I’m not sure people remember the original Ghostbusters. They seem to remember how it felt to like the concept of it, but not the picture itself. I say this, because that film, a disjointed gag about schlubby con artists starting a pest removal business for ghosts, continues to garner a bizarre reverence to this day. That blind devotion came to a head in 2016, when Sony dared to allow women to play in the same sandbox as men. The internet reacted as you’d expect, with death threats, hacked nude pictures, and racism.
I hoped Sony would have learned something from this. Mainly that you should never give fans what they want. Ever. But, instead, it seems their takeaway is the opposite. Like the depressing Rise of Skywalker, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a film designed to placate a generation of manchildren who refuse to give up their toys.
Set in the present, 38 years after the events of Ghostbusters, Afterlife immediately gets off on the wrong foot. Egon Spengler has abandoned his friend, family, and career to living out in the middle of nowhere, ranting to anyone who’ll listen about the end of the world. He clearly knows something we don’t, but why he doesn’t tell anyone, or why his friends (especially Dan Aykroyd’s true believer Ray Stantz) don’t believe him is a mystery. So, he dies alone, remembered as a failure and deadbeat.
This is how we’re going about things.
It’s not long before Egon’s estranged daughter, Callie, played by the always reliable Carrie Coon, arrives to sift through the detritus of his life. Her offspring, the sullen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), and precocious genius Phoebe (McKenna Grace) seem to have a bead on how lost their mother is.
This isn’t hard, as Callie is the closest the film comes to a villain that isn’t a Sumerian god. In one of the numerous baffling missteps, Afterlife settles on demonizing Callie as a dismissive alcoholic who barely tolerates her children. She’s traumatized by her father abandoning the family, but instead of empathizing with her, writer-director Jason Reitman treats her as a burden who just doesn’t understand how important her father was.
Reitman’s father, Ivan, directed the original Ghostbusters and produces this one. What this says about their family dynamics is a can of worms I refuse to open.
Elsewhere, Afterlife is so deeply cynical it feels suffocating. It has no identity or life of its own, so it resorts to building a personality from references to a film nearly four decades old. These range from the obvious, like proton packs and the Ecto-1 making an appearance, to the baffling. Books are piled in perfect pillars because that’s what happened in the first film. Phoebe finds a rumpled Crunch bar in Egon’s old jumpsuit, which itself was a throwaway gag made by Bill Murray in 1983. Neither serves the plot in any way, but they’re there to make a very specific subset of viewers feel special. It’s smug gatekeeping masquerading as fanservice.
Only Grace, playing Phoebe, feels like a breath of fresh air. Even though her character is coded as autistic, the film, in a stunningly cowardly move, refuses to acknowledge this beyond the tacky “magically gifted” trope. Well, that, and an equally off-putting insinuation that her intellect comes from her grandfather as if that’s something to receive and not hers to accomplish.
Even worse is the third act, which I won’t spoil, that is so deeply distasteful it borders on immoral. What happens won’t be a surprise to anyone as it’s so clumsily telegraphed from the beginning, but it doesn’t lessen the sting in any way.
Afterlife is the work of a talented filmmaker. I’m on record for loving Reitman’s prior efforts, Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air, both of which I’d call some of the best American films ever made. But the promise of those two features is nowhere to be seen here. Instead, Afterlife replaces wit and insight with crass sycophancy and a foul investment in the importance of patriarchal lineage. Everything must flow from a source, and that source extends no further than a point in childhood when our fathers were our heroes.
It deeply, desperately craves that approval. But even more disturbingly provides that same unearned catharsis for the audience that felt betrayed when Luke Skywalker grew up to not be the hero they remembered. Those who throw an ungodly fit when anyone, anywhere dares to suggest that collective nostalgia isn’t a defining character trait.
It’s a film that unwittingly says so much about where we are as consumers of pop culture, and that portrait is painfully depressing.