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REVIEW - Ghostbusters: Afterlife

by Daniel Tessier 11 days ago in movie

Does bustin' still make me feel good? SPOILERS!

Well then, it's finally here. Ghostbusters: Afterlife (or Ghostbusters: Legacy in some regions). I saw it on opening night (three evenings ago) but have taken a little while to collect my thoughts. As some of you might have noticed over the years, I'm rather into Ghostbusters, the film and the whole franchise. Ghostbusters II is great, sorely underrated, I thoroughly enjoyed the 2016 reboot (these days referred to as Answer the Call) and am still a bit annoyed the fan backlash damaged its performance so much that it didn't get a sequel. A third movie of any kind seemed unlikely for years, and at least the reboot made it clear there was still an appetite for the film. Finally we get a third instalment of the original continuity and... I liked it. I didn't love it. But I liked it.

For the bulk of the movie, this is a solid adventure with some nice comic touches. Taking the route of a coming-of-age/kids fight the supernatural story is a different direction to what we might have expected, which is a straight-up remake, but still very evocative of eighties classics. Focusing on a new generation allows the story to continue while updating and refreshing it, and while this is very much the same world as the original Ghostbusters, there's a distinctly different feel to most of it. Taking the action away from New York and out into the country makes a huge difference. There's a distinct tone to the majority of the film which is very unlike the previous ones. While the original wasn't the laugh-a-minute gag fest some fans make it out to be, it was very much a comedy. The reboot went hard into the comedy route, whereas this is the least comedic of the four, focusing a lot more on character drama. This isn't to say it's not funny, but it's a more sparing type of comedy.

The cast are very good on the whole. Carrie Coon is maybe a little underused and balances humour and tragedy as cynical single mother Callie, whose hatred of science and scientists seems almost pathological at times. She's still reeling from her father's abandoning her as a child and from the outset it's clear her story is going to be her finally forgiving him. Part of this plays out as her accepting her daughter is following in his footsteps. It's hard to swallow that she has never spoken about any of the details of her father's life given how much it obviously preys on her mind.

Still, that allows us Phoebe's story, as the twelve-year-old uncovers the truth about her grandfather and finds acceptance with her family and new friends. Mckenna Grace is absolutely brilliant, holding the whole film together and very much the star. Phoebe is exceptionally intelligent academically not emotionally, and Grace perfectly plays someone gradually learning how to connect with people. Even while she's playing an especially awkward pre-teen she's hugely charismatic, and along with solid writing her performance sells that this character is clearly Egon Spengler's granddaughter and spiritual successor.

Finn Wolfhard, the go-to guy for eighties remakes and pastiches, is great as her gawky, snappy older brother Trevor, although her doesn't stand out as much as Grace. Wolfhard's usual role in these things is the fast-talking snarky one, and he gets to tone that down a lot here, but he's still a frustrated teen who has little time for his fractured family. He has a cute, rather optimistic romance with Lucky Domingo, played with charm by Celeste O'Connor. They don't get as much development as they deserve but share some easy chemistry with Wolfhard. The new team is rounded out by Logan Kim as the adorkable Podcast (we never find out his actual name), who foists himself on Phoebe and makes it clear he's going to be her friend no matter what. While Phoebe has a great line in terrible deadpan jokes, Podcast provides the bulk of the laughs here. While he's clearly an outsider needing to connect, we don't learn anything about his home life, unlike Lucky who spends time with her father (Bokeem Woodbine as the local sheriff) or working at the solitary fast food joint. Podcast is great fun but he doesn't seem to have an existence beyond his podcasts and his new friendship with Phoebe.

Paul Rudd, officially now the world's sexiest man, is goofily charming as the dorkishly named Gary Grooberson, lumbered with the role of summer school teacher and clearly happy as anything that a crisis has arrived to distract him. Rudd perfectly sells the character as a Ghostbusters fanboy, who grew up with the stories of the Manhattan Crossrip and can't believe there are kids today who don't know what a ghost trap is. (Ghostbusters II showed us that people can be wilfully blind to the truth even before thirty-odd years have passed, but it's still a little hard to swallow that almost nobody seems to be aware of the two major paranormal events that are easily viewed on YouTube.) His romance with Callie is sweet but pushed to the wayside in the final act.

It would have been easy for a film about kid Ghostbusters and their irresponsible teacher to become irritatingly twee, and Afterlife avoids that. The threat and mystery builds nicely, from the first instances of Phoebe discovering Egon's equipment in the cellar of his spooky old house and Trevor's restoring of his car (they clearly both inherited technical skills I can only dream of) to the first ghost sightings, and then onwards to the apocalyptic finale. So far, all good.

What holds the film back, though, is the heavy reliance on nostalgia. It's a tricky one: on the one hand, the film's appeal is in its nature as a follow-up to a beloved classic, but on the other, it needs to do something new otherwise what's the point of doing it? Bringing back old concepts, characters and stars is a sure-fire fan-pleaser. I'm excited enough about Spider-Man: No Way Home to make it my most anticipated film of the year, I love nothing more than a Doctor Who special featuring returning Doctors and the absurd get-everyone-in approach to the CW's Crisis on Infinite Earths was joyous. I get it. I want to see the old 'busters back facing the end of the world again. But in this case it threatens to derail the new story that's built up. For me, this was the big problem with Answer the Call: it was simultaneously trying to be its own thing but also kept reminding you of the original by bringing in the original cast for cameos.

Afterlife heavily uses musical cues from the original, whether or not they actually fit the scene they're played over, to the extent it becomes distracting. The story, revolving around Egon's plans to stop the final coming of Gozer, works very well, but plays out with many of the same beats as the original film. Turning Callie and Gary into the new Gatekeeper and Keymaster works in itself, with Coon and Rudd giving fantastic performances as Zuul and Vinz, but I spent the whole time just thinking that Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis did it better. When the boys in grey turn up (in a moment with very little logical explanation - where did they actually come from? Did they airlift in quietly?) it just feels too much. Three blokes in their seventies looking pretty uncomfortable in jumpsuits and packs reiterating lines from the eighties is a little sad and makes me miss the past glories more than anything. Far more effective were earlier scenes with Ray at his bookshop, or Janine passing on information about Egon's estate. They felt like a natural part of this world, not a shoehorned in extended cameo.

Still, there were things to love about that. The final defeat of Gozer plays out very differently to the original, and the moment when it looks like they're just going to replay the cross-the-streams gambit is subverted brilliantly. The mid-credits scene finally has Venkman face up to what a creep he was. And my, Ernie Hudson is looking great.

Then there's Egon. Here's where it gets very contentious. While we all new there would be some kind of presence for Harold Ramis in the film, especially after all the years he spent wanting to be involved in a third instalment, the filmmakers really pushed their luck here. A deleted scene from the original is lovely, little clips work well, and Egon's ghost watching over his family is rather beautiful. Bringing back the character using CGI though is dangerously close to insulting his memory. It was just about OK when they did it in the Star Wars sequels with Fisher and Cushing, but here it's an extended set piece. Some fans loved it, others really hated it. For me, it just about stayed on the right side of respectful, but only just. I wish they'd kept Egon as an unseen force.

Finally, the thing we love the most about the franchise: the ghosts. Weirdly, after the inventiveness of the previous films, Afterlife introduces only one significant new monster, the much-marketed Muncher. A big blue tardigrade-like critter with a specific and notable ability, he's a fun spook and makes for a great first bust for the kids. Although he wasn't actually doing anything wrong; he was just happily eating metal leftovers at an abandoned plant, not bothering anyone. The bullies. The big manifestation that calls back to the previous three films is a bit of a damp squib (although I loved the brief appearance of the Bug-Eye Ghost from the toy line). The returning spirits are done well though. Gozer, created by the combined talents of Olivia Wilde, Shohreh Aghdashloo and Emma Portner, is far better realised here and actually gets some character, while the Terror Dogs are as fun as ever. It's a shame we don't have physical props these days, but the CGI does a good job of recreating the look and feel of the original. It's also fun to finally meet the Gozerian worshipper Ivo Shandor, a surprising cameo by J. K. Simmons, although I wish we could have seen more of him.

At the end of the day, as fun as it is, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is held back by is slavish devotion to the past. If the hints of a sequel are taken up, the franchise needs to embrace the new. When it comes down to it though, bustin' still makes me feel good.

Oh, and happy birthday Harold.

Ghostbusting trivia:

This is the first Ghostbusters production not to feature Slimer.

On hearing that Gozer is neither he nor she, Lucky comments that it's "pretty woke for 3000 BC." Actor Celeste O'Connor came out as non-binary in 2020.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game, a 2009 release that has been considered by many fans to be the official third instalment of the story, is rendered apocryphal by this film, notably by the fate of Ivo Shandor.

Carrie Coon was born in 1981. Even if her character is several years younger than her, it suggests that Egon must have started his family before Ghostbusters II in 1989, and possibly even before the first film's events in 1983-4.

movie

Daniel Tessier

I'm a terrible geek living in sunny Brighton on the Sussex coast in England. I enjoy writing about TV, comics, movies, LGBTQ issues and science.

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