Two years ago almost to the day, a once-anticipated legacy sequel and trilogy-capper simultaneously promised and threatened that “The dead speak …” In a corporate-mandated act of necrotic necrophilia, the dead did, in fact, speak. Though audiences listened, they shouldn’t have. The same applies to the latest, probably far from final, attempt to resurrect the moribund Ghostbusters franchise with Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the fourth entry in a series that un-ironically thrilled Gen X audiences with its combination of root-worthy, unflappable characters, a comedic ensemble without equal, and endlessly quotable dialogue. Not coincidentally, Ghostbusters created a pop-culture phenomenon that endures four decades later.
Ghostbusters, co-written by the late Harold Ramis and the still living Dan Ackroyd, was an example of a rare big-budget, effects-heavy supernatural comedy that actually resonated with audiences and critics alike. Its commercial success then and its popularity now, however, depends less on its budget and effects and more on the singular ensemble consisting of Ramis, Ackroyd, Bill Murray, and Ernie Hudson (among a deep bench of day players), a dryly droll script, and ghost-busting gadgets tailor-made for future cosplayers. The demands of both fans and studios made a sequel inevitable. And even when that sequel, the inventively named Ghostbusters II, failed to duplicate the box-office numbers of its predecessors, talk of another sequel floated around for the better part of several decades before another disappointing entry/reboot, Ghostbusters (2016), seemingly ended the series.
When it comes to studio-owned intellectual property (IP), though, never say die. IP never dies. It just goes into hibernation for a few years or more until studio executives decide it’s time to give it another go. Apparently, that time is now, with a new family-oriented, Amblin-flavoured legacy sequel/remake/reboot directed and co-written by Jason “son of Ivan” Reitman with Gil Kenan, Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The new film unapologetically embraces fan service to give nostalgia-obsessed fans of the first and, to a lesser extent, second entries in the series exactly what they want. Unfortunately, it’s minus the wit, humour, or imagination of its predecessors. It’s also capped by a bit of cringe-inducing, third-act necrophilia that all but erases any goodwill created over the preceding two hours.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife shifts the focus from the original, now-absent Ghostbusters to a down-and-out, seemingly unconnected family that includes middle-aged mom Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), a 15-year-old slacker, and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), a typically awkward, curly-haired, bespectacled science nerd/genius. Together they move from Chicago, where Callie loses their apartment due to non-payment of rent, to Summerville, Oklahoma, the last home and unexpected resting place of Callie’s estranged, late father. Callie’s a short-timer, interested only in selling her father’s property and belongings, collecting the cash, and leaving shortly thereafter. Reitman and Kenan, of course, ensure otherwise.
With her inheritance a bust and no Plan B, Callie begins the not-quite arduous task of settling into her late father’s rundown house. Phoebe begins to attend school—seemingly to allow her to cross paths with a brand new/only best friend, Podcast (Logan Kim), and also so she can meet Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), her summer school teacher, part-time seismologist, and future romantic interest for her mother. Due to their shared interest in and love of science, Phoebe and Gary take an immediate shine to each other. The knowledgeable Gary also doubles as chief exposition giver, dropping info about the town’s mysterious past, the seemingly inexplicable seismic events emanating from a long-abandoned, nearby mine, and otherwise stepping in with key, plot-advancing knowledge about the long-forgotten Ghostbusters.
The erasure of the original Ghostbusters ensemble from public memory might seem like an odd or even unnecessary plot point, but it’s not far from reality where generations with direct experience or knowledge pass from this world to the next, leaving scattered, sometimes unreliable, sometimes divisive sources to rely on. Whatever the rationale (e.g., lack of direct experience, collective memory loss, willful blindness), the plot point allows Callie, Trevor, and Phoebe to discover ghosts, demons, and ghouls and to find out whether they’re afraid of said ghosts, demons, and ghouls for the first time. That deliberate choice on Reitman and Kenan’s part allows for a slavish procession of Easter Eggs, callbacks, and straight-up fan service. Unfortunately, that fan-first, fan-last approach results in a film long on beat-for-beat familiarity and short on imagination, novelty, or invention.
With the pint-sized protagonist, Phoebe, mostly relegated to a compendium of science-nerd cliches, that leaves the central ensemble, including Trevor’s perfunctory crush, Lucky (Celeste O’Conner), to be underwritten to the point of caricature. Their banal dialogue is shockingly free of quotability or humour, and to top it all off, there’s an over-reliance on visual effects-heavy set pieces throughout the second, frenetic hour. Though the younger Reitman proves himself surprisingly adept at handling big action scenes, he often loses the intimacy and immediacy present in his previous, small-scale dramas. He leaves the performers, talented and committed to giving their next-level best to the supernatural proceedings, alone to add depth and nuance to their characters amidst the stakes-free apocalyptic chaos that engulfs the story in the second half.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife opens theatrically on Thursday, November 18th.