Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not a badly made movie; it’s worse than that; it’s boring. Everything exciting and charming is squashed by the film’s constant need to cater to a nebulous fanbase instead of crafting a compelling story. This isn’t a movie; it’s an extended QVC commercial for nostalgia.
Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the first two Ghostbusters films, rehashes the first film for the fourth film. Reitman co-wrote Ghostbusters Afterlife with Gil Kenan, who directed Monster House, and in that script, there are nuggets of things that would make a good film. But every time an idea, theme, or emotion begins to blossom, the moment is squashed by the film’s incessant need to be loved.
It’s a shame because I quite liked Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), granddaughter of Egon Spengler. Grace brings an endearing shy confidence to her character. Her discovering her legacy and trying to understand why her Grandpa Egon left her mother Callie (Carrie Coon) is one of the bright spots in the film.
The most interesting aspect of the movie is constantly shunted aside so that Reitman and Kenan could flesh out more of the Gozer myth. This is unfortunate because Coon is, as usual, fantastic. Callie is angry at her dad for disappearing from her life while also dealing with the realities of poverty. Coon’s frustration at her life and the hurt and anger at her father is so expertly expressed in her facial expressions and voice. I wish Reitman could have seen what an outstanding performance he had on his hand. She balances all these emotions while raising Phoebe and her teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard).
Wolfhard’s Trevor, of the three, is the least developed. But Wolfhard finds little ways of making him feel like a real teenager. Whether it’s him awkwardly flirting with the sheriff’s daughter Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) or the way he jumps out of Callie’s car so as not to be seen with his mother.
Even characters like Lucky or Phoebe’s new friend Podcast (Logan Kim) are a breath of fresh air. Celeste is the confident, cocky teenager who can’t help but be fascinated by the new kid, just as Podcast sees in Phoebe a kindred spirit. Both O’Connor and Kim are the type of actors who light up a screen when they come despite the script giving them precious little to do or giving them names like “Podcast.” Although, as cringey, as the name might be, I can almost buy that Kim’s character would give himself that name. It seems perfectly in line with a kid who has a podcast and says stuff like, “The show doesn’t find its voice until episode 46.”
All of this is good and would be better if Ghostbuster: Afterlife wouldn’t be so hellbent on digging up the already resolved plot of the first movie. Instead, Reitman and Kenan rehash the Gozer story for the new one while paying homage to the second movie and pointedly, almost insultingly, ignoring the third one entirely. They do all of this at the expense of everything else.
Even the issue of Egon being an absent father is eventually papered over and forgiven. I hated this aspect of the film as it seemed to be letting Egon off too lightly. I understand what the film conveys, but it does so clumsily and feels as if large chunks of the story were left on the cutting room floor. In addition, the resolution makes all the other emotionally resonant moments of the film feel hollow and cheap.
Moments like when Trevor realizes ghosts are real, his Grandpa was a ghostbuster and not mentally unstable. It’s a fascinating moment because he isn’t happy or impressed; he’s confused. Because if Egon isn’t mentally unstable, then why did he leave his mom?
None of this matters, however. Only the fans do. From the Shandor mining company to a randomly placed stack of symmetrically stacked books, Ghostbusters: Afterlife has tossed out personality and ideas for an almost evangelical reverence towards a movie that has always been pointedly irreverent. Ghostbusters is a comedy, but you wouldn’t know it watching Ghostbusters: Afterlife.
Even Paul Rudd, as Mister Grooberson, Phoebe’s science teacher, struggles to find his role in all of this. He introduces the kids to the Ghostbusters via youtube after Phoebe brings a ghost trap. Rudd has his moments, and like the other new characters, feels real, and he has excellent chemistry with Callie. Except it becomes clear the only reason Callie and Grooberson are together is that the film needs another Gatekeeper and Key Master.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a waste of talent in the worst way. Why cast Tracy Letts, J.K. Simmons, Olivia Wilde, and Bokeem Woodbine and play essential roles “That Guy #5” and don’t even allow them the time or dignity to do anything with those minor roles. Woodbine is the only one who has enough screen time to do anything, but even then, he’s primarily meant to be a specter of authority as the sheriff.
I haven’t mentioned how they filmed Egon, a character played by Harold Ramis, who passed away a few years ago. Reitman and his cameraman Eric Steelberg use shadows and POV shots to obscure that it’s not Ramis but a body double. Except, the body double they got is an older gangly Egon, more like the cartoon, and not at all what Ramis looks like. This isn’t a big deal, but when Ray (Dan Aykroyd), Peter (Bill Murray), and Winston (Ernie Hudson) show up, they look like their real older selves.
Eventually, Reitman and Steelberg show us Egon full-on, and it’s jarring. He doesn’t talk, looks like a force ghost, and his face looks distorted because, again, this isn’t how he looked. I know this is a movie, but it feels weird to pull someone’s likeness from the grave only to slim them down and make them look younger just for a bunch of fanboys to clap because they recognize an image.
Steelberg shoots Ghostbusters: Afterlife in soft lights sprinkled with moments of characters backlit by a setting sun. Visually speaking, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a gorgeous film, pretty to look at, with VFX effects that pop without detracting from the movie. But Steelberg is chained by a hackneyed script and a director far too gunshy about stepping foot anywhere near an idea or story to be allowed to do more than photograph the actors trying to save a doomed venture.
I saw Ghostbusters: Afterlife just the other day, and I’m already struggling to remember any of it. Reitman’s film is so stuck in the past it cannot possibly move forward. The film’s anxiety of stumbling upon an idea or emotion not connected to the original movies tramples everything that might have worked. The love for the original thing eclipses the desire to create new things, and in the end, we are left with nothing.
Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing
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