Afterlife is more rehash than reinvention of the Ghostbusters brand, cloying and desperate in its mode of pure nostalgia.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an almost purely nostalgic experience, but it remains unclear what exactly the film is nostalgic for. Sure, 1984’s Ghostbusters was a big summer hit, but ultimately it was just a very loosely-plotted, vaguely spooky fantasy that deliberately avoided any semblance of self-seriousness by casting a bunch of sarcastic comedians as its heroes. Nobody could be too scared by inter-dimensional demons invading Manhattan as long as Bill Murray was there to tell them to kiss off. A sequel that’s generally accepted as lousy and a silly kids’ cartoon series would follow, but somehow this bit of breezy entertainment has developed a full-on legacy, one that needs to be polished, admired, and revered.
A direct sequel to those first two, 30-plus-year-old movies, Afterlife introduces us to Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), daughter of Harold Ramis’ original character Egon, and her kids, bored son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and precocious future STEM student Phoebe (McKenna Grace). Though she’s estranged from her father, when Egon dies she inherits his “dirt farm” in the middle of some rural backwater, and with financial doom in their immediate future, the family hits the road and moves into Egon’s dilapidated old house in the sticks. It’s not long before the ghostly stuff starts happening, curious Phoebe stumbles upon the Ghostbusters’ accoutrement in the basement, and Trevor is fixing up the Ecto-1. Meanwhile, Callie crosses paths with a local high school teacher (Paul Rudd). You can see where most of this is headed.
Thankfully, the character work proves a bit more surprising: the kids aren’t rendered as cute moppets, and the adults seem relatively grounded. Grace is basically in the lead here, and despite the Amblin pictures Goonies-esque determination to make this some sort of emotional journey for her, mostly she just tells pretty amusing dad jokes. She’s funny. The rest of the comedic slack is taken up by Rudd, of course, playing a bumbling nice guy opposite Coon’s prickly single mom.
While the movie isn’t merely a litany of callbacks and easter eggs, it runs into trouble by not really presenting anything new. Ostensibly a world in which one can fight ghosts with laser beams and portals to hell are a dime a dozen should be a big one, with a lot of opportunities for different monsters and what have you. But the specters in Afterlife are the exact same ones from the 1984 film. It may be set in cornfields instead of New York City, but it’s the same big demon dogs, the same pink beams of energy, the same marshmallow man, and so forth. It’s not boring necessarily, but it’s also not particularly intriguing given the available possibilities its very existence suggests. By the time the inevitable cameos arrive in the final act, the whole thing is basically on autopilot, affirming Afterlife as a total rehash that seems cloying in its desperation to recapture something that wasn’t all that special in the first place.