james debate
james debate

Sunday 28 November 2021

Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman
Produced by Ivan Reitman
Starring Mckenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Paul Rudd
Studio Sony/Columbia
Running time 125 minutes

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It is difficult to imagine, in this era of mega-franchises that churn out a new instalment every year, that something so ingrained in our pop culture as Ghostbusters could have been left dormant for so long. We can argue all day as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. Either way, after thirty years it appears that the powers that be have finally decided to bring Ghostbusters back, in a big way.

The first attempt was with 2016's Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, a clean reboot completely disconnected from the original films, with a new cast, which was widely panned by both critics and fans upon release. Now Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives fans what they always really wanted: a true sequel.

By way of warning, this review will contain some mild spoilers, but I will endeavour to avoid ruining the biggest surprises.

So it's true, Afterlife is the direct sequel to the original Ghostbusters films that had long been rumoured but never materialised. Original director Ivan Reitman (now producer), passes the torch to his son Jason Reitman, himself a hugely accomplished Academy Award nominated filmmaker (Juno, Up in the Air, The Frontman). Sadly the original cast are now far too old and/or dead to lead a Ghostbusters film, so the focus instead falls to a new cast. Specifically the daughter and grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (notably portrayed by the late, great Harold Ramis, who also co-wrote the original films), who inherit the Oklahoma farmhouse and unfinished business of the now-deceased Egon. Ghostbusting ensues.

McKenna Grace leads the line with a remarkable star turn as Phoebe Spengler, granddaughter to Egon. She is joined by Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things, and relative newcomers Logan Kim and Celeste O'Connor. The formidable duo of Carrie Coon and Paul Rudd round out the core cast. I will refrain from saying too much else, but there are some delightful cameo appearances.

Much has been written of 2016's failed reboot and why it did not work. But for me, the main issue was always the tone. Answer the Call simply did not feel like a Ghostbusters film. The humour was broad and obvious, leaning more heavily into slapstick and stereotype. Most of the discussion at the time focused on the cast, but really it was writer/director Paul Feig who really just wasn't a good fit for the franchise. 

In many ways, Afterlife does a better job with this. The choice of Jason Reitman as director was clearly intended to convey a sense of continuity, and you definitely get a sense of this being much more of a genuine successor to the original films. This looks and feels every bit like a Ghostbusters film, from the pacing, to the visuals, the music and the aesthetic sensibilities. 

Often, this goes too far, and Afterlife sometimes feels a bit too much like fanservice. In its worst moments, Afterlife straight up rehashes plotlines and jokes from the original movies. Gozer is back, we do the Keymaster/Gatekeeper routine again. While the cameos generally work, sometimes the callbacks can feel gratuitous and forced. These things were funny the first time, but in an era where Hollywood is often criticised for lacking original ideas, the repetition here feels a little bit ill-advised.

But despite this predilection for the familiar, in other ways Reitman has taken the opposite approach and made a number of creative decisions that make Afterlife actually a surprisingly different kind of movie to its forebears. First there is the rural Oklahoma setting. For many fans, New York City is a core part of the Ghostbusters identity. In many ways, it's the unsung star of those first two movies. Then there is the younger cast, focused on a core group of tweens compared to the middle-aged men of the original, with a sense of humour to match. The result is a quite different sort of movie. The original had a vaguely irreverent "SNL" type of quality about it, whereas Afterlife often feels a more straight-faced kind of adventure film. If I had to liken it to something, I'd describe it as a mix between Ghostbusters and Stranger Things, itself of course heavily influenced by the horror/sci-fi of the 1980s. 

Make no mistake, this is a very fine film, but these contrasts can sometimes feel a bit odd-fitting. A film that can't decide if it wants to be its own thing or rehash past glories. Enough changes to potentially alienate its likely target audience, but closely adherent enough to be occasionally cringeworthy.  

Ultimately, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an accomplished, if often unbalanced film that marks a return to form for the franchise. A fitting and loving tribute to the departed Harold Ramis, and an exciting new beginning which will hopefully lead to a rebirth of all things Ghostbusters. In its wake, I am left feeling saddened that they did not make more films with the original cast when they had the chance, but excited to see where they take things going forward.

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