What made the original Ghostbusters so good? Released in 1984, and starring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and the departed Harold Ramis as the titular group of paranormal exterminators, Ghostbusters was a huge hit—the second highest grossing movie of the year—and an enduring cult classic. Why?
PhD theses have been written on this subject by now, but I’ll offer my own humble take on it to the best of my meager abilities within the paragraph I’ve got before I need to move on to the actual movie at hand.
Ghostbusters is amazing because it doesn’t try to be anything special. All the movie does is take a fun idea—catching ghosts is kind of like being an exterminator—and it uses that idea as a platform to tell jokes with. The movie is a joke-delivery machine. Many of the jokes aren’t even about ghosts or ghost-busting, they’re about the struggles of the blue collar small business owner in New York City in the Reagan Era. Take this scene, for example:
The key to Ghostbusters success is that it wasn’t trying to be **Ghostbusters**. It was just trying to be a funny comedy.
That brings us to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the long-delayed third film of the franchise. Directed by Jason Reitman, son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, it debuted on November 19th and stars Mckenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd, Finn Wolfhard, Logan Kim and Celeste O’Connor.
Afterlife tells the tale of Egon Spengler’s estranged family, consisting of his daughter, Callie (Coon), who is single-mom to Trevor (Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Grace). On the verge of eviction, they inherit Egon’s decrepit farmhouse in Summerville, Oklahoma. Venturing out there in search of anything valuable, they discover more than they bargained for. (Ghosts!)
The big problem with Reitman the Younger’s film is this: The sepia-toned reverence with which Ghostbusters: Afterlife approaches everything Ghostbusters-related misses the point of all that made the first movie great. It spends so much time worshipping the original comedy, it forgets to tell any jokes. Instead of a delivery-vehicle for humor, it’s a delivery-vehicle for references to the first film.
Perhaps I’m being unfair. There are, in fact, many ways in which this movie works very well. Afterlife is at its best when it functions as the story of a young girl discovering her connection to her estranged grandpa. (The fact that this connection happens to involve ghosts is just a bonus.) Mckenna Grace does a nice job playing the descendant of Egon Spengler, and I was particularly a fan of how the movie spun the concept of “ghosthood” in a way that was not only positive, but downright heartwarming—until, that is, a decision in the final moments of the film that I will discuss in the Spoiler Section.
Across the board, the acting is terrific. Carrie Coon is great as a struggling single mother, and Paul Rudd does his Paul Rudd-thing as the local science teacher who tries to date her. I found their romance very mature and relatable, and I can’t tell if that’s because it was well-acted or if, *shudder* I’m just entering that age demographic.
Top marks, however, go to Logan Kim, playing the character Podcast, Phoebe’s sidekick. Out of all the actors, he is the one who clearly got the memo that he was acting in an homage to the summer blockbusters of the 1980s. This character could be dropped straight into The Goonies or ET and work like a charm. As an amateur podcaster myself, I would also add that I thought most of his jokes hit.
Finn Wolfhard’s Trevor and Celeste O’Connor’s Lucky inhabit the least engaging subplot of the film; their teen romance was cute enough, but strangely unrelatable and hard to empathize with—Oh, no…
The acting was all great. The real problem was the film itself- it had the lovely, gentle story of Phoebe Spengler exploring her history as Egon’s granddaughter, running parallel with a referential comedy operating on references that only 40-year olds really understand.
Half the film is Ghostbusters by way of Terrence Malick, with the Ecto-1 joyriding through cornfields at magic hour. The other half is CGI Stay Puft Marshmallow Men killing themselves. They don’t quite fit. Plus, do kids really know who Gozer is? Are 12-year olds going to flip out to hear “There is no [character] only Zhuul”? Will they be thrilled to see Bill Murray crammed into his old onesie, cracking wise?
It feels prosaic to call the movie boring, but there simply is too little incident in this film. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is just too interested in delivering an homage to its 1984 predecessor to develop enough of a story to let it stand on its own. It’s nice, it’s pretty, but it just does not entertain.
Still, if you are an adult looking for an affectionate tribute to one of your favorite childhood movies, you will find one. Kids will find a perfectly satisfactory “discovering yourself” slash “forming a team” film to keep them occupied for two hours. It’s not what it could have been, but it could have been worse. I’ve seen worse.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife gets 2 out of 5 stars. It is out in theaters now.
Here’s where I discuss parts of the plot that would otherwise be too spoilery for the review proper.
There are other problems with this movie that can be divided into minor, and major.
The minor issues are that several plot points rest on behavior by characters that is either stupid or otherwise inexplicable. First up: Phoebe, Podcast, and bonafide adult Mr. Grooberson have in their possession what they know is a real ghost trap. Keep in mind, they exist in a universe where the Ghostbusters, and ghosts, are known to be real. The ghost trap itself is clearly holding a ghost. Their decision at this point is… Open it?!
I struggled to get past that.
The second thing I found curious was the fact that the OG Ghostbusters abandoned Egon. I get that with the ghost-catching business drying up, they might have split up and gone their separate ways, but would they really have abandoned their friend if he’d come to them claiming he had evidence something important was going on? These guys saved the world together, twice. Was Egon really claiming something so unbelievable? I found the idea a little difficult to accept.
Now for the major issue.
Harold Ramis passed away in 2014. Much of this movie turns on the character he played, Egon Spengler, and indeed for a great deal of the movie Egon “exists.” He’s shown in the beginning, in shadow, and for most of the rest of the film he interacts with Phoebe as an invisible ghost. I did not have a problem with this; it was mostly very sweet. The key word, however, was invisible.
At the end of the movie, Egon’s ghost appears. He appears quite a bit. It’s not the first time the likeness of a deceased famous person has been used in a creative project, it will not be the last, and the moral and ethical questions about doing this run deeper than what I’ll solve in a simple movie review. Nonetheless, it made me uncomfortable.
I haven’t always responded this way–The portrayals of Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in Rogue One did not bother me. Possibly, the issue is that I felt as though this was not just a portrayal of Egon, this was a CGI depiction of Harold Ramis. It arguably exploited his death for easy pathos.
Shooting around the absence of Harold Ramis earlier in the film had worked just fine, as had using previously recorded material. I thought the relationship created that way between “Egon” and Phoebe was quite lovely. Yet another powerful moment of emotional payoff was constructed for Egon and his daughter Callie without even involving Egon’s ghost at all. The sudden incorporation of a digital Harold Ramis into the film at the end was a different choice. It wasn’t necessary for the characters–it felt like it was aimed at us, in the audience.
Grand Moff Tarkin giving orders on the Death Star makes sense for the movie. Having Princess Leia reiterate her iconic line about hope at the end of a movie in which hope is a central theme makes sense for the movie. Showing us Harold Ramis at the end of this film felt like a meta play at the audience’s heartstrings. I get it; it’s Ghostbusters, and he’s a ghost. However, the emotions of the scene still played on the fact that we conflated the death of the character with the death of the actor, and that made me antsy.
Make of it what you will.