Talking Movies: Ghostbusters: Afterlife [SPOILERS]

Talking Movies

Released: 19 November 2021
Director: Jason Reitman
Distributor: Sony Pictures Releasing
Budget: $75 million
Stars: Mckenna Grace, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, and Paul Rudd

The Plot:
After being evicted from their home, Callie (Coon) and her children Trevor (Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Grace) move to a decayed farmhouse ravaged by unexplained earthquakes. After discovering that their grandfather was Doctor Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) of Ghostbusters fame, the children reclaim the Ghostbusters’ equipment to battle the supernatural forces seeking to break forth into our world once more.

The Background:
Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984) began life as a project developed by actor Dan Aykroyd for himself, Eddie Murphy, and close friend John Belushi that finally came together when director Ivan Reitman, writer/actor Harold Ramis, and Bill Murray came onboard. Initially produced as a standalone film, Ghostbusters’ incredible critical and financial success eventually led to what I consider to be an under-rated sequel. Still, while Ghostbusters II (ibid, 1989) underperformed compared to the first film and was met with mostly negative reviews, the 2014 reboot was subjected to scathing criticism and controversial backlash. Following this failed reboot, Jason Reitman, son of Ivan Reitman, began development of a new Ghostbusters film that would be a direct continuation of the original films. Taking his cue from Ackroyd’s many unproduced attempts at a third film, Reitman aimed to show a younger generation picking up where their predecessors left off. He also sought to pay homage to the original films, returning the original actors in a way that made sense, and recapturing the spirit of what made the first film so successful. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ghostbusters: Afterlife was delayed numerous times; upon release, the film was met with generally positive or somewhat mixed reviews. Critics praised the cast, atmosphere, and references to the first film but also questioned the reliance on nostalgia and narrative direction of the film. Regardless, as of this writing, Ghostbusters: Afterlife has grossed over $68 million worldwide.

The Review:
I’ve always been a big Ghostbusters fan; if you’ve read my review of the first film, you know that it’s one of the many formative movies and influences on my childhood. I had the toys, watched the cartoon, and even enjoyed the under-rated sequel, so to say that my anticipation was high to finally see a proper third entry in the franchise is a bit of an understatement. I was excited by the prospect of the trailers, which depicted a world that has moved past the need for the Ghostbusters and a new generation taking up their roles, and the only thing I was concerned about was that the film would retcon or out-right ignore the sequel. It was pretty clear from the trailers (and the younger cast) that the film was going for more of a Stranger Things (2016 to present) than being a straight-up sequel or requel of the original Ghostbusters, and this is pretty clear right from the beginning of the film with the focus squarely being on young Phoebe.

Something of an awkward outsider, Phoebe is the clear focus and highlight of the film.

Phoebe is something of an outcast in her family; while Callie is a struggling working mother and Trevor is more mechanically minded (when he’s not being an angst-and-hormone-fuelled teenager), Phoebe is a shy, awkward scientist prodigy. She has no friends, struggles to make emotional connections with people, and is fascinated by science and logic; although Callie worries over Phoebe’s development and personality, the forced move to Summerville, Oklahoma actually turns out to be the best thing for Phoebe as she slowly discovers her late-grandfather’s Ghostbusters technology and finds a connection to him that is otherwise lacking with her family and in her life. she also makes an actual friend in the form of “Podcast” (Kim), an enthusiastic young boy with an obsession interest in unsolved mysteries and the supernatural, and who actually finds Phoebe’s awkward attempts at humour funny and fills in the backstory of Summerville by relating the ghost stories surrounding Ivo Shandor’s mining operation. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is Phoebe’s story, first and foremost, which I actually wasn’t expecting heading into it; however, she’s a sweet and compelling character who is just trying to find herself and realise her potential as a scientist. Easily the smartest person in every room, she has a kind of naïve enthusiasm for science and the Ghostbusters tech and is eager to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and redeem his reputation in the eyes of her mother, the entire town, and even his old team mates.

Sadly, there isn’t much for Trevor and Lucky to do beyond being support characters.

Comparatively, there isn’t that much for Trevor to do; he’s the typical moody teenager who despairs of their poor fortune and the backwater nature of Summerville, but he quickly finds a reason to stick around when he becomes infatuated with Lucky Domingo (O’Connor), a young girl who works as a roller-skating waitress. His awkward attempts to flirt with her do help to emphasise the importance of the mountain and the derelict mine, and he does fix up the Ecto-1 in this spare time, but he’s very much a supporting character next to Phoebe and both he and Lucky just seem to be here to make a new team of four would-be Ghostbusters. Trevor is far less intelligent than Phoebe, and also far less interested in figuring out why Summerville is routinely beset by unexplained tremors or uncovering the mystery of their grandfather. He comes into his own when driving Ecto-1, which makes for a fun-filled sequence where he and the others frantically chase a ravenous ghost through the town and cause all kinds of destruction, and it was interesting to see Finn Wolfhard take more of a backseat considering he’s the more prominent actor of the youngsters.

Callie feels a deep-rooted sense of abandonment while Gary is just excited to get his hands on Ghostbusters tech.

Similarly, Callie is far from the primary focus of the film; a struggling single mother, she’s forced to uproot her family and move to Summerville when they get evicted from their flat. She has a very bitter, cynical, and sarcastic outlook on life; she resents her father for abandoning her and her kids and becoming such a fanatical recluse, and dismisses him entirely because of her strong feelings of abandonment. Because her father chose his obsession and his scientific experiments over her and others, Callie is far from interested in science, which causes a rift between her and Phoebe; Callie advises Phoebe not to be herself so that she can make friends better, which is pretty terrible advice, and it’s implied that she might be heading towards alcoholism, but it’s also clear that she’s hanging on by a thread and has a huge emotional void in her heart where her father’s love should be. Phoebe does find another adult figure to relate to, though, in the form of Gary Grooberson (Rudd), a lackadaisical high school teacher, seismologist, and Ghostbusters fan; Gary encourages Phoebe’s scientific curiosity and aptitude and is excited at the chance to get his hand son some Ghostbusters tech. he brings the kids (and the unknowing audience) up to speed with the Ghostbusters and the days when ghosts used to roam around unhindered, which has been long forgotten due to the passage of time. He strikes up a bit of a romance with Callie, and is generally a supportive and enthusiastic and positive influence, but again doesn’t really factor too directly into the plot until the final act when things start ramping up.

The Nitty-Gritty (SPOILERS):
I think one thing to keep in mind going into Ghostbusters: Afterlife is that it’s very different from the first two Ghostbusters films; for starters it’s set in a small town in the middle of nowhere rather than the busy streets of New York City. Second, it’s focused more on the kids and exploring their characters and reactions to their family lineage, especially Phoebe, who we see grow from an awkward young girl into a far more confident budding Ghostbuster thanks to applying her scientific acumen to her grandfather’s long-unused technology. And, finally, it’s much more concerned with slowly refamiliarizing us with the Ghostbusters world than actually depicting the frantic and fun-filled bustin’ of ghosts. It takes about an hour or so for Phoebe to fix up a proton pack, Trevor to repair the Eco-1, and the four characters to chase down and capture their first ghost and, although Summerville is literally sitting right on top of a tumultuous death pit full of ghosts just waiting to escape into the world, restless spirits that need snapping up aren’t really a focus of the film.

While some familiar ghoulies reappear, there isn’t all that much ghost bustin’ in the film.

That’s not to say that there aren’t ghosts or ghouls to contend with; Ghostbusters: Afterlife circles back around to Ivo Shandor, a mysterious and fanatical figure briefly mentioned in the first film who was a devout follower of Gozer and built up a cult and temples in her/his honour. Shandor is responsible for building and founding the entire town and economy of Summerville, and his legacy is something of a local legend as his miners and workers spontaneously all committed suicide decades ago. Given Shandor’s devotion to Gozer, it’s little surprise to find that the mine hides a temple to the demented eldritch being, and as a result the film not only massively borrows from the original movie’s soundtrack and technology but also its monsters. Terror Dogs make a return in the film, hunting down two unwilling hosts in a bid to unite the Keymaster and the Gatekeeper and awaken their master, and Gary is attacked by one of these dogs and some adorable little “Mini Puffs” while in Wal-Mart. These miniature, mischievous versions of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man are used more for comedic purposes and cause trouble in Wal-Mart and by sabotaging a proton pack at a critical moment, and the main ghost of the film, the Muncher, is basically an altered version of the famous Slimer meaning that the looming threat of ghosts and Gozer’s potential return is more prevalent than the spirits themselves. It was, however, very much appreciated to see practical effects and animatronics used here and there, especially with the Terror Dogs, and I can’t fault the inclusion of the classic proton packs, jump suits, gadgets, and beat-up car.

Phoebe’s curiosity leads to ghosts reappearing and a call needing to be made…

Far more integral to the plot and the characters is the reputation of former Ghostbuster Egon Spengler; although Harold Ramis sadly passed before Bill Murray could get his shit together and sign off on a proper third film, a combination of darkness, a body double (Bob Gunton), and CGI allow his character to make a brief appearance at the beginning of the film, where we see he has exiled himself to a dilapidated farmhouse in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Gozer and prevent his/her return to the world. After learning of her true lineage, Phoebe is both enamoured by her grandfather’s genius and former heroics and curious to find out how he fell so far from grace; her curiosity leads her to contacting Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd), still working at Ray’s Occult Books, who bitterly reveals that work dried up soon after they took care of Gozer and that Egon left the team in financial ruin after stealing Ecto-1 and all of their equipment in service of his ravings about the building apocalypse. Although Ray expresses regret at Egon’s recent death, he bitterly reveals that the Ghostbusters parted ways after Egon left and that none of them believed his claims that Gozer was prophesised to return, which works in terms of setting up the overall plot but I found to be a little sad and out of character. I’m not sure why Ray, of all people, would ever doubt Egon’s intelligence, no matter how manic his personality became, and it’s disheartening to see so many characters mock or disregard Egon as simple a mad hermit. Thankfully, Phoebe retains her belief in her late grandfather and goes out of her way, even putting herself in repeated danger, to prove that he wasn’t some crazy old man.

The film features some fun (if gratuitous) cameos and call-backs to the original movie.

This all comes to a head in the final act and the film’s finale; Phoebe and the others discover that Egon was perfectly on the money, and that the temple beneath Summerville houses a death pit full of restless spirits eager to burst forth and only held at bay by an intricate proton pack  system setup by Egon. Essentially, Egon has been pushing back the apocalypse and preparing for Gozer’s return for about thirty years, but Gary’s enthusiasm for Phoebe’s ghost trap and the characters’ overall ignorance regarding the Ghostbusters results in the Terror Dogs possessing him and Callie and birthing the Keymaster and Gatekeeper once more. When Gozer (Olivia Wilde/Shohreh Aghdashloo/Emma Portner) finally returns, spirits briefly over-run Summerville but the focus is more on Phoebe completing Egon’s plan to lure the Gozerian to a dirt field lined with numerous ghost traps. Although Gozer is easily able to fend off the kids, they get some last-minute assistance from Ray, Doctor Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson), who show up for the finale to confront their old foe. Thankfully, they’re just as bungling as ever and, rather than swooping in for a last second save, Gozer uncrosses their streams and is finally undone by the efforts of the new generation of Ghostbusters. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the finale is the incorporeal appearance of Egon, who makes an emotional appearance as a ghost to help Phoebe aim her proton stream and reconcile with his friends and family. It definitely tugs at the heartstrings but I can’t help but think that maybe the film lingers a little too long on Egon’s unnervingly silent ghostly form, and while its fantastic to see the original actors back in their iconic roles, they do end up just being gratuitous cameos. It’s definitely a triumphant moment and a great return to form, but it’s also undeniably the three going through their most famous motions and lines and, seemingly, passing the torch to the kids rather than adding something new beyond regret at how their relationship with Egon ended.

The Summary:
Anticipation was high for Ghostbusters: Afterlife; when you are forced to wait decades for a third film in a franchise, it’s inevitable that you’ll be meeting a new generation of characters and potentially seeing a new direction for the series. Ghostbusters: Afterlife definitely falls into these categories, being primarily an entirely different beast than the previous two films and reintroducing the concept of the Ghostbusters to a new, younger audience through far younger characters. While there isn’t much for Trevor or Lucky to do, Podcast is a notable highlight and makes use of every scene he’s in to make an impression, and Phoebe absolutely carries the heart and emotion of the story on her back. She’s an interesting character, being curious and introverted and logical but still full of that wide-eyed, childish inquisitiveness to make her a compelling character and the clear highlight of the movie. By the time the third act rolls around, the call-backs and references to the first film become far more prominent, but the film still does enough things differently to stand on tis own two feet. The problem may be that perhaps it does a little too much differently, being a very different film to its predecessors and focusing far ore on characters and legacy and rediscovering the past rather than actually going out and bustin’ ghosts. It’s great seeing the returning score, technology, gadgets, and characters but I can’t help but feel maybe a little ore ghost action would have helped bolster the plot and the film’s pace and given characters like Trevor a bit more to do rather than just stumble along until they hook back up with the more plot-relevant Phoebe.

My Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Pretty Good

Have you seen Ghostbusters: Afterlife? What did you think to the new characters and which of the kids was your favourite? Which of the call-backs, references, and cameos was your favourite? Do you think a third Ghostbusters film would have worked better a few decades ago or was even necessary or was it worth the wait for you? Did you like that the film delved a little deeper into Ivo Shandor or would you have preferred a more unique antagonist for the finale? Would you like to see another film with the characters, maybe something a little more in line with a traditional Ghostbusters film? Whatever your thoughts on Ghostbusters: Afterlife, sign up to drop a comment down below or leave a comment on my social media.

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