Resurrected, by Bob Connally

20 Nov

I make no secret that the original Ghostbusters is my favorite movie of all-time. I don’t consider it the best movie of all-time by any means, but it is my favorite. However, I did not go into Ghostbusters: Afterlife with unreasonably high expectations. In fact, among people who love the first Ghostbusters film as much as I do, I’m probably in the minority about continuing the series. I never really wanted a Ghostbusters 3. 1989’s Ghostbusters 2 seemed to make it clear that the first movie was pure lightning in a bottle. If the same creative team couldn’t recapture the magic 5 years later then it was likely best to leave it alone altogether. Funnily enough, though, my friend Sam and I hashed out a Ghostbusters 3 story in the span of about half an hour during a very slow day at work. 

Our story was essentially a sad day in the life of Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) sitting alone at the firehouse waiting for the first call in decades. There would be no ghosts, no firing of a proton pack, no Ecto-1, no appearances by other cast members other than Annie Potts as Janine, and it would really just be a movie about Aykroyd’s obsession to keep making Ghostbusters even though we should all just move on. It would end with one more crushing disappointment after getting his hopes up and making his way to what we’d learn in the final shot is a prank call. Then smash cut to the Ray Parker, Jr. song over the end credits. Well… we thought it was funny. About two weeks later the news came out that Jason Reitman would be making a sequel to the first two films that had been directed by his father Ivan.

I mention all this up front because it needs to be clear how I approached seeing a sequel to a movie I love almost as much as life itself. I was not expecting a life-changing event. I just hoped it would be solidly entertaining and make me laugh. So how did Ghostbusters: Afterlife do in that regard? Let me explain because there’s a lot to get into here.

Given that Jason Reitman grew up on the sets of the first two Ghostbusters movies and that the main characters and setting would be so different, there was reason to feel cautiously optimistic that this would have a worthwhile story to tell as opposed to simply being a soulless cash grab. While the story itself is a decent enough idea and the film is definitely made with care, the execution is decidedly hit and miss and the care becomes a reverence for so many tiny details it wants to recall that it becomes an overdose of (mostly empty) nostalgia.

The story involves the daughter and grandchildren of the recently deceased Egon Spengler (who we see with his face obscured in the opening sequence). His daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is out of money and after being evicted has no choice but to move with her 15-year old son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and her 12-year old daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) to the Oklahoma farm house Egon had left her. Callie doesn’t understand why Egon left her as a child and is filled with bitterness, not wanting her kids to know about who he really was. While Trevor is a bit of a sarcastic meathead, Phoebe very much takes after her grandfather. She performs science experiments in her bedroom but is incredibly socially awkward. Her attempts to connect with others involve making groan-inducing jokes.

As the kids are on summer vacation, Trevor gets a job at the town diner, mainly so he can spend time with Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), while Phoebe attends summer school because Callie wants her daughter to make some friends. While at school, Phoebe connects with a boy who calls himself Podcast (Logan Kim), who is much more outgoing than she is, but awkward in his own way. His enthusiasm recalls Ray’s. The pair become fast friends and when Phoebe finds a ghost trap that had been buried under the floorboards of their home, she shows it to Podcast and the one person they know who recognizes what it is, their teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Mr. Grooberson tells Phoebe all about who her grandfather was and how he had saved the world alongside the other ghostbusters in 1984. The three then perform an experiment that goes wrong, unleashing a ghost, setting chaos into motion in their little midwestern town.

Written by Reitman and Gil Kenan, Ghostbusters: Afterlife takes far too long to get moving and while a 2 hour 4 minute run time is not long in and of itself, it’s certainly too long here. One of the reasons the original movie is so perfectly realized is that it is wonderfully paced. While it was a mashup of genres, Ivan Reitman’s movie primarily functioned as a vehicle for some very funny people in their comedic primes to deliver hilarious lines as dryly as possible. Reitman and company just wanted to make a funny film that incorporated Aykroyd’s obsession with ghosts. Moments like Peter handing Egon a Crunch bar, saying, “You’ve earned it,” were simply there to demonstrate the dynamic they had. Now we get a shot of Phoebe finding a Crunch bar wrapper inside Egon’s pocket. That would obviously mean nothing to her but it’s meant to be an emotionally powerful moment for the audience. Ghostbusters is a movie that means a lot to me and to a lot of people personally, but one thing it’s never made me is misty-eyed. This film’s nooks and crannies are stuffed with moments like this and they’re more distracting than anything. While it’s not as obnoxiously reference obsessed as something like Rogue One, it dips into that well far more than is good for it.

At its heart, there is a nice story here about a young girl learning about her family’s past and discovering who she is in the process. Grace’s performance elevates this film as much as it can be elevated. She really carries it on her shoulders and Phoebe’s terrible jokes are the funniest moments in the movie because they are character-based. Again, to bring it back to the original movie, the reason the comedy is so strong is that there is an emphasis on character. The jokes aren’t interchangeable. Peter makes wisecracks that only Peter would make. Egon’s observations are unique to him and so on. That’s every character in that film and Phoebe is a well-written character whose sense of humor and worldview are uniquely hers. She never comes off like a child written by an adult who doesn’t understand kids which is why it’s so baffling that Podcast does.

Podcast is the most overtly comic character in the film, which is a problem because he is much more annoying than he is funny. For his part, Kim is a fairly likable performer and he makes a few moments work but for the most part, Podcast is an irritating character who feels like he’s in a different movie from Phoebe.

Wolfhard and O’Connor are barely worth mentioning as Trevor and Lucky don’t serve much purpose in the second half of the movie. His main function becomes to drive Ecto-1 because Phoebe’s still too young to do that herself and Lucky’s just there so Trevor has someone to try to impress. I guess she’s also there because ghostbusters come in fours?

Rudd is his usual funny and charming self and while he’s in this a fair amount, it could have done with more of him. Mr. Grooberson’s affection and enthusiasm for remembering the ghostbusters would have done a nice job all by itself of reflecting the warmth the audience has for the first movie. Like Phoebe’s sense of humor, it is a character-based way of showing that love without going overboard with it. Coon’s role is ultimately a bit thankless but the movie would have been greatly improved had she been more developed. Her bitterness towards Egon is never explored beyond the surface level and while I’m not looking for a Ghostbusters movie to dive deeply into strained familial relationships, if that’s going to be what sets your story in motion then maybe do something with that.

More of a kids adventure movie than a full-on comedy, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a puzzling movie in that it wants to both go off in its own direction and throw reference after reference to the first film in our faces. This makes the appearances of original cast members feel less like building on characters we love and more like glorified cameos that take us out of the story even more than that Crunch bar does. Aykroyd seems to have entirely forgotten how to act while Bill Murray is just Bill Murray. Many would say that’s how he always played Peter Venkman but Venkman really was a character who Murray played brilliantly and there is a difference. The actors who played them make appearances here but Ray Stantz and Peter Venkman never do. Of the three surviving ghostbusters, only Winston shows up and there are a couple of nice little moments where Ernie Hudson shows he still has his character down after all this time. It’s not that it’s a nostalgic element that works, it’s that we see a beloved character instead of a guy wearing a jumpsuit and we get a sense of who he is now, even from a brief appearance.

Curiously, for as many callbacks as there are to Ghostbusters, the only thing from Ghostbusters 2 that is mentioned at all is Ray’s Occult Book Shop. That’s not even a reference really. He just still runs the store he opened. For all intents and purposes, Ghostbusters 2 might as well have never happened at all in regards to this movie. The second film does have its moments but it’s not a patch on the first and the lack of references to it is definitely not a problem. However, it is notable given how obsessed this movie is with the first.

Maybe it’s because Jason Reitman is too close to it or maybe it’s because he’s a very different kind of filmmaker from his father, but Ghostbusters: Afterlife is too in love with its predecessor to really be its own movie. While I appreciate that it didn’t want to just recycle story beats the way Ghostbusters 2 does, it should have kept references to a minimum, and if it was going to bring back original characters at all, do it in a way that felt natural. There is also the elephant in the room, which is a spoiler but if you had a fear about a choice this movie might make involving CG, then yes, it goes there. Again, as this movie is made with care, this doesn’t feel disgusting but it doesn’t feel right either.

I’ve said for as long as I can remember that I don’t need or even really want another Ghostbusters movie, so this is not a disappointment for me in that sense. My hope for something decent here was based primarily on the fact that Jason Reitman was making it, the protagonists would be completely different, and that he set it in rural Oklahoma instead of New York City. Maybe this could be a pretty good (if completely unnecessary) movie that did something interesting. The disappointment here this is a movie that doesn’t embrace its own identity. While it does nothing to ruin the legacy of the beloved 1984 classic, it does nothing to enhance it either. There only ever needed to be one Ghostbusters film and if this doesn’t definitively say that to those who still doubted then I really don’t know what will.

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