“Are you troubled by strange noises in the middle of the night? Do you experience feelings of dread in your basement or attic? Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre or ghost?”
It’s been a long road getting to the release of a new Ghostbusters movie. The setbacks have been well-documented, stretching back as far as 1998 (and probably before then) when Dan Aykroyd’s “Ghostbusters go to hell” script still had life. There were the countless questions in subsequent interviews, Bill Murray’s famous reluctance and Harold Ramis’ untimely passing. The hotly debated 2016 reworking was sunk not by the reasons cited by many of the fans, but by director Paul Feige’s inability to hone in on what made the original two films function as well as they did. Even when writer/director Jason Reitman (son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan) and co-writer Gil Kenan completed this film, the COVID-19 pandemic caused the movie’s release to be shifted not one, but a total of four times, testing the patience and resolve of even the most diehard of Ghostbusters fans. Now Ghostbusters: Afterlife has finally arrived and with it the question of whether all the blood, sweat, tears and endless online discourse was worth it. Well, judging by the spectacular effects, genuine humor and surprising level of tears, the answer seems to be yes.
In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, divorced mom Callie (Carrie Coon) moves her two children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace) to her recently deceased father’s home in a small rural Oklahoma town. While the adjustment for Trevor is made easy thanks to a crush on local girl Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), Phoebe has a tougher time fitting in thanks to her social awkwardness. Eventually, the young girl finds a pair of allies in fellow misfit Podcast (Logan Kim) and her summer school science teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Just as the family is settling in however, strange, supernatural incidents begin to take place which leads Phoebe and Trevor to uncover who their long-lost grandfather, Egon Spengler, really was and what he was trying to do before he died.
Thinking up an original story for Ghostbusters cannot be the easiest of tasks for a screenwriter. For as many situations as one can think of, the inevitability is that any Ghostbusters movie is going to end up with the team donning the proton packs and engaging in a special effects showdown with whatever supernatural forces are plaguing them. While the aforementioned “Ghostbusters go to hell” would have provided some interesting wrapping, the inside would have probably remained the same. Despite this, Ghostbusters: Afterlife does manage to exist as its own offering in the Ghostbusters world not just in the choice of having a young teenage girl as its protagonist, but because of its incredibly solid family elements.
In the midst of all the effects and throwbacks is the story of a broken family trying to mend itself. The movie takes plenty of time to understand Callie’s resentment towards her late father, Trevor’s growing pains and Phoebe’s sense of not belonging, all of which comprise the kind of grounded elements necessary for a movie like this to work. Aykroyd has shared the fact that his own grandfather dabbled in supernatural studies at a time when it wasn’t too popular and which served as inspiration when the actor wrote the first Ghostbusters. It’s this part of the plot which gives Ghostbusters: Afterlife a special quality as we see Phoebe become inspired enough by Egon’s work that she takes it upon herself to continue it. Watching as she picks up where her grandfather left off, she begins to flourish in the way a young character like this should.
As much as Ghostbusters: Afterlife attempts (and for the most part, succeeds) at being its own installment in the series, there’s no denying that this is a movie for the fans. In a way, there was no other choice after the lengthy amount of time spent waiting for this cinematic event to take place. The amount of throwbacks to the original movies are endless. And while there is a legitimate fear that they may take away from appreciating what the younger Reitman and Kenan have put together, it’s one that is thankfully unfounded. Instead, the callbacks to the original films feel like homages that work more than they don’t. Not only do they work, they actually help initiate this film as part of the Ghostbusters universe. Elmer Bernstein’s original score, now iconic, fits in right at home with the movie’s tone and the cameos from original cast members, such as Aykroyd and Annie Potts as Janine Melnitz, are woven into the story so organically, it’s hard not to bask in the magic they add.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife shamelessly tugs on the heartstrings by way it handles Egon’s absence, but does allow the audience a final goodbye to an indispensable character. However the movie’s greatest throwback can perhaps be found in the young characters themselves. There’s an entire generation of people who encountered Ghostbusters as children (I’m sure that remains true) who fantasized about what it would be like to put on the suit themselves. Watching the kids in this movie take a similar journey to that of the original foursome is equal parts acknowledgment and gratitude to the many kids who grew up fantasizing about being a Ghostbuster and who each had a part in keeping this series alive.
I can imagine it’s a bit daunting for any actor to walk into a series as established and beloved as Ghostbusters and expect to leave a mark as their own character. Fortunately, the actors here don’t have that problem. Wolfhard shows his maturity as a teen actor with a performance which feels especially grounded considering the material. Grace is a standout as the film’s true lead, switching back and forth between humor and the kind of childhood curiosity that’s imperative for a movie like this. Kim follows her lead and makes for one the year’s most enjoyable sidekicks while O’Connor provides moments of loveliness mixed with a spark that’s hard to ignore. Finally, Rudd and Coon share a great chemistry together and are each given a chance to dig into the ghostly fun, which they do with total abandon.
It’s impossible to forget the immediate response that greeted the 2016 version of Ghostbusters and the barrage of attacks the admittedly flawed movie received. Five years later Ghostbusters: Afterlife is facing a different series of attacks. For all the positive early responses that have greeted the long-awaited movie, there have been just as many negative ones that feel compelled to tear apart its numerous callbacks and sentimental beats which some feel hinder the movie to the point where it becomes unbearable. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an overly sentimental film; and it was always going to be. Anyone new to the world of Ghostbusters and even casual fans do run the risk of getting very little from this movie as there’s hardly anything here considered standalone, which is appropriate for any sequel. The movie isn’t without its flaws. The plot is advanced a little too quickly and a few more ghostly sightings around the city in the third act wouldn’t have hurt. Still, are the detractors’ responses a rebuke of sentimentality, a mocking cynicism towards the preciousness bestowed on the original films, or a resentment towards that heightened level of fandom that exists in today’s world? It doesn’t really matter. To Ghostbusters fans, the naysayers are nothing more than ghosts and their own undying affinity for the series should be more than enough to bust them.