GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE (Movie Review)

Jason Reitman reboots his dad’s ghostbusting franchise with a fresh take led by a breakout turn from tween lead Mckenna Grace.

*** out of ****
Rated PG-13
(for supernatural action, some suggestive references, and some language )
Released: November 19, 2021
Runtime: 124 minutes
Directed by: Jason Reitman
Starring: Mckenna Grace, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Finn Wolfhard, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Bokeem Woodbine, Tracy Letts, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Sigourney Weaver

This is how you reboot a franchise.

Rather than going the obvious route of trying to summon one last ride out of the aging original trio or redoing the same premise with a newer, younger New York City quartet (as the 2016 version did — which, for the record, I enjoyed), writer / director Jason Reitman has conceived an inspired, heartfelt re-entry into the Ghostbusters universe.

Either of those more predictable, pandering approaches of feature-length fan service would’ve essentially made for a safer play towards an older, established audience. Instead, Ghostbusters: Afterlife — set over thirty years after the second Ghostbusters movie — opens up the possibilities by moving the franchise out of The Big Apple and into rural Oklahoma, providing the desired nostalgia while primarily charting a new course.

There, Reitman centers his tale around a struggling family rather than a ragtag group of quirky scientists. That family, of course, isn’t just a random one; they’re the immediate and estranged descendants of Ghostbuster Dr. Egon Spengler (the late Harold Ramis). They’ve taken ownership of Spengler’s creepy Okie farm following his death. 

That estrangement — specifically between Egon and his daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) — deepens the story’s tension and mystery. It’s a more affecting tack than softening the premise with Disney-fied sentimental warm fuzzies. Reitman uses that brokenness to create a moving, meaningful arc (all within a fun, funny, spooky, and thrilling action-comedy adventure) that poignantly crescendos to a beautiful catharsis and delivers a palpable emotional payoff.

It’s this family foundation that makes the whole thing feel fresh, not simply because it’s different but, at its heart, it reflects Reitman’s own point-of-view. As the son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the two originals, Jason comes at his Ghostbusters with a sense of legacy, not simply “a property.” That adds a sense of significance which, while not inherent to the original films, has been gained and earned over time.

In that, even as he honors what his father (and the iconic OG GBs) established, Jason is smart enough and confident enough to realize that in order to carry the mantle he must also make it his own. He does, including his own sense of humor, crafting a 21st Century chapter that’s more dry, clever, and even warm than the overt SNL attitude of subversive, non-PC wisecracking antics.

In short, Reitman has made a definitive Ghostbusters movie but not one that’s a carbon copy — complete with a mix of optical and digital effects that update-yet-match the older aesthetic, as well as a classic orchestral score that takes Elmer Bernstein’s recognizable themes and builds off of them. 

If anything, the result is what you might expect from someone who is both a child of the first movie and of the 1980s: an adventure that’s as much Goonies as it is Ghostbusters. Afterlife is a lot of fun, the kind that, three decades ago, you’d keep renting over and over again from the neighborhood Blockbuster.

By targeting a younger generation with tween-age heroes, Reitman makes this Ghostbusters accessible to newcomers who don’t have a nostalgia for the original. Simultaneously, those teen protagonists become deft proxies for the older fans, ones who were that age when they first dreamed of throwing on a proton pack and blasting subatomic laser streams at Class 5 full roaming vapors.

And rather than making Egon’s adult daughter the natural heir, Reitman’s focus is on Egon’s granddaughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), the younger of the two kids being raised his daughter Callie, a down-on-her-luck single mother who’s never forgiven her dad for putting his obsession with the paranormal over his family. Callie hates science because of what it stole from her, but for Phoebe it’s in her genes.

Joining Phoebe are Podcast (Logan Kim), a fellow middle schooler and enthusiastic tech geek, her older brother Trevor (Stranger ThingsFinn Wolfhard), and his new small-town crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor)

But it’s Phoebe who’s the center of Afterlife, not the film’s more experienced or bankable stars (including Paul Rudd, a local science teacher who befriends Phoebe). By extension, it’s young actress Mckenna Grace who anchors everything. She’s a compelling, endearing lead, especially as the introverted Phoebe comes into her own by taking courageous, even foolhardy risks.

Grace essentially carries the film, even with the strong ensemble work. It’s a bold bet by Reitman but it pays off, and it allows Afterlife to completely succeed without relying on Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson

Yes, those original Ghostbusters return, but in a way that’s as rewarding as it is completely unnecessary. When bringing back original characters (and beloved actors), that’s exactly the combination a reboot needs to strike. In doing so, Afterlife establishes a whole new era of ghostbusting potential that can expand far beyond the crutch of the familiar.

Thanks to Jason Reitman, bustin’ makes us feel good once again.

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