The Easter-Egg-Filled Sequel 'Ghostbusters: Afterlife' Slimes You With Nostalgia
Director Jason Reitman's exhausting comedy, which attempts to relaunch the franchise for a new generation, is haunted by the past.
As the white Ecto-1 car races down a mostly empty street in a nondescript town square around the midpoint of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the latest attempt to revive the paranormal comedy series that kicked off with 1984's Ghostbusters, it's hard not to notice how lifeless everything feels. Yes, there's plenty of kinetic activity on screen: a crackling beam emitting from a proton pack, a hungry green menace in the form of Muncher, and the film's teenage protagonists trading bits of mildly humorous dialogue. But the world they move through has no texture, like the entire chase sequence, staged with rote professionalism by director Jason Reitman, takes place in a void, a version of small-town America that's been transformed into a hollow wasteland.
Reasonable people can quibble with how funny, scary, or good the original Ghosbusters is, but, at the very least, it had a sense of place. The story of Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) played out against the backdrop of a 1980s New York that the film's writers, Aykroyd and Ramis, and its director, Ivan Reitman (the father of Jason and a producer on this new Ghostbusters), had a degree of familiarity with. The movie didn't feel "real" necessarily—there's an enormous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man at the end—but it felt lived-in, an admirable quality that it shares with many of the rowdy comedies starring SNL cast members of the '70s and '80s. These movies take place in a world that's recognizable to the audience.
On a narrative level, Ghostbusters: Afterlife suffers from an over abundance of context, blasting the viewer with "easter eggs" designed to evoke a feeling of nostalgia for the movie they grew up loving as kids. The images of greasy diners, wheat fields, and creaky old houses are less targeted, conjuring an idea of small-town life that has nothing to do with the urban setting of the 1984 original. Afterlife's main character, precious science nerd Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), is the granddaughter of Ramis's Spengler, and she arrives in the town with her mother Callie (an absurdly over-qualified Carrie Coon) and her older brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard of the similarly Amblin-esque Stranger Things). She is literally rummaging through the past, hoping to find meaning in the dust-covered equipment her grandfather once used to stave off the apocalypse.
After settling in their new home, Phoebe and Trevor eventually zip up the jumpsuits, strap on the proton packs, and get to busting ghosts. They're assisted by a summer school teacher played by a slightly befuddled Paul Rudd. The casting of Rudd is a good example of how this movie gets some things right—in comedies like Knocked Up, Wanderlust, and Role Models, he put his own distinct spin on Murray's deadpan slacker charm—but has no follow through. On paper, it's a good idea to have Rudd around to make jokes. It's not a good idea to give him almost no material to work with and even less of a character to play. Instead, he's mostly on hand to observe the chaos around him. (In one of the other oddly empty-feeling set pieces, Rudd battles miniature versions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow mascot, a decent example of the movie revisiting a gag from the past while missing what made it funny in the first place.)
As much as people like to groan about 2016's reboot, director Paul Feig had the sense to fill the movie with gifted comedians and let them do their schtick. With the exception of some cameos at the end, which I won't spoil, the cast members here feel almost awestruck by the material, like they're afraid to mess it up. This isn't Shakespeare or even a "heavier" canonical '80s classic like The Terminator. It's Ghosbusters, a text with a degree of irreverence and rudeness backed into the premise. By approaching the mythology of the franchise with such solemnity, Reitman undercuts the potency of what he's trying recapture and drains it any magic it might have had. All that's left is slime.