By David Weiner
WHAT’S THE DEAL: A new generation of Ghostbusters strap on the classic proton packs and give the ECTO-1 a whirl in rural Oklahoma, where a resurgent set of spirits are causing chaos — and perhaps planning the end of the world. Again.
WHY SEE IT: Ivan Reitman passes the torch to director son Jason Reitman for a more Spielbergian kid’s adventure tale about teens taking up of the mantle of the retired, spirit-bashing Ghostbusters. Paul Rudd adds comic charm to the proceedings as a local teacher/seismologist who befriends the new family in town — single mom Carrie Coon and her two kids, Trevor (STRANGER THINGS star Finn Wolfhard) and brainy sis Phoebe (McKenna Grace) — who have inherited estranged dad/granddad Egon Spengler’s (the late Harold Ramis) dilapidated farm/laboratory.
The change of scenery and new generation of characters are intended to add fresh blood to the GHOSTBUSTERS franchise, now four films in (if you count the aggressively maligned, 2016 all-female line-up reboot directed by Paul Feig), and connects the poltergeist plot dots directly to the events of Gozer’s 1984 New York invasion of the dead, threatening to rise up once again to take over the world. Bolstered by strategically inserted cameos by the classic Ghostbusters crew (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and other surprise faces), AFTERLIFE is packed with Easter Eggs and nostalgic references (complete with marauding mini Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men and an extended ECTO-1 chase full of surprises) to the original to keep fans happy. The bonus element of a score by Rob Simonsen that expertly echoes the whimsical charm of Elmer Bernstein’s original GHOSTBUSTERS soundtrack drives the nostalgia home.
THE FLICK FLACK: I love GHOSTBUSTERS. I enjoyed GHOSTBUSTERS II to a lesser degree, but I thought it was still fun and inventive. I even thought 2016’s GHOSTBUSTERS: ANSWER THE CALL was mostly harmless, if unnecessary; rather than a reboot, I think that film would have benefitted greatly from a torch-passing tale instead. Ultimately, I’m here to have a fun time, not to judge, when it comes to GHOSTBUSTERS sequels. However, I have a three-strike rule with any film I watch, which has to do with character and plot logic. I can suspend my disbelief for any story concept, but when the characters or situations begin to break the film’s set rules of logic for the convenience — or laziness — of storytelling, I can no longer remain immersed in the film’s world. It takes me right out, because I know the writers could have done better had they given more thought to character motivations and common sense. By the third time AFTERLIFE shrugged off any sense of story logic, I lost my intent to care. Then it continued to offend in that manner.
A couple things, in no special order: No one seems to be the least bit spooked by the fact that an invisible ghost haunts Spengler’s farm. Carrie Coon’s single mom is struggling for cash, escaping eviction, and hoping for a life-saving inheritance from her father. Why doesn’t she try to get a job in the new town? Where is the population of this small community? The kids plow the ECTO-1 through town to catch Slimer stand-in “Muncher” in broad daylight, and practically no one is around to run for cover — and provide comic reaction opportunities. The town has a massive Walmart, and it’s conspicuously empty when the mini Stay Pufts wreak havoc. No greeter to react? When Phoebe is thrown in jail, why wouldn’t she try her mother with her one phone call vs. reaching out to a stranger across the country? And why does Ray Stanz (Aykroyd), who answers the phone, tell the young stranger on the line a whole story about how the Ghostbusters ended up scattered about over the years without first even asking who’s calling him and why? Why bother resurrecting the character of Ivo Shandor (a wasted J.K. Simmons with less than a minute of screen time), referenced in the 1984 original, only to have him come back to life and then immediately eliminated after a single sentence of dialogue? What a great opportunity to expand the GHOSTBUSTERS canon and create a new villain, squandered.
Perhaps each of my nitpicks are insignificant alongside the overall perceived entertainment value of what’s offered in AFTERLIFE (they did officially reunite the original Ghostbusters, after all). Hey, I don’t like to be “that guy.” But it’s the parade of little things that add up to me not caring about what happens by the end. The writers are more interested in the spectacle and the nostalgia than the story logic. Thus, when the big cameos finally come together during the finale, I should be invigorated. But it just feels emotionally bankrupt.
Curiously, what I found AFTERLIFE lacking the most was a sense of humor. Sure, there are several amusing and even inspired moments. And Paul Rudd leads the charge with his charm, as if he’s the only one who seems to remember that GHOSTBUSTERS is first and foremost a comedy. But again with the writing (credited to Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan): This is a film that is interested in slowly unravelling a tale in which the entire audience is way ahead of the characters and their discoveries, which are mostly connected to the first GHOSTBUSTERS movie. It’s less concerned with crafting memorable comic moments and sequences. Opportunities to mine the fish-out-of-water setting are roundly ignored. And strangely at odds with all the time the film spends to paint its setting early on, there seems to be no time allotted for small-but-memorable comic set-ups and payoffs, a crucial building block of any GHOSTBUSTERS film’s narrative structure.
Ironically, the best moments of the film with the original cast appear during the end credits, which only serve to undermine the power of any originality AFTERLIFE may have earned with its bold new choices, for the sake of nostalgia and wish fulfillment. The best stuff served up here is glimpses of what we don’t get enough of: the original GHOSTBUSTERS cast and their chemistry — a potent reminder of what was so winning and what sparked audience demand for all those sequels in the first place.
NOTABLE NOTES: Filmed in Alberta, Canada and in Calgary as a stand-in for the wheat fields of Oklahoma, keen eyes will notice CANNIBAL GIRLS is playing at the local movie theater onscreen. That’s Canadian Ivan Reitman’s second feature-length film that he directed, released in 1973. That fun film is also referenced on a Manhattan marquee in GHOSTBUSTERS II.
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