It’s a fine line that filmmakers have to walk when they’re catering to a specific audience. Ideally, you want to create something that will not only satisfy that core group, but also have a wider appeal to draw in new fans. A lot of multimedia franchises pull off this gambit with varying degrees of success, some to the point where references and Easter Eggs will spill over into other properties, allowing for eagle-eyed observers to squee at the cross-pollination.
The Ghostbusters series is a rare example of seeing both extremes of this experiment. What started as an all-time comedy great with a surprising amount of horniness (and yet still rated PG; I remember it being played repeatedly on the communal VCR when I was in daycare), spawned a faithful sequel, a video game that served as a practical third film, tons of merchandising (ECTO COOLER!!!!), and one of the better Saturday Morning cartoons of my generation. It was that rare beast that could appeal to all ages, be it for the comedy, the special effects, or the genuine but harmless scares it could give younger viewers.
Then Paul Feig went and fucked it up royally in 2016, trying to reboot the series with a new cast while failing to recapture the charm, and then doubling down on it whenever any criticism came his way. While not a wholesale horrible film (it’s bad, but tolerably so), the backlash was so huge that it necessitated a complete 180 to save the series.
That brings us to Ghostbusters: Afterlife, directed by Jason Reitman, son of the original director, Ivan (who appears in silhouette as a body double — along with Bob Gunton — in place of the late Harold Ramis, to whom the film is dedicated). From a storytelling perspective, this new entry — which indirectly retcons Feig’s movie out of existence and serves as a direct sequel to the first two films — is a massive overcorrection. Whereas the 2016 Ghostbusters showed how to piss off a built-in audience with expert precision, this film goes out of its way to provide fan service at every turn to try to appease the rabid base, even when it makes absolutely no sense, even within the rules established in this universe. At the same time, it’s clearly done in a loving and open way that tells the hardcore followers that their previous reactions were taken seriously, and is presented in a style that invites new converts, even if it is still mostly just to sell toys, so on the whole, it works.
In the present day (including bits where ADR and VFX are clearly used to change the calendar to 2021, as the film was delayed from its original release last year thanks to a different world-ending spectre), Egon Spengler is dead, having spent the remainder of his years on a small patch of land in Oklahoma that the locals dub a “dirt farm,” as he never grew anything, but did appear to be quite paranoid about an encroaching apocalypse. Upon his passing, the farm is left to his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon), with whom Egon had no relationship. Callie and her two kids, Trever and Phoebe (Finn Wolfhard and Mckenna Grace), take ownership after being evicted from their Chicago apartment, and move to the rural community of Summerville.
Once there, all three Spenglers go on separate paths until the plot forces them to converge. Callie looks for work and connections to her late father, eventually dating the summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd). Gary forges a rapport with Phoebe (even though it’s a bit of a stretch for a kid as smart as her to need summer school, while the less bookish Trever doesn’t), as he’s a seismologist, studying mysterious earthquakes in the area despite there being no fault lines (the locals blame it on fracking operations, which is a legitimate issue, but it’s waved off here as a joke red herring). He’s also a superfan of the Ghostbusters and their heroics of the 1980s, becoming even more attached to Phoebe and Callie when he learns their lineage. Phoebe herself makes friends with an eccentric classmate named Podcast (guess what his hobby is), played by Logan Kim. He’s easily the most irritating character in the whole picture. Trevor, meanwhile, got himself an instant teenage boner upon stopping at a diner in town and meeting Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), so he gets a job there and attempts to get closer to her.
Eventually, the stories collide as Phoebe discovers Egon’s equipment, which she repairs and learns to use. Trevor, having an affinity for cars despite not having a license, is able to repair the Ecto-1 stored in the barn on the property. All of the characters’ natural curiosities (save Callie) lead them to go full Scooby-Doo and figure out the source of the tremors, their connection to the ghosts Egon and the others fought before, and why the Ghostbusters went their separate ways.
Throughout the story, we get an absolute fuckton of references, callbacks, and nods to the original movies, from cameos (basically everyone BUT Rick Moranis), to stacked towers of books, to Gozer itself (Olivia Wilde in physical form, Shohreh Aghdashloo in voice). For the most part, these bits work. A chase scene with the kids learning the Ecto-1 and the equipment while trying to capture a green, metal-eating ghost named Muncher (Josh Gad) is a lot of fun. It’s shot in a way that feels distinctly 80s (I got Back to the Future vibes from some of the street-level angles), it’s believable to see Phoebe, Trevor, and Podcast work through their individual learning curves with the various gadgets, and Muncher itself looks like a shinier version of Slimer. Even the one part that seemed utterly absurd — a ghost trap mounted on a radio-controlled car that somehow was keeping up with the speed of the actual car — turned out to not be that far-fetched, as a well-made RC car can get up well over 70 MPH, and Egon’s the type of person who would be that thorough in designing such a device for his use.
Another moment I absolutely loved was in how Phoebe started to discover Egon’s world. It begins very subtly, with a chessboard near her bed, with a pawn having made its first move. She moves out a knight just for kicks before going to bed. Next morning, another move has been made, and the ghostly game escalates until one of her pawns is aggressively taken. There’s a nice, deliberate pace to this, as Phoebe, being a true Spengler, needs to be tested before she has her adventure. She needs to know — and we in the audience need to see — if she’s going to have the mental fortitude and problem-solving ability to face what’s ahead of her. It’s a brilliant microcosm of the larger task at hand, and it’s done without a lot of hand-holding exposition, instead relying on the visual and Mckenna Grace’s acting ability to sell the moment.
This is why Jason Reitman is such a good director. You can cry nepotism all you want, but he learned from the best, and he’s able to put his own spin on the proceedings. If nothing else, as a case in point as to why this movie works where Paul Feig’s didn’t, this film also has strong, competent female leads, but the idea isn’t shoved down our throats as the only new idea. There’s a much more organic feel to it, because there’s care taken to make Phoebe, Callie, and even Lucky, into real people, and also to link them to what came before, the stuff that fans still love nearly 40 years later. That’s a way better approach than, “Hey, we’re doing the same thing, BUT WITH LADIES THIS TIME, EH? AREN’T WE PROGRESSIVE?!”
Now, all that said, some of the fan service is just utterly nonsensical. As much as Egon liked to plan ahead, there is no reason why there should be a closet full of Ghostbuster uniforms, all of which are perfectly sized for two teenagers and two tweens. In a midway phone call from jail with Ray Stantz, it’s mentioned that Egon stole all the equipment when he left, yet with the perfect timing of a deus ex machina, when needed, everyone can show up fully ready to fight. Hell, that fateful call is orchestrated by Phoebe asking for her cliché “one phone call from jail,” and the local sheriff obliging with a “Who you gonna call?” line reading that was PAINFULLY bad and obvious.
But the worst offenders, I think, are the Mini-Pufts. As Vinz Clortho the Keymaster goes on the hunt for a host (oh yeah, basically the entire third act is a repeat of the first film with a different backdrop), Gary shops in a Walmart. At one point, he comes across the sweets aisle, where dozens of miniature Stay-Puft marshmallow men emerge from packets of marshmallows and engage in hijinks that range from light mutilation to full on self-immolation.
Now, these scenes look cute, I’ll grant. But how would that make any sense, even in this universe? The original Stay-Puft monster was the manifestation of Ray’s thoughts when told to choose the form of New York’s destructor, so he thought of the most friendly, non-threatening thing he could: a candy mascot. There wasn’t a giant bag of marshmallows from which Stay-Puft emerged, it was called into being by Gozer, and it was an amazing effect because it looked adorable while being deadly. There’s nothing inside this world’s rules that would then lead someone to believe that regular-sized marshmallows would then take on this anthropomorphic form — and in large numbers — just to playfully destroy themselves in a blender or make a s’more sleeping bag before becoming an out-of-nowhere inconvenience for our heroes.
This is where fan service goes too far, because at times it feels like the entire scene was written and shot just to satisfy nostalgia and sell merchandise. Scenes like that may look cool, but they also play like they were 100% created in a focus group. Like, at some point it feels like Reitman or someone on his team (or the marketing team, if we’re being honest) got a whole bunch of fans in a room and said, “Okay, if we were to make another Ghostbusters movie, what sort of stuff would you like to see?” And one by one the respondents said things like, “Bring Gozer back!”, “Wouldn’t it be cool to see kids busting ghosts?”, and “Tiny Stay-Puft men coming out of marshmallow bags and getting into mischief!” At that point, all these things were then forced into the movie, even if they didn’t flow with the overall narrative.
It’s a small gripe, but a noteworthy one, because it’s the one thing I think that holds this film back (apart from it being played more as an adventure/coming of age story rather than a comedy, but that’s just my personal preference). In the quest to make up for the last failure, Reitman went just a bit too far overcompensating, trying to placate the fans rather than simply crafting an original story worthy of them and their decades-long commitment to the franchise. This is still a good film, with some good performances, fun scenes, and decent special effects, and if you’re interested, it’s well worth your time.
It’s just not great.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How much fan service is too much for you? Gozer, Slimer, Muncher: Fuck, Marry, Kill? Let me know!