Producer: Ivan Reitman Director: Jason Reitman Screenplay: Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman Cast: Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Bokeem Woodbine, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bokeem Woodbine, Tracy Letts, Oliver Cooper, Marlon Kazadi, Sydney Mae Diaz, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Harold Ramis, Annie Potts and Sigourney Weaver Distributor: Sony/Columbia Pictures
As a product of 1980s nostalgia, Jason Reitman’s sequel to his father Ivan’s 1984 comic sci-fi blockbuster is almost perfect. Sweeping aside any reference other sequels, reboots and spin-offs, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” not only resurrects the mythology and bric-a-brac of the original but resituates it all in a supposedly contemporary America that’s actually more reflective of the world of “ET” or “The Goonies,” at one point even tossing in a rambunctious “Gremlins”-like sequence, redone in “Ghostbusters” mode, for good measure. Even Bob Simonsen’s score sounds as though it had been composed for an Amblin production of the time. The result is a superior act of mimicry; unfortunately, it’s less engaging as a stand-alone entertainment.
The set-up, which takes up pretty much half the picture, starts with the death of one of the original Ghostbusters—the late Harold Ramis’ Egon Spengler—at his remote, ramshackle house somewhere in desolate Oklahoma. Later we’ll be informed that he’d repaired there with most of the original gang’s equipment, arguing to his unbelieving partners that it would be the site of the next supernatural outbreak and breaking up the business in the process.
His demise, after decades of living an eccentric life preparing for the ghostly apocalypse, turns the place over to his divorced, broke and long-estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), who arrives with her children, teen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and nerdy but brilliant daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace). It doesn’t take long for spectral phenomena to intrude, and Phoebe and Trevor will quickly get involved in them, bringing along their new friends, Trevor’s crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) and Phoebe’s plucky classmate Podcast (Logan Kim).
Phoebe’s goofy teacher Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) gets drawn into the proceedings too, not merely as part of a ghost-hunting posse but as a romantic interest for Callie. But while they eventually play roles in the big effects-laden finale, the adults who really matter are blasts from the past, most in corporeal form but one in posthumous garb, literally and figuratively. As a result the last act allows for plenty of sentimental family re-building along with the hard-fought defeat of an old foe from the original movie, as well as coda after coda playing on fans’ desire to reengage with their favorite characters of yore. (Those interested in such stuff—along with a teaser for a possible sequel—are advised to remain in their seats for all the closing credits, down to the final blackout.)
You have to admire how Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan have constructed their film as both a homage to the original and an evocation of eighties cinematic sensibilities for boomers, as well as a piece that can appeal to younger viewers enamored of contemporary hits like “Stranger Things,” comic characters like the Minions and “Goosebumps”-style juvie-oriented scare shows. But cleverness of assembly has to be supplemented with some genuine wit and amusement, and it’s in that department that “Afterlife” falls short.
The first hour rather lumbers along. Coon is too strident as the put-upon mom, and though Grace makes Phoebe precocious without being obnoxious, Wolfhard isn’t given much to work with in the way of characterization besides being a kid mooning over a pretty girl. The winner overall is Kim, a guaranteed crowdpleaser as garrulous, wide-eyed Podcast, though Rudd brings his patented air of genially bemused slackerdom to Grooberson, even if it’s impossible to believe that the school board even in such a backwater would tolerate a teacher who literally did nothing but screen old VHS movies for his classes. There are some easy laughs scattered throughout, but the writing is more expository and less mirthful than you’d hope.
When the picture shifts into its second half, action and effects come to dominate to ever-diminishing returns even when some old favorites show up to help. The potentially end-of-days denouement is busy but familiar, and the schmaltzy finale featuring back-from-the-dead technology drags on much too long. Yet one still senses that other parts of the plot have been trimmed to ribbons by Reitman and editors Dana E. Glauberman and Nathan Orloff. Why else would solid actors like Bokeem Woodbine (as Lucky’s sheriff father) and Tracy Letts (as a local shopowner) have been hired and then relegated to what are little more than cameos? Otherwise the technical side of things—François Audouy’s production design (which fills Egon’s house with tons of junk, as well as fashioning a colorful run-down small town and abandoned mine) is excellent, as is Eric Steelberg’s glistening cinematography. And the deliberately cheesy visual effects supervised by Alessandro Ongaro and Sheena Duggal have a comfortably old-fashioned feel.
In terms of surface elements, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” succeeds at what it obviously set out to do, and for many that will be enough; its evocation of the eighties and employment of contemporary staples may even prove sufficient in sparking another installment of the venerable franchise. The makers haven’t quite hit the mark, though in putting funny new flesh onto the old bones. The result is a very good copy with too little inside.