REVIEW – Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)

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An absolute love letter to fans of the original film, Ghostbusters: Afterlife manages to be more than just “nostalgia bait” as co-writer and director, Jason Reitman, mines his own personal issues to tell an emotional story about family balanced with immense fun and genuine laughs.

A family are evicted from their home and end up moving to the quiet small town of Summerville where their recently deceased grandfather left them a rundown farm. Upon exploring the secrets of the farm and investigating the town’s regular earthquakes, the kids soon discover their estranged grandfather was a Ghostbuster who, once again, was trying to prevent the end of the world.

It may sound odd coming from an old fart who collects toys related to stuff he likes from decades ago (including Ghostbusters) but for the last few years I’ve grown somewhat cynical about obvious and heavy-handed appeals to nostalgia. And based on the original trailers, I went into this film concerned this would be a hollow nostalgia cash-in, riding the coattails of the recent popularity of Stranger Things as well and relying solely on references and call-backs instead of telling a good story that only appealed to dyed-in-the-wool fans who wrap their entire identity in a childhood property. We don’t need more of those.

So colour me pleasantly surprised (and a little relieved) when I realised just how genuinely great Ghostbusters: Afterlife is. That’s not to say the film doesn’t lay it on a bit thick sometimes, it’s just that once you look past those things you notice the backbone of the movie is this wonderful and personal story about family and priorities. It is the right balance or reverence to the original film as well as irreverence in humour and to certain aspects of the source material. Sometimes you feel as though the shooting script has descriptions in all caps saying “REMEMBER THIS?” but also (as a friend pointed out) without treating certain items as though they are Excalibur.

Director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, has crafted a delightful, charming, and funny adventure inhabited by characters you come to care for and maybe even relate to their struggles. Even with all the pathos there’s more than enough humour and levity to keep the film buoyant and the jokes hit just right. Unlike my nitpicks about the 2016 film’s handling of gags, this film doesn’t kill the laugh by stretching out the joke, instead these are punchy and quick without bombarding the audience allowing the gag room to breathe. Actually, even the deliberately bad jokes (you’ll understand when you see them) get a laugh because of the context and it’s really sweet. But it’s not all gags, there is a general light-heartedness that suits the overall tone of the movie, which often accompanies precocious young characters.

There’s also a mystery that unravels over the course of the movie. Without spoiling things, there are only a few surprise twists but it’s not entirely about those revelations. If anything this mystery works on a couple of levels: for those new to Ghostbusters it does play out like a slow reveal bit by bit and all the parts fit nicely together. For long-time fans it’s more of a countdown as they anticipate each moment and plot turn. The latter will be rather familiar to fans who know more than the characters do (maybe too much so) but that’s also part of the appeal as you watch the characters slowly learn and piece things together. Even if it is a major call-back to the original 1984 movie, it being so long ago it makes sense to go back there if you look at this as either a “bookend” or just a revisit.

But what really intrigued myself as well as a mate who went to see Afterlife with me, is the personal nature that has been imbued into the story by the director. Jason Reitman is the son of the director of the original two Ghostbusters films, Ivan Reitman (who is also known for a plethora of comedies from the 80’s and 90’s). Jason grew up surrounded by Ghostbusters (apparently they had a terror dog bust in his childhood home) and while he junior Reitman has preferred to spend his career on smaller films, this time he’s taken inspiration from his “complicated” relationship with his father to tell this very personal story disguised as a blockbuster. And it works so well you cannot help but maybe feel a tad choked up at certain points. Even if it’s not a one-to-one, of course, you can at least feel there’s something deep from the director at the core of this story and these characters.

The cast are all fantastic and it’s rare that I feel a group of actors were pitch-perfect for these roles. My grumbles about the nickname “Podcast” aside, Logan Kim provides many of the laughs as a 12-year-old -beyond-his-years believer and conspiracy theorist. Finn Wolfhard is perhaps better known for his role in Stranger Things (which isn’t the only reason this film has that feel) and does well as the awkward teen looking for love with local small town girl, Lucky, played by Celeste O’Conner. And it must be noted, to her (and the writers’) credit she does more than be just a love interest and gets to rise to the occasion like everyone else.

Of the grown-up leads, Carrie Coon makes for a sympathetic single mother, Callie Spengler, and you convincingly feel for her and empathise with her resentment of her late father Egon (no matter how much of a GB fan you may be). Now normally an audience POV character is the one who exists to have things explained to them so the viewer can learn along with them (that was Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zedmore in the original movie). This time the kids need stuff explained to them, so inversely you have the audience POV character who know more than our main cast and has to explain some of the GB lore to them. And the ageless Paul Rudd’s summer school teacher, Mr Grooberson fits that perfectly with his enthusiasm that manages to not go anywhere near the obnoxious fanboy territory.

However the real MVP and heart of Afterlife is Phoebe Spengler as played by McKenna Grace. For someone so young to balance multiple traits of being a convincing young genius and neurodivergent teen is absolutely astonishing. There’s an emotional maturity that few older actors are capable of. One of the positives of the 2016 film is the featuring of women in STEAM (formerly known as STEM -we now include Art in there as it’s important too), you now also have Phoebe who can be the face of young girls in science. She really does carry this movie, as she learns to interact and make a friend, and you cheer for her every time one of her bad jokes gets a laugh from Podcast.

Some of my favourite moments are the interactions between the kids. It was sweet to watch Phoebe and Podcast awkwardly get to know each other and it was refreshing to see how un-cruel Lucky was to Trevor as she lightly teases him (another writer or director would likely have done a more “mean girls” direction with that part of the story). I imply comparisons to Stranger Things but I must admit I was worried about it going too far the direction of The Goonies, a film I really dislike (the kids in that one were far too obnoxious) but fortunately, that’s not the current frame of reference for audiences.

I hope it was obvious to everyone else as it was for me, but the main four kids were near exact younger counterparts to the original four Ghostbusters: of course Pheobe is Egon with the flat delivery and intelligence, Podcast and his big hair clearly took after Ray’s exuberant curiosity, Trevor may have been less creepy about it but he was Peter in the way his priority was pursuing a girl he liked as well as being clever enough when it mattered, and of course beyond being black, Lucky exhibited the same casual confidence and assuredness that Winston did in that “okay this is happening” sort of manner.

Apart from the obvious cameos that have already been revealed as part of the marketing there are two to keep an eye out for: One was “spoiled” for me on Twitter (FYI I don’t care about spoilers in general) so it ended up being a fun countdown to their amazing reveal (and it is bloody awesome), and one is a very odd and tiny appearance that may take a little longer to recognise.

The visual effects are seamless and unobtrusive and the team did well to emulate the look and feel of the aesthetics from the original 1984 movie, which were state-of-the-art at the time, improving upon the overall quality without overdoing it. One particular CG character was done amazingly well and the behind-the-scenes for that is rather meta. The attention to detail is also wonderfully immaculate. From the recreation of the props and how they would be upgraded over three decades to the living spaces in the farmhouse, which by the way was an interior and exterior set they built together on empty land (it’s not a sound stage). Not only does everything feel lived in but there are tiny little references to the original films if you look closely enough (the stack of books and the Twinkie are among the more obvious ones).

Although not a nitpick, I think there may have been only one moment where the proton pack was too lovingly shot that reminded me of the reveal of the Enterprise in The Motion Picture… but thankfully shorter. It’s the closest the movie ever gets to being too uncomfortably reverent of the originals. The opposite to that, the reveal of the ECTO-1 was handled in a more irreverent manner. While Phoebe is aware of the importance of what she’s testing out, Trevor just wants to get a car up and running again (it’s never said or even alluded to but you assume it’s because he wants to impress Lucky).

Getting uncomfortably close to the precipice without going over the edge into pandering and fan service for the sake of it or outright worship of the original is perhaps the least problematic part of the movie. Fantastic as Afterlife is, there are a few minor nitpicks that linger in the aftertaste. While most of the plot turns and reveals feel earned and are presented well, some moments end up with practical questions that don’t get answered (either it’s an oversight in the script or some bit of exposition ended up on the cutting room floor due to running time). It’s normal that scenes used in trailers don’t end up in the final cut so that may be the issue. A simple throwaway line could have solved these.

Also, the climax felt surprisingly claustrophobic considering the geography of the location. In all fairness, the big climactic battle in the original film also felt somewhat small despite being on top of a tall apartment building (filmed on a sound stage of course) but I doubt it’s a reference to that and more a matter of logistics of maybe filming in a controlled location. But I see that a minor nitpick, barely an issue at all considering the focus of the scene was the emotional impact rather than the spectacle.

There are two post credit scenes, one is pure call-back, however, it does address one of the more problematic scenes in the original that didn’t age well at all. The second is right at the end and addresses something long overlooked with one of the characters. I enjoyed them for what they were but am hesitant about what they imply.

Some may see Ghostbusters: Afterlife as a film about picking up the mantle but I see it more as coming to terms with a legacy as a means of finding oneself and it’s wrapped in a fun and hilarious adventure that ticked all the right boxes for me in terms of nostalgia, a compelling story, characters to care about, and a “bookend” to a long overdue trilogy. I had an amazing time and cannot wait to buy this on blu-ray and watch it again and again like I have done with the original.

We were fortunate to see it at an advanced screening but Australia doesn’t get a proper release until January 1st across the country.


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2 Replies to “REVIEW – Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)”

  1. Spoiler or just nitpick? Ecto-1 is rebirthed as the 1A in GB2. with some very noticeable differences, yet here’s the original one back. Which I prefer admittedly, the more comical roof apparatus and the yellow/black warning stripes never did it for me.

    1. That is a really good pick up and one I didn’t think of. I would say that in 30 years in universe there’s every chance they pulled it back to the original formation before Egon took off for the farm in the same way a lot of people restore classic cars. But then again ECTO-1 also has features that we’ve never seen before too.

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