Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Film Review: Ghostbusters - Afterlife


The original Ghostbusters is not an action/adventure movie.  But to kids in the 80's who grew up with the movies and the cartoon show, the idea of being a Ghostbuster was the stuff of adventure fantasies.  As a kid I owned a Ghost Zapper Projector and went around in my makeshift Ghostbusters uniform (white sweatpants/sweatshirt combo with a Ghostbusters logo taped to my arm) and fighting the forces of the supernatural.

It is through that lens that Ghostbusters: Afterlife is made.

The movie centers around Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), a precocious, scientifically-minded twelve-year-old girl living in the big city with her fifteen-year-old brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and her single mom Callie (Carrie Coon). Callie has just discovered that her estranged father died out in Oklahoma.  Strapped for cash and recently evicted, she takes her kids to the town of Summerville to move into her father's delapitated farm house.  Trevor quickly develops a crush on local waitress Lucky (Celeste O'Connor).  Phoebe has to go to summer school (for reasons that are never clear) where she befriends fellow weirdo Podcast (Logan Kim) and their summer school teacher is seismologist Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd).  But all is not well in Summerville as it is plagued by earthquakes and a mysterious force from the Shandor Mines.  All the while Phoebe begins to discover that her deceased grandfather was up to something big and that he was once a Ghostbuster.

This movie is the equivalent to what The Force Awakens was to the original Star Wars.  And I mean this both its positive and negative respects.  Right now in the fandom, most people are sour on the sequel trilogy.  But much of this ire came from The Last JediThe Force Awakens was seen as a sometimes clumsy, if not unoriginal, love letter to Star Wars films.  In that respect, it has a lot in common with Afterlife.

This movie is pure-nostalgia bait.  There are Easter Eggs both big (like the demon dogs) and small (a Twinkie in the glove compartment).  You can tell that writer/director Jason Reitman was trying to pay homage to all things he loved and remembered from his father Ivan's movie.  There is love and reverence in nearly every single shot of the film, even the ones with shameless product placement.  But this reverence is so intense that the movie sticks to the major plot points of the original as if avoiding any kind of Ghostbusters heresy (see the 2016 reboot).  

Reitman and writing partner Gil Kenan are not nearly as funny as Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis, but they don't try to be.  In fact, they use an old comedy writing trick of having a character tell intentionally bad jokes to help cover up their own comedic shortcomings. The original Ghostbusters is a comedy who main goal is to make you laugh.  Afterlife is an adventure film with funny moments.  In that sense this sequel is more like a Marvel movie in tone than a Ghostbusters film.

The final negative comparison is that the original is a fantastic example of efficiency in storytelling.  Within 30 minutes, we have our first call to bust ghosts.  Afterlife takes its time to build its story in the style of JJ Abrams "mystery box" method, with everything exploding in the final act.

Having said all of that, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is still a darn fine movie.

As an fun adventure film, the movie works.  Watching how these new characters break out the old equipment while adding new innovations was a great deal of fun.  The movie has its share of laughs and scares.  I freely admit to being completely caught up in the chase throughout the town as the proton packs fire through the scene.

The performances are also all very good.  I was worried about a film centered around Phoebe, but Grace was fantastic in the role.  She played the character with restraint and wit while being very empathetic.  She played her smarts in a way that made her awkwardness isolating without coming off as arrogant.  The whole movie is about her trying to connect to her family, new friends, and her deceased grandfather.  Rudd is fantastic in his role.  If the movie leaned harder into the comedy, they would have expanded Rudd's role and rightly so.  Some of the best lines in the movie are his and you get the distinct feeling that much of that was improved.  I've only seen Coon in serious roles, but she holds her own with Rudd.  Kim has a "gee-whiz" quality about him that makes him incredibly likable.  His acting skill is that of an average child-actor, which only serves to highlight how good Grace is.  Wolfhard does a fine job as a sullen, love-lorn teen who is in the shadow of his smarter, younger sibling.  O'Connor has some charisma and brings a bit of maturity to the group of kids.  

And make no mistake, this is a movie where the kids are the main characters.  The film has a very Goonies/Stranger Things vibe to it where the story is told primarily from their point of view.  But unlike the Star Wars sequels, there is no need to denigrate the original characters in order to elevate the new ones.  In fact, you get the sense that the new generation is standing on the shoulders of cinematic giants and they know it.

I don't want to spoil the finale, but I was surprised how emotional I became.  This is the place where the film's heart overcomes any of the shortcomings from earlier.  You can tell that Jason Reitman has such a special place in his heart for this world that he wanted to give proper catharsis for those who also grew up with the Ghostbusters.

This movie is not the original Ghostbusters and it isn't trying to be.  It is a big-budget fan film made with great care and skill and a double-helping of heart.  And for that reason, I truly enjoyed this film.

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