‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ Film Review: Entertaining Sequel-Reboot Dazzles While Still Feeling Familiar

Jason Reitman pays homage to his father’s 1984 remake by both updating it and borrowing from it as much as possible

Ghostbusters Afterlife
Sony Pictures

This review of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” was published on Oct. 9, 2021, after its premiere at New York Comic Con.

It’s been 37 years since Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters” (yes, there really did used to be a space in there) became a smash hit summer blockbuster, ushering in one generation after generation of new toys, animated TV shows, video games, a sequel and even a reboot.

And if you have any affection for any of those other iterations of the “Ghostbusters” series you can just chuck those out the window right now, because Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” goes the “Halloween” route and declares that practically nothing outside of the original motion picture ever happened.

It may seem like freeing “Afterlife” from the baggage and mythologies of the later installments is a good idea, but ironically, all it’s really done is given Jason Reitman carte blanche to repeat a lot of the major beats from the original movie, but with different characters and different settings. Reitman’s direction may be sharp and professional, but that’s only in the service of familiar material, so it falls to an excellent cast to make the most of a very repetitive situation.

The story kicks in when Egon Spengler (originally played by the late Harold Ramis) dies in the small town of Summerville, alone and under mysterious supernatural circumstances. His dilapidated estate has been bequeathed to his hitherto unseen daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), a single mother raising a teenaged sarcasm dispenser named Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, “Stranger Things”) and a young scientific genius named Phoebe (Mckenna Grace, “Malignant”) who takes after her grandfather. A lot.

They move back into Egon’s old house and discover that it’s a wreck, but with nowhere else to go — they just got evicted — Callie decides to move in. Trevor gets a summer job at burger joint so he can try, and repeatedly fail, to make an good impression on his cool co-worker Lucky (Celeste O’Connor, “Selah and the Spades”). Phoebe is given a choice of asbestos removal or summer school, so she opts for the latter and meets a geeky seismologist and teacher named Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd).

And thank goodness for that: Not because Paul Rudd is gift to every comedy he’s in (he is), but also because Grooberson is the only person in this whole movie who seems to remember that the Ghostbusters were actually a thing once. One might assume that after a group of scientists proved the existence of the afterlife, and New York was overrun by translucent nightmare monsters, and a giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man exploded all over the east coast, that the world would have been changed forever. Or at least the incident would be constantly exploited for nostalgia purposes in our 1980s-obsessed western civilization.

But apparently not. They’re just a footnote in history. Phoebe finds Egon’s old equipment in the secret basement of the house without knowing what it does, Trevor rebuilds the Ecto-1 in the garage without knowing what it is, and everyone discovers that ghosts are real and that the mysterious mountain of mysterious mystery that’s looming outside their town — the former home of the Shandor Mining Co. — is the epicenter of something pretty bad, supernaturally speaking.

Reitman takes his time setting the stage in “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” confidently revealing old pieces of the puzzle just frequently enough to tease, but not so slowly that we want to throw things at the screen and yell, “Get on with it!” The snappy dialogue and stellar ensemble keep even the most mundane moments amusing and effective, and frequent Reitman collaborator Eric Steelberg’s versatile cinematography bounces acrobatically from high-key comedy, sun-drenched Americana to multicolored supernatural monsters floating through inky shadows.

For a long time, it seems as though “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is finding its own voice, abandoning the fast-talking, blue collar, New York rags-to-riches storyline of the original in favor of an Amblin-esque, family friendly sci-fi/fantasy adventure. It’s still “Ghostbusters” but it’s a slightly different flavor, with the potential for more surprises as the film continues.

It’s only once the supernatural plot kicks in that we realize that Reitman’s film isn’t about pushing the Ghostbusters in any new directions whatsoever. “Afterlife” is about a group of millennials learning just how cool the 1980s were and deciding to make it live again, in a story that revisits a staggering number of beats from the original. There’s still a Slimer sequence, except this ghost is even fatter and called “Muncher,” and now it’s a car chase. The scene with the self-frying eggs is now a scene with self-skewering marshmallows, taking place in the world’s least populated Wal-Mart, devoid of a single solitary employee or fellow customer, but open for business just the same.

One could go on, but there are so few surprises once “Afterlife” gets going that ruining anything seems mean-spirited. It’s worth noting that the film climaxes in a sequence that’s at once wholly underwhelming, repeating scenes from both the original film and the beginning of “Afterlife” itself and failing to escalate the action either to build suspense or dazzle. Instead the younger Reitman’s film resorts to extreme, and frankly questionable, measures to tug at the pre-existing fanbase’s heartstrings.

Suffice it to say, fans of the original — especially the ones who love finding Easter eggs — will probably be satisfied. Those who enjoyed the 1984 film and who actually wanted a new installment of “Ghostbusters” to offer something different, instead of shamelessly pandering to pre-existing fans, may be disappointed, but they can probably settle for “Afterlife’s” slick and straightforward, formulaic craftsmanship. New audiences will probably love the eclectic energy of the young cast, particularly Grace, who carries the film wonderfully despite screenwriters Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan (Netflix’s upcoming “A Boy Called Christmas”) sometimes giving her dialogue that sounds like it was left over from a very different draft of her character.

The most noteworthy aspect of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is that, by the time the lights go up, one gets the distinct impression that all the really mattered was clearing the slate and setting this franchise up for future exploitation. That Reitman made a heartfelt film about how great the first “Ghost Busters” was (and suspiciously ignoring almost all the rest of the franchise) is nice, in a way, but incidental to the film’s ultimate suggestion that, in the end, all that matters is that the “Ghostbusters” business must go on. Not because ghosts need to be busted, but because rich people simply refuse to let it die.

“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” opens in US theaters Nov. 19.