Note: contains spoilers
Director: Jason Reitman
Running time: 124 mins
Release: 18 November 2021 (UK) | 19 November 2021 (US)
The present. A small town in Oklahoma is being rocked by a series of unexplained seismic activity. Meanwhile, two unhappy adolescents move to with their single mother into the creepy ‘Dirt Farm’, left to them by an absent grandfather following his death. As they dig further into his mysterious life, they soon discover their own connection to the Ghostbusters, and a dark force brewing in the abandoned Shandor Mine.
The pandemic has brought with it waves of nostalgia, as many of us retreated to the popular culture of our youth, seeking some solace in the entertainment of happier times. Ghostbusters: Afterlife may have had its cinematic release repeatedly delayed as a result of the theatre closures, but its release now in November 2021 seems almost perfect – a film about that complex relationship with the past, with the multiple lenses through which we view our history, a film that wallows in the impression of memory, serves almost as a release from the worst of the last couple of years.
This is a film which is both liberated and hindered by its own past.
This reviewer found it enjoyable, emotional, and entertaining. It hits enough notes set by the original 1980s films to feel like it belongs (while ignoring the legacy of Ghostbusters: Answer the Call), and yet also strives to do something new, centred on lost families. It’s an apt passing-on of the proton packs, and proves the franchise still has life in it.
[the rest of this article contains major spoilers – do not read on unless you are happy to have plot points spelled out]
Plans for a third Ghostbusters film, featuring the original players, had long been thrown into chaos by the apparent reluctance of Bill Murray to commit to the project. In 2009, some twenty years after their previous screen outing, the cast reassembled to help voice and shape a best-selling computer game based on the franchise. For a period, it looked as if things were going to move forward again with a feature film, and then original co-writer – and Egon Spengler actor – Harold Ramis died.
In 2016 an attempt was made to set up an alternate Ghostbusters team, but the perceived reboot with female leads (Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) was derailed before even hitting cinemas thanks in part to a frankly toxic campaign by certain sectors of Ghostbusters fandom. The presence of the surviving original actors did little to counter the negative response, and the film became a box office bomb.
With plans long-established to develop a Ghostbusters universe, the negative response prompted Sony to once again look to the original films and continue that story and ignore the 2016 film.
Afterlife is haunted by the ghosts of the past – a need to revert to what the fanbase knows, rather than risk something different. But as their eventual appearance makes clear, Dan Akyroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Bill Murray are no longer young actors, and to see them pottering around in coveralls armed with ghostbusting wands, isn’t right. If the series is to continue, new blood is needed. And that was something Ramis and Akyroyd were aware of, devising scripts a decade ago that teamed the originals up with younger replacements.
Behind the camera, Jason Reitman steps into the directorial shoes worn previously by his father Ivan, but with his father still on as a producer. The younger Reitman had often been a presence on set during the original filming, and even appearing on screen in Ghostbusters II. There’s a reassurance of continuity – a sense that this is being kept in-the-family. JR refreshes the look of the series, crafting something very distinctive, giving it a new pace and energy, while maintaining respect for the brand.
It was always going to be impossible to do a third film in the series without acknowledging Harold Ramis’ passing. He had been one of the driving creative forces, and any reunion would need to address his input. Ultimately Ramis’ ghost isn’t just felt over the project, it becomes a driving plot point and a surprise presence.
Back when Murray was voicing reluctance in the 2000s/early 2010s, there was talk of Venkman appearing as a ghost within the films. The idea seems to have been repackaged here, with Egon Spengler presenting himself not just as a guiding benevolent spirit, but a pro-active one. Some view it as cynical, but it results in moments of real emotion for the characters and fans alike, and several images which deserve to become icons. This feels like a moment of farewell for the creative team, and for the viewer – an acknowledgement of a collective grief. At the end of two years in the real world, in which many of us have been unable to say goodbye to loved ones, it’s a moment we all need.
It serves to give hope, a redemptive arc that reminds us why we love these characters.
Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard are Spengler’s grandchildren Phoebe and Trevor. It is they who take us on a voyage of archaeology, turning up Egon’s secret lab and relics of his ghostbusting days. They carry on the rebellious spirit and inquisitiveness that were so vital to the original films. They are joined by lover-of-the-mysterious Podcast (Logan Kim), and Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), and mentored in part by summer school teacher and seismologist Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd).
Some of the criticisms of Ghostbusters II were that the film was played more for children, following the success of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon (which this viewer enjoyed as a kid). Afterlife goes even further, and at some point you may realise that you are watching juvenal leads rather than adults. Times have changed, and so the level of horror and nastiness is largely on a par with 1984. Adults may stay for the glimpse of actors they know, but this group of plucky youngsters look competent to continue. Whether that’s mentored by the originals, or setting up by themselves, there’s life in the series yet.
Reitman’s shifting of the narrative from the bustle of New York to rural Oklahoma gives this film proper American gothic vibes. The warm emptiness contrasts starkly with the imposing shadow of the Dirt Farm house and outbuildings. It also means that visually, Ghostbusters has moved on – no longer confined to a particular urban look. A smart move for future development of the franchise.
The dramatic heart of the film is around the young family, evicted from their home, struggling with the legacy of the absent Egon, trying to fit in in a new space, alienation, and identity. Phoebe’s mother Callie (Carrie Coon) tells her “Don’t be yourself”, encouraging a denial in order to conform. The joke highlights the otherness of this family unit. Once they come to know their family history, they come to know themselves.
Its clear that for the Ghostbusters, the same is true. They have fractured and forgotten what it meant to be them. Until the past comes calling in more ways than one.
The visuals are excellent, with the new super-cute Stay Puft Marshmallow men a nice twist (albeit borrowing from Gremlins), and the metal eating monster a curious attempt to echo Slimer but not replicate. Where the film is perhaps its least satisfying is in the retread of the original’s Gozer threat – it ends up feeling rather too direct a lift. JK Simmons gets an all-too-brief turn as the fiendish Shandor himself, and Emma Portner looks the part as Gozer. But there’s no real drama here. We know how things must progress and turn out, and the peril is dampened by familiarity (though frailty of certain cast members nearly persuades us otherwise).
Paul Rudd’s turn into a Lewis Tully-esque character once possessed doesn’t really fit with his sensible science teacher persona that precedes it. But in turn, it allows for some minor character nuances cut from the original film (which you can view as outtakes on the blu-ray release) to be re-purposed. Not least of which is Janine’s (Annie Potts) relationship with Egon. We left the cinema wondering about Callie’s mother, Egon’s unnamed partner and where she fits in too…
There is very little actual ghostbusting going on in Afterlife – although a post-credits sequence is pretty affirmative that more will follow – but that’s okay. We get an insight into one of our favourites in a way we never did first time around. These feel like more-rounded characters. The story feels like it has an actual purpose, a moral even. Whatever does or doesn’t come next, the legacy of the 80s films is honoured in Afterlife, and that’s enough for me.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife in cinemas from 18 November 2021.
Robert JE Simpson
(19 November 2021)