Josh Reviews Ghostbusters: Afterlife
I think the original 1984 Ghostbusters is one of the most perfect movies ever made. I adore that film. It’s a brilliant comedy whose jokes still hold up decades later (and even after so many viewings that I have most of the movie memorized). At the same time, it’s also a thrilling adventure movie that’s actually scaring and thrilling, with real stakes for the characters. And it’s also blazingly original, jam-packed with wild ideas that no one had ever seen anything like before. While the 1989 sequel Ghostbusters 2 is far inferior to that first film, and it smoothed out many of the first film’s more anarchic rough edges into a more family-friendly tone (which I don’t see as a positive), I have a real soft spot in my heart for it. I really like Ghostbusters 2 a lot; I think it’s very funny with some extremely memorable sequences. Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reboot wasn’t quite everything I’d hoped for, but I’m nevertheless a staunch defender of that film. I wish that film had been set in the continuity of the original films, rather than being a start-from-zero reboot, and I just wasn’t quite as captivated by the story or the characters as I’d wanted to be. At the same time, it’s a very funny movie with a spectacular cast, and I think it gets funnier every time I see it. (I also think the film’s extended version is superior to the theatrical cut.) The 2016 film, unfortunately, became a touch-point for an insane culture-wars argument, with many “fans” filled with rage at the idea of an all-female version of Ghostbusters. The film’s female stars were subjected to outrageous, horrible online harassment. (Leslie Jones, who had the temerity to be not just a woman but an African-American woman, suffered the worst of it.) When the news broke about this new attempt to craft a Ghostbusters sequel, one that would go back to the continuity of the first two Ghostbusters films, I was torn. I was excited to see a return to the beloved world of the original Ghostbusters, and I was eager to see what Jason Reitman (the son of Ivan Reitman, who directed the original two Ghostbusters films) could do with this franchise. At the same time, I hate the idea that the “bros” won and the all-female Ghostbusters lost. I tried to go into this new film with an open mind and an open heart. I truly would be so excited for a great new Ghostbusters film!
While I enjoyed Ghostbusters: Afterlife, this is still not the great Ghostbusters sequel that I’d been hoping for. I think I prefer the 2016 Ghostbusters, though I’m not sure yet. Both films have a lot that I like about them while also beeing deeply flawed, in my opinion, albeit in very different ways.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is set decades after the events of the original two Ghostbusters films, the same amount of time that has passed in real life. (Well, it’s definitely in continuity with the 1984 Ghostbusters; I’m not so certain about Ghostbusters 2. Jason Reitman has said that this film considers Ghostbusters 2 part of its continuity, although for the most part the film ignores that second film while talking about and referencing the first film almost non-stop. 1989 is missing from the list of years in Gozer’s temple in which massive spiritual events occurred. The only reference to Ghostbusters 2 that I noticed in Afterlife was that we learn that Ray is working in the bookshop, Ray’s Occult, that he had at the start of that second film.) The Ghostbusters have long ago broken up, and Egon for some reason became a recluse, living in the tiny town of Summerville, Oklahoma. After his death, his estranged daughter Callie and her two kids, Trevor and Phoebe, take possession of Egon’s dilapidated house. They think they’re just there for a little while to wrap-up Egon’s affairs, but the broke Callie doesn’t have any other place for her family to go… and the kids quickly find themselves embroiled in a supernatural adventure connected to the reasons why Egon moved out there in the first place.
I try not to judge any film based on what I wanted it to be; I try only to evaluate it based on what it actually is. Nevertheless, I have to talk about two core decisions made by Jason Reitman and his team, neither of which are what I’d have liked to have seen done with this franchise.
First off, they made it primarily a story about kids. The first Ghostbusters was a movie about adults, with adult humor. Yes, the concept could be enjoyed by people of all ages — that’s part of the brilliance of that film — but there’s no question it’s an adult story. (Ray gets a ghost blow-job, for goodness sake!!!) The shift towards moving this franchise to a more all-ages feel was seen in Ghostbusters 2, which has a goofier tone in which the characters (particularly Louis Tully and Janine) become more like silly cartoon characters than actual adult people. In the meanwhile, the franchise had become an actual cartoon for kids with The Real Ghostbusters TV show (which I loved as a kid). Now here in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the story centers on the adventures of two kids, Phoebe and Trevor, as well as their friends Podcast and Lucky. I like all four of these kids a lot! But this isn’t my ideal framework for a new Ghostbusters movie.
Second, they seem to have chosen to forget that the original Ghostbusters was a comedy! There are shockingly few jokes here in Ghostbusters: Afterlife. There are a few amusing moments, but for the most part this movie is not a comedy; instead, it’s a coming-of-age adventure story. It does a good job of telling that type of story. But I was surprised that the humor that was so integral to, well, all three previous Ghostbusters films was mostly set aside in this one.
I like all of the new characters. The film does a strong job of introducing us to these new characters and getting us to engage in their story. Frankly, I liked the first half of the film — when we were meeting and getting to know these characters — a lot more than the second half, in which the film becomes mostly a retread of the events of the first Ghostbusters film.
McKenna Grace (who played the young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel) is terrific as Phoebe. Phoebe is brilliant and brave but she’s also an outsider who is lonely and has trouble connecting to other kids her age. This is a great character, and Ms. Grace does terrific work in bringing her to life. Phoebe is the best part of this new film, in my opinion. Finn Wolfhard (who made a name for himself as Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things and was also strong in the It movies) plays Phoebe’s older brother Trevor. Whereas Phoebe seems OK with her outsider status, Trevor wants to fit in and make friends in this new place; immediately after their family arrives, he strikes up a conversation with a girl, Lucky, at the local drive-in burger joint, and he takes a job working there. Celeste O’Connor plays Lucky; she takes a shine to Trevor and winds up accompanying him and Phoebe on their adventure. So too does Phoebe’s new friend Podcast, played by Logan Kim, a jovial boy who enjoys documenting all the strange things that tend to happen in his town. All four actors are very strong and very naturalistic in their performances. It was fun to watch these kids go on this adventure. At the same time, other than Phoebe, I didn’t think the film spent enough time allowing them to develop and go on a journey of their own. (Even by the end of the film, I didn’t really know, for example, what Lucky and/or Podcast really thought about any of the crazy stuff they’d seen happen. What did they make of that? Were they excited, or scared? The film doesn’t spend enough time with them for us to really know.)
The adults in the film are led by two terrific actors: Carrie Coon (The Leftovers) as Callie Spengler, and Paul Rudd as Gary Grooberson, a summer-school teacher who’s also an amateur seismologist who has been investigating the earthquakes affecting their little town. Ms. Coon is a terrific actress who brings depth to every character she plays. So while Callie is a little flat in the story, Ms. Coon brings her to life and makes her empathetic and real. Mr. Rudd, meanwhile, is a master at balancing humor and drama. He creates an endearingly affable fellow in Gary, and he brings a little extra jolt of life and energy to every one of his scenes.
I’m going to dig into the film a little more deeply now, so beware SPOILERS ahead…!
I wish the overall story being told made more sense. On the one hand, I’m not sure how deeply one is meant to dig into the story of a Ghostbusters film. On the other hand, because Afterlife isn’t really a comedy, and because of how thoroughly the film has embraced the mythology of the original Ghostbusters film, I feel that asking questions about that mythology is fair game.
Like many much-later sequels, Afterlife has created drama by establishing a schism between our heroes. (The Star Wars sequels did that, and I didn’t like it there either. It stunk being told that both Luke and Han ran away when things got tough, and that Leia had failed to steer the New Republic in the right direction.) When young Phoebe gets Ray Stanz on the phone to ask him about the man she’s just discovered is her grandfather, Ray tells her that “Egon Spengler can burn in hell.” Wow, that’s harsh! But the film doesn’t earn that, and quickly walks it back. We’re told that Ray and the other Ghostbusters felt Egon betrayed them by taking all their stuff and moving out to the middle of nowhere. The film tells us that everyone thought Egon was crazy. But the film also shows us that Egon found a huge temple to Gozer hidden in the mountains outside this town, with the preserved body of Ivo Shador (who the first Ghostbusters told us was the architect who built the temple to Gozer on the top of Dana Barrett’s apartment building) right there! If Egon found that, why wouldn’t he have shown that to his fellow Ghostbusters to prove he wasn’t crazy?!! Of course he would have done that, and certainly Ray would have believed him once he saw all that. So there’s no real reason why Egon and the other Ghostbusters would have remained estranged, or why Egon needed to feel that it was his responsibility alone to stay out there in the middle of nowhere. See, what the film needed to have happen, in my opinion, is for Egon to have SUSPECTED bad things in this town, but never actually found evidence… only for this film’s characters to find that evidence and then stop the evil ghosts. Right? If Phoebe and Trevor and co. found Gozer’s temple, but Egon hadn’t, that would have 1) allowed it to make more sense that Ray & co. didn’t believe Egon and 2) given our characters more to do in the second half of the film than basically just re-do everything Egon had already done.
I think the film makes the same mistakes too many other movies do in giving us too much information in the opening prologue. What winds up happening, then, is that the rest of the movie feels like we’re just waiting for the characters to catch up with what we the audience already know. Imagine this movie without that prologue, and we the audience were slowly discovering the secrets of this house and this town along with the characters? I think that would have been much more compelling.
I wanted more twists and turns in the film’s third act. I wish we’d seem some new stuff and new ideas, rather than just running through the same stuff with Gozer and the Terror Dogs that we’d already seen before. What does Gozer actually WANT? What has Gozer (or the Keymaster or Gatekeeper, I’m not clear who it was) been up to ever since killing Egon in the prologue? How did whoever that was (Gozer or whomever) get out of the cave to kill Egon when there were all those proton packs set up to zap her/it whenever she/it tried to come up out of that chasm?
The film’s first trailer showed almost the full sequence in which Paul Rudd’s character encounters the mini Stay Puft marshmallow men going nuts in a Walmart. That’s a great scene — taking classic Ghostbusters iconography but using it in a new way — and it really sparked my imagination when I saw the trailer. I’ve spent months wondering what was going on in that scene. Turns out… the movie never tells us! We never really know why those marshmallows came to life but not a single other inanimate thing in the town did. We don’t know why they want to kill one another, and also don’t seem to mind that they do. There was no greater reason for the existence of that sequence; it’s just there. We also basically never see the little marshmallow men again for the rest of the movie! (Except for a short bit at the end in which they inexplicably materialize in the back of Ecto-1 to chew through some important cables.) This was a big let-down for me!
I loved that this film wanted to embrace the original Ghostbusters continuity enough to bring back Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Ernie Hudson back on screen as Venkman, Stanz, and Zeddemore. I like that — if we’re going back to the world of Ghostbusters, let’s go all in and see what happened to all of our heroes! I enjoyed seeing these characters on screen again… and I also wish that their return at the end had felt more powerfully emotional. It might have helped if they had more to actually do in the story at the end. It also might have helped if they all didn’t look so old and disheveled. I know these guys are old, but seriously, couldn’t they have been made to look a little cooler? Look how suave Bill Murray looked recently in On the Rocks. Here it looks like he just got up out of bed! Seriously! I loved Winston’s monologue with Janine in the post-credit sequence, and the idea that he’d become a successful businessman… but I wish that had built to a surprise or a twist. Ray told Phoebe that the Ghostbusters fire-station HQ had become a Starbucks when an actor bought up the neighborhood… it might have been cool to learn that was Winston all along, keeping his involvement a secret for some reason. Instead, that post-credits scene weirdly ignores and contradicts what Ray said, because we see the fire-station is not a Starbucks at all, but that it’s just been left abandoned and disrepair… and, weirdly, that the Ghostbusters’ storage system for their captured ghosts is still just sitting there…!? Seriously, they just left their ghost storage facility sitting there unattended? That doesn’t make any sense to me.
I loved that Annie Potts was back as Janine… but when we see her early in the film, she seems weirdly unemotional that Egon was dead. The two sort of had a thing in the original Ghostbusters — something acknowledged in the Ghostbusters deleted scene they incorporated into the post-credits scene — though in Ghostbusters 2 they hooked Janine up with Louis instead. Watching this film, I wondered whether Janine was supposed to be Callie’s mom. Even if she wasn’t, wouldn’t she be a little sadder at the death of Egon? (When we first see Janine, the film was still sort of keeping Egon’s identity a secret at that point, so I guess they didn’t want Janine to address Egon’s death too directly…? But the prologue made it pretty clear it was Egon, so the absence of her saying much seemed weird to me.)
I did like seeing that Ghostbusters deleted scene used in the post-credits scene, and I liked that Sigourney Weaver was back for the mid-credits scene, turning the screws on Venkmann. (The film leaves the status of Dana and Peter’s relationship vague. Did they stick together after the events of Ghostbusters 2? I choose to believe they did.)
I loved that Rob Simonsen’s score so directly quoted Elmer Bernstein’s amazing and iconic score to the 1984 Ghostbusters film. I adore that score; I think it’s a key element of the original film’s success!! It was wonderful to hear so much of that music used again here. The only downside is that it became a little too much here, in my opinion. I loved the early references, but as the film went on and the music continued to quote the original 1984 score, I found myself unfavorably comparing better scenes in the 1984 film that used that music to what I was watching now. (I know the 1984 score so well that when I heard certain music, I could picture in my mind exactly what scene that music had accompanied in the 1984 film.) Maybe if the film’s second half hadn’t wound up so derivative of the original film, this would have worked better.
I liked hearing the name Ivo Shandler again. I love the idea of making him a character in the film and casting the great J.K. Simons. And I loved the joke of Gozer’s killing him a second after she/it returns to life. One of the few jokes in the movie! It’s more of a storytelling surprise than a joke, I guess, but I loved the surprise and I laughed at that moment.
The film looks absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography by Eric Steelberg is beautiful. I liked that while the previous three Ghostbusters all took place in the steel canyons of New York City, this film takes place in a completely different setting. There’s a pastoral beauty to the film that gives it a unique feel for a Ghostbusters story — one of the few ways in which this film charts its own path — and I really dug that.
I was also impressed by the visual effects, particularly the visuals involved with the CGI recreation of Egon in the finale. The ghostly Egon looked incredibly realistic and lifelike, and very much like I’d imagine that Egon would look in 2021, in a better world in which Harold Ramis was still alive.
I’ve had a lot of complaints about this film, but I did enjoy it. I love the world of Ghostbusters so much that it makes me happy seeing new stories being told within it! But I wish the elements of this film came together in a stronger way. I wish the film was funnier; I wish I wound up caring more about the characters; I wish that the film’s second half felt more like it was finding new ground to tell new stories rather than retelling stuff we’d already seen in the first Ghostbusters film. I think I might prefer the 2016 Ghostbusters film, because it was funnier, even if the story wasn’t completely satisfactory. Like the 2016 Ghostbusters film, there are a lot of great elements in this film but they don’t all quite come together the way I’d hoped.
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