the time no doubt felt right for a new Ghostbusters movie with kids front and center.
This latest instalment (effectively a sequel to 1989’s Ghostbusters II) is directed by Jason Reitman with a large dose of affection for his father Ivan Reitman’s original, as he looks to set the franchise back on track following the fairly lacklustre response to 2016’s reboot.
The set-up sees single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) evicted from her city home and forced to relocate with her two kids (Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor and Mckenna Grace’s science obsessed Phoebe) to her dead father’s spooky, dilapidated farmhouse in a remote Oklahoma town.
The home belonged to famed Ghostbuster and local recluse Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and so it’s not long before strange happenings stir a new generation of Ghostbusters into action.
The debt to which Ghostbusters: Afterlife pays to kid-centric classics like The Goonies, Stand By Me and E.T. is fairly evident, but its success relies heavily on how well the ‘gang’ work together. Those films managed to flesh out funny and often complex inter-relationship dynamics between its pint-sized heroes, helping us to root for them collectively.
While Afterlife has a runtime of over two hours, it doesn’t effectively tie together our ghostbusting foursome strongly enough to make us care a whole lot. Logan Kim’s Podcast and Celeste O’Connor’s Lucky are likeable enough, but there’s a rushed and somewhat forced attempt at getting the gang acquainted, together and fired-up for action.
Perhaps this has something to do with the film overstretching; needing to develop the cathartic relationship between Phoebe and her ghostly-grandfather (creepy CG Harold Ramis) while also finding time to corral the original Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson) into a final showdown that sadly feels more middle-of-the-road than apocalyptic end of the world.
In supplanting the action from crowded Manhattan to the dusty town of Summerville Oklahoma, Afterlife also struggles to maintain a palpable sense of threat. A scene reminiscent of the mass containment escape from the original where ghosts and ghouls pop out of subway stations and take to the streets, falls fairly flat in a sleepy town where the handful of residents seem almost thankful of the disturbance.
This is a more insular story about a fractured family, and so it’s appropriate to pitch it as mostly a haunted house movie (co-writer Gil Kenan also wrote and directed Monster House) – and the scenes at the house are probably some of the most affective. This is where Phoebe befriends her ghostly grandpa and discovers his subterranean ‘lab’ and where Trevor finds and fixes Ecto-1. It’s the house that unlocks the past to a new generation of Ghostbusters and is the scene for the final battle with Gozer, but the film often falters when it heads out into town and up into the hills – failing to find much drama in ghost chasing through an empty main street or investigating an ancient volcano.
Carrie Coon as struggling single mum Callie is a wonderful actress but here seems miscast. She brings a certain dignity, gravitas and sharp-edge to her role similar to that by Sigourney Weaver in the original, but Weaver played ‘straight’ to Bill Murray’s manchild, and their flirtatious bickering bristled with energy — something sadly lacking in Callie’s relationship with Paul Rudd’s slacker science teacher Gary Grooberson. There are moments of wit such as when the pair discuss Phoebe’s awkwardness; Callie wanting her to get into some trouble.
Gary: ‘Who knows? Maybe she’ll take up poll dancing?’
Callie: ‘She’s not that coordinated.’
Gary: ‘I don’t think that matters.’
These are rare moments however and the chemistry between the grown-ups struggles to gel as effectively as it should. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, the same can be said for the four young leads who are not quite up to the task of carrying the fate of a franchise on their narrow shoulders. Yet?
I really wanted to enjoy this film, and in parts I did (the opening few minutes are a joy and the film is shot beautifully) – but Reitman’s obvious reverence for the original, along with other movies of that era, mire it too much in pastiche. ‘Hah, look there’s a model just like the one Doc Brown builds from Back to the Future!’ ‘Hey check out the ominous looking mountain kinda’ like the one from Close Encounters!’ ‘Ooh that ancient underground fortress looks a bit like the one from Raiders of the Lost Ark!’
A shame really as Jason Reitman has forged a singular career of his own with funny and smart films including Juno, Thank You for Smoking, Up in the Air and Tully – all managing to tackle serious issues about mostly dysfunctional relationships with a lightness of touch and modest, intimate narratives.
But in focussing so heavily on the bitter resentment Callie has for a father that seemingly abandoned them – and the dismal knock-on effects this has to her children – Ghostbusters: Afterlife forgets the crucial ingredient which made the original so memorable… a sense of fun.