In concept, Ghostbusters: Afterlife ticks most of the boxes for flaccid Hollywood retreads. It’s the newest entry in a legacy franchise where cast members old and new interact. Great reverence is placed on the original films in the form of easter eggs, callbacks, what have you. Most suspiciously, the greenlighting of this film seems to be a response to the ill-fated (and totally fine) 2016 reboot. The line “handing the franchise back to the fans” has been touted, inspiring no confidence. So then why did Ghostbusters: Afterlife make me cry happy tears?
I’m no Ghostbusters head. I know the iconography, who doesn’t? Never in my 25 years on this Earth, however, did the original two films do much for me. But like this film’s protagonists, I felt the shadow of the earlier films hanging over me as the opening logos rolled. You have to assume director Jason Reitman, son of the original films’ director Ivan Reitman, felt a similar apprehension. At least he grew up a fan. Nevertheless, he snatches his father’s franchise up with the intention of doing something wildly divergent. Almost immediately, the subversion of expectations begins.
Reitman made his name in dramedies, the awards darling Juno a prime example. He retains that deft touch in Afterlife, centering around a normal family. Okay, they’re not entirely normal. They’re the estranged family of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler, played by Harold Ramis in the first two films. Key word: estranged. Callie (Carrie Coon) takes possession of her father’s farmhouse following his death and her eviction. As she moves her family to the sleepy town of Summerville, Oklahoma, her rebellious teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and introverted, scientifically minded daughter Phoebe (McKenna Grace) struggle to find their place.
Before any of the Ghostbusters stuff kicks into gear, there are basically three terrific character dramas going on. Carrie Coon throws all of the naturalistic magnetism she brought to The Leftovers onto the screen. Her arc is that of a single mom just trying to do her best while sorting out tough feelings about her father’s abandonment of the family. It’s right in Reitman’s wheelhouse, and her chemistry with a local science teacher (Paul Rudd) is tender to watch.
Stranger Things wunderkind Finn Wolfhard needs no introduction. His character’s initial arc is your classic coming-of-age tale. Snarky teen spends his time fixing up cars, working his first job, having his first crush; supremely watchable stuff. Phoebe, however, is the heart of the movie. An outcast of sorts, Phoebe finds herself in her scientific curiosity, making a friend in a fellow weirdo, the scene-stealing Podcast (Logan Kim). Grace embodies Phoebe fully. She nails the wide-eyed curiosity but also the feeling of not fitting in within family or society at large. As she’s drawn to her grandfather’s research, it feels like destiny.
Her discovery coincides with a series of supernatural incidents. Incidents that I will not give away as to preserve the film’s secrecy. In other words, ghosts need busting. Phoebe, Trevor, and their respective friends step into the roles that those four men did, and when they do, it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Ghostbusters: Afterlife becomes a visceral thrill ride in its action sequences.
Spirits move with a Tasmanian Devil-like chaos throughout the streets of Summerville. The Ghostbusters’ energy streams sizzle and crack. The classic Ghostbusters car has actual weight to it. The initial, and all further, action sequence(s) play out in a character-first manner where you can just feel every moment of it. Cinematographer Eric Steelberg manages to find the comedy, the spectacle, and the immediacy of these sequences. It’s the best Ghostbusters has ever looked or felt. Period.
One can’t simply put on the costume of the man who abandoned his family without some backlash. Therein lies the meat of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Callie sees her father’s work and subsequent reclusion as something that tore her family apart, and doesn’t want the same for her family. Truly heart-wrenching moments ensue between Phoebe and Callie, the kind you don’t see in this kind of film. It’s bold, it’s challenging, it opens up the question: can we reclaim a legacy for ourselves?
The answer Ghostbusters: Afterlife posits is a resounding yes. In an emotional, familiar, though entirely fresh, finale, the torch is well and truly passed. Peace is made with the past while the path is set for the future. Some huge, tear-jerking moments happen, coming not only from the huge collision of good and evil, but also from the way old wounds are resolved. The wry comedy of the original two films can’t stand up to the pure Steven Spielberg-like magic conjured up.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is packed to the brim with the requisite easter eggs, but I hardly noticed. It drew me in with its drama, hooked me with its action, and absolutely melted me with its exploration of legacy. Jason Reitman has made one of the only belated sequels with anything fresh to say. Moreover, Ghostbusters: Afterlife harkens back to an era where blockbusters were unafraid to be unabashedly human. November 19th, you know who to call. – James Preston Poole
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is in theaters on November 19, 2021.