With Juno, Up in the Air, and Young Adult, Jason Reitman made a name for himself as a fine craftsman of whip-smart comedy. Then, he hit a rough patch with a string of duds, scorched by critics (Labor Day, Men Women and Children) or ignored by audiences (Tully, The Front Runner). Perhaps smarting from this slip, he seems to have run home to get help from his dad, Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. Together, they’re charting the next chapter of their careers by resurrecting the ‘80s-born horror-comedy franchise (again). But what this father-son team of filmmakers is bringing to theaters is not a fresh — or even fun — spin on an old classic. It’s a ghoulish re-animated corpse, stuffed with half-baked new characters and lazy fan service.
Written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan, Ghostbusters: Afterlife casts aside the beloved pre-established characters of this franchise to focus on their sulking offspring. The recently deceased Egon Spengler has left a decrepit farmhouse in the middle of nowhere to his long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon). Broke and bitter, she takes her teen son Trevor (Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard) and 12-year-old daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to this “dirt farm” for a fresh start. Turns out, Phoebe is an apple who didn’t fall far from the Egon tree. She’s socially awkward, absolutely brilliant, and drawn to supernatural adventures. So, in no time, she’s pulling out grandpa’s proton packs and ghost traps, and turning Summerville, Oklahoma, into a haunted hot spot. With the help of her family and new friends, she’ll have to defeat a powerful paranormal entity, just like her ancestor did before her. And I do mean just like.
Despite the new characters and a setting far from the Ghostbusters’ signature terrain of New York City, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not so much a sequel as it is a greedy parasite that makes a decorative husk of the original film. Early reactions out of a surprise screening at New York Comic Con cheered the movie’s many “Easter Eggs.” But that term suggests these references to the ’84 Ghostbusters are hidden. They’re not.
Everything from iconic props to popular quotes, memorable characters, and previously established spirits are presented with insert shots in close-ups. You can’t miss them. They stand out like a skyscraper-sized marshmallow man. Each one gets a long lingering shot, if not a whole sequence that seems more dedicated to spawning new merch than any actual plot point.
Yes, audiences at NYCC cheered when the Ecto-1 was unveiled in a rotting barn or someone says, “Who ya gonna’ call?” Of course, they did, it’s Comic Con! Many in that crowd wearing Ghostbusters cosplay, and many more were caught up in the collective thrill of a communal experience and the exhilarating exclusivity of being the first audience to see this. I’ve been there; it can be intoxicating fun. And yet I was there and felt more annoyed than amused.
In a panel before the film screening, both the Reitmans waxed poetic about how much this father-son project (Ivan produces) means to them as a family. Yet what they produced is a horrifically shallow retread that lacks depth, distinction, and — most frustratingly of all — fun. It’s a vapid parade of familiar props without the humor and heart that gave them meaning.
Where the original film soared because of the incredible chemistry between a batch of boldly realized characters in conflict, these descendants are poor substitutes that feel more like plot points than people. Callie is a sour embodiment of Daddy Issues. Most of her lines are griping about Egon, which not only fails to ingratiate her to the audience but also is a woeful waste of Coon’s talents. Trevor’s key purpose is asking Phoebe “what is that!?” in a million different ways. Presumably, to serve as a walking explainer for newcomers to the franchise. But it’s hard to imagine anyone getting excited enough by this squad to want to see more.
Cool girl Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) exists solely to give Trevor a subplot of underbaked teen romance. Paul Rudd pops up to flirt with Callie and poke at Egon’s stuff. While his character feels like a tamed riff on Venkman (Bill Murray), at least Rudd understands that he’s in a comedy. With so much teen angst and dysfunctional family drama, his slapstick is like a cool glass of water in an endless dry desert.
There is attempted comic relief in a kid called Podcast. Except despite the plucky enthusiasm of newcomer Logan Kim, this character is never actually funny. How could he be when he’s given lines like, “I call myself Podcast, because of my podcast.” Reitman should have begged Academy Award-winning Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody to do a dialogue pass, at least on the kid lingo.
To her credit, Grace is engaging as Phoebe, who is given a bit of depth, or at least more screentime. Yet, most of that screentime is spent in a quest to follow Phoebe’s grandfather’s example — or live in his shadow — by reactivating the mission the outlived him. It’s easy to see where the Reitmans may have seen this story as a winsome one of family and legacy. But really, it’s just nepotism with a barrage of sci-fi and horror flare.
Phoebe doesn’t get this bustin’ quest because she’s gifted or even because she’s basically a mini-Egon. She gets it because the house — and all its contents — were handed to her by her forefather. She does well with them, but it’s implied that’s because being a Ghostbuster is in her blood. Which aside from being cloyingly sentimental also defies the message of the first film, where a quartet of misfits had to build their own tools then fight their way through mass hysteria into the room to save the day. Phoebe strolls into the room with ease because the Ghostbusters have already made their mark, and their tools are all right there for the taking. Then, she and her far less charismatic crew barrel into a finale that is so similar to the original that I was left jaw-dropped in its audacious lack of imagination. If you’re going to follow the ’84 film this closely, why bother making a new movie at all!?
By the end, I was absolutely flabbergasted by what a monstrosity this movie is. Besides the paper-thin protagonists, beyond the gratuitous snatching from the original film, Reitman also chooses a tone that’s less Ghostbusters and more Amblin. The wackiness and whimsy of the original is nullified. In its places is an eerie somberness, embedded in the rage at Egon, the mourning of his death, and the fear at picking up somewhere new yet haunted by the ghosts of the past.
This doesn’t make for a spirited romp. So, the action scenes feel less rousing and more out of place amidst the maudlin family drama. Plus, it’s cringe-inducing Egon as deadbeat dad plotline essentially kicks not just Ghostbusters (2016) but also Ghostbusters II (1989) out of the canon. (Vigo the Carpathian deserves more respect than that!) Then on top of all of that, this sloppy sequel commits a cardinal sin of screenwriting, where the WHOLE plotline could have been prevented if ONE person told someone else ONE thing. So even the core concept is gratingly clumsy.
Simply put, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is trying to play the hits without making any of its own. Whatever the Reitmans have in mind, what they made is a soulless sequel that snatches elements of the original but excises the magic that made the other films such marvelous fun. There’s no crew of characters that you’d die to hang out with. There’s too little zany blending of horror and comedy, and what is offered feels like a rehash of the ‘84 gags — down to a Slimer wannabe called “Muncher.” (Because he munches things. Get it?) Then, there’s the wasting of talent in front of the screen and behind. With all the money and skill and mythos this movie had at its disposal, the result that the Reitmans’ are proudly offering up is an absolute disgrace.
Jason Reitman has made some stellar comedies, that were cutting yet full of heart and bold in voice. Now, it seems after some missteps, he’s following in his dad’s footsteps and has totally lost his way.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens in theaters on Nov. 19.