REVIEW: ‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’

It’s a stiff

November 22, 2021

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a remarkably innovative movie in one respect: It takes a famously crazy farce as its wellspring and uses it as the source material for a relatively earnest teen drama. I’ve never seen anything like it. I never want to see anything like it ever again.

The 1984 original is an out-and-out comedy from its first moment, when the Columbia University parapsychologist Peter Venkman completely ignores the evidence that a male grad student he’s testing is actually psychic because he’s trying to use the test to seduce a female grad student. And it climaxes with a 100-ft. Marshmallow Man lumbering up Columbus Circle ready to destroy the world.

In Ghostbusters: Afterlife, a family on its uppers—middle-aged mother, teenage son, tween daughter—moves to a small town in Oklahoma to live in the house left to the mom by the father who abandoned her. They love each other. The town seems nice. The house is broken-down. Near the old house is an abandoned mine. It turns out the mine was the source for the metal used in the ghost-attracting girders that supported the New York City apartment building called "Spook Central" in Ghostbusters. Lowjinks ensue.

The director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, is following an interesting career arc here. In the 2000s, he came roaring out of the box with two celebrated pictures—Juno in 2007 and Up in the Air in 2009 and was nominated for two directing Oscars before his 30th birthday. He received a kind of critical support and adulation his father, Ivan Reitman, never received for his work. Then Jason cratered. He hasn’t made anything good or noteworthy since Up in the Air. So he apparently determined to make his way back to the A list with a reimagined version of his father’s most successful movie, Ghostbusters.

The first effort to reboot Ghostbusters came in 2016, with four female comedy greats in place of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis, and Ernie Hudson. It was bad. So Jason decided to reframe the ghostbusters not as adult funny people but as small-town teens. The trailer and the commercials barely evoke the original while working hard to remind everyone that the kid who plays Mike on the hit Netflix show Stranger Things—which is about teens in a small town fighting the supernatural—is one of the stars of this movie. The gambit worked. Ghostbusters: Afterlife did very well at the box office over the weekend.

But it’s about as far from a return to creative form for Jason Reitman as Ivan Reitman’s horrible My Super Ex-Girlfriend was a return to form for the guy who made Meatballs, Stripes, Kindergarten Cop, and Twins.

I suppose the fact that the movie isn’t funny and doesn’t try to be funny wouldn’t matter if it were engaging and clever in other ways. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife is spectacularly bland. And the plot is riddled with more holes than Sonny Corleone on the causeway. For example, the kids discover there’s a shrine carved in the walls of the mine to the Sumerian god Gozer, against whom the original ghostbusters fought. Apparently, no one in the town ever thought to look inside the mine before—even though we know kids there drive up to the top of the mountain to hang out and even swing around in a basket that can be lowered into the mine.

Even more egregious, the characters here all live in a world in which the things that happened in the original Ghostbusters—including the 100-ft.-tall Marshmallow Man—actually did happen, thus proving for all time the existence of the supernatural. So how can there be a scene in which our brilliant young protagonist, Phoebe, says flatly, "I don’t believe in ghosts"? Ghosts have been proven to exist, according to this movie. Did some kind of worldwide amnesia set in?

These are the kinds of narrative problems you make for yourself if you decide to set a sequel in the same "universe" as the original. You either have to accept the facts of the original and move on from there, or you have to explain their absence. That’s especially true if your sequel is quiet and sober and not at all farcical.

See, if you remake Ghostbusters, you don’t have to set it in a world where the ghostbusting already happened—a world in which the lunatics who believe in spooks and apparitions and the like are actually proved right by the most cynical person on earth, Bill Murray. You just tell the same story over again. But that was tried, with Melissa McCarthy and Kate McKinnon, and it was a disaster.

So Reitman decided to go for a sequel. But he knew there already had been a sequel, made in 1989 with the original cast, which I actually love but which failed both critically and at the box office. He might have thought it failed because it didn’t go in a different direction from the crazy comedy of the original. But its failure was due to a central flaw in its premise, which is that the ghostbusters would have ended up after five years broke and in disgrace and performing at kids’ birthday parties after they’d saved New York and the world. That made no sense even in the crazy world established by Reitman and the screenwriters, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis—just as the world of Ghostbusters: Afterlife makes no sense. But at least Ghostbusters II has the hilarious Peter MacNicol saying, "Why am I drippings with goo" and a toaster that dances along to Jackie Wilson singing "Higher and Higher." This movie’s got nothing.

Published under: Movie Reviews