Ghostbusters premiered on June 7th, 1984, about two months before I was even born. I have never known a world that didn’t have Ghostbusters in it, and I feel as if imagery from its massive media empire haunt my earliest memories. I definitely had at least one Ghostbusters themed birthday party as a kid, one of which featured the firehouse playset as the centerpiece gift. I remember wanting a proton pack more than anything in the world, and when Nana came through and I put that blue piece of plastic on my back, I felt like the coolest dude ever. I had so many action figures, my favorites of which were from the Haunted Humans line, which featured normal people who transformed into a variety of ghouls. Granny Gross is the one which comes to mind now. She was a stereotypical granny whose lower jaw and chest dropped open revealing a gaping, snaggletoothed maw. I also seem to remember a football player who became a beastie of sorts, by way of a spare head hidden behind his spring-loaded chest. On Sundays when my family was at church, my dad would tape episodes of The Real Ghostbusters for me to watch when we got back. Sometimes I loved the show, other times I was afraid of it, but I always watched. I remember blowing into my straw at Wendy’s and thinking that it sounded like the ghost lightning that was in a recent episode. There was another, different, inferior Ghostbusters which featured a monkey and was occasionally mislabeled in the TV listings. Even though it wasn’t The Real, I’d suffer through it all the same just because it was called Ghostbusters and that was enough for me. I remember that on cold mornings when Mom had to shuttle us off to school or on some chore, I would play Ghostbusters in the back seat while the car warmed up. Meaning, of course, that I would exhale, creating steam, and the use my finger guns to trap the “ghost” I had just made. I loved Ghostbusters.
But I didn’t watch the movies because they were too scary. Nosiree, not for me.
What I mean to say is that for me and a lot of people like me, Ghostbusters was an omnipresent force during my formative years, and the actual movie itself was only a very small part of that.
To be fair, I did eventually watch the Ghostbusters movies while still in childhood (although I did hide during the library scene at times because the ghost was too scary), but it wasn’t until I was a teen that the film became anything more than a secondary part of my fandom. Nowadays the films are pretty much all of it for me, and so far, they’re hasn’t been a bad one. The latest and weakest of the four is still a lot of fun, and as you can tell by my long-winded intro, I was going to be a sucker for it no matter what. But I also have an ulterior motive in my indulgence: I want to make it clear that I am generally unbothered by the cash-grab nature of late-stage sequels. My relationship with Ghostbusters was informed by marketing long before it was ever informed by the source material, and my love for it has been a net good. Ghostbusters brings me joy. He loved Big Brother.
So even though Ghostbusters: Afterlife feels much more like content than any of the previous films, it’s warm, light content that regularly made me smile. Let’s get into it.
The film takes place in the present day, with the events of Ghostbusters 1& 2 existing as something that did indeed happen, but that no one really thinks about anymore. Ghosts seem to have been banished from our world and that’s that. The de facto leader of the Ghostbusters, Egon, has passed away, and his estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) has inherited his home, a rotten old piece of land dubbed “the dirt farm” by the locals, due entirely to the fact that the barn has “DIRT” spray painted on its wall for some reason. Callie and her kids have recently been evicted from their home, so they reluctantly take residence in the musty old estate. Naturally, a house owned by a former Ghostbuster holds many secrets, and when young Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) goes poking around, ghost stuff starts to happen.
It’s a lot, and there’s a lot more, but you know the drill: kids unleash ghosts, now kids must use discarded ghostbuster tech to recapture ghosts and prevent a new apocalyptic event brought forth from the underworld.
It takes a little while for the film to get going, but once it does, the energy remains high. All of the child actors do great work, which is admittedly a high bar to clear for me since kids are sticky and they gross me out. Phoebe is the most obvious descendant of Egon: same look, same aptitude for weird science, and Grace makes her feel more real in action than I imagine she does on the page. Her brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) gets a charming little “teen in a new town” arc that brings some romance into the story. At one point I got mad at Finn Wolfhard for getting to drive the ECTO-1 even though he was born long after Ghostbusters was a thing, but then I remembered that I too am younger than the brand, and considerably less famous.
Paul Rudd is there too. He plays Paul Rudd, and he is responsible for most the the film’s very few laughs. In fact, that’s probably the biggest problem with Afterlife: it’s not very funny. And this isn’t to say that the film tries to be funny and fails, but more that it is quite plainly not a comedy. All three of the previous films were high-concept comedies before they were anything else, but Afterlife has much more of a “kids on an adventure” vibe. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but therein lies a fundamental problem with the film: It’s stuck between two audiences. On the one hand, the original fandom has kids of their own now, and a kid-centric Ghostbusters movie is exactly the type of thing the family can go see. But on the other, so much of the film’s charm comes from a nostalgia that a child today would not have. It’s a weird flavor.
That said, the nostaliga stuff is pretty good. While it will probably be a lot for the cynics among us (and trust me, I do not blame you one bit), it’s all handled organically enough to work for me. I love watching the ECTO-1 drive around, especially since it now has a gunner seat like the toy did! I love hearing its unique siren, and seeing the beam of the proton pack as it lassos an unruly specter. I love the traps! I love the jumpsuits! And it never occurred to me until now, but I love the score. Composer Rob Simonsen has captured the vibe of Elmer Bernstein’s original music, and more than any throwaway gag, it brought me back to the original film. As I said, your mileage may vary, but I can definitely dig it.
I do get the sense that the movie has a fair amount of material cut from it. As it stands, it runs just over two hours, which is already too long. But in assembling decently strong character work (and building a new roster of busters), they seem to have cut out most of the ghosts. One thing that is absolutely in the DNA of Ghostbusters is a montage of hauntings. it’s the best part of all three movies. Colorful ghosts fucking with regular people. It’s a chance to show off your special effects, cram in some fun character actors, and make the audience laugh… and it doesn’t happen here. There’s one scene which hints that something like this might have been shot, and if it was, I wish they’d kept it. This cut-down feeling is a lot of why the film lacks the personality of the series at large.
Yet at the end of the day, it mostly works. It’s just so damn charming and light that it’s hard to say it was a completely cyncial effort on the part of the filmmakers. There is love and care here, and it comes through in spades. There is a reverence for Ghostbusters in every choice, even when the choices are bland or baffling. There are plenty of moving moments (I got a little wet-eyed during the finale), and I don’t care what anyone says, Podcast (Logan Kim) is a real hoot, whatever that means. I don’t care that his name is Podcast. It makes sense in the context of the movie.
And Janine can TOOOOOOTALLY still get it. Jussayin.
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis
Starring Grace Mckenna, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Logan Kim
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes