It opens with a dark figure running from a pretty nasty-looking ghost. He ain’t afraid of no ghost, but he should be. Because once that ghost gets him, it’s lights out.
The man, a hermit who lived in a big spooky-looking house on the outskirts of Summerville, Oklahoma, wasn’t much loved by his neighbors. They derisively call him “the dirt farmer” when his estranged daughter, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her two children, Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), show up looking to sell off anything dear old Dad might have left lying around. The house is falling apart, the barn’s roof has collapsed into something Tim Burton would adore, and there isn’t a stitch of silver in the drawers. But the acres and acres surrounding the house are flowing with well-manicured and weed-free wheat. Or maybe it’s just high-quality field grass. Either way, Callie could pay someone to knock it down and sell it to a feedlot for a decent payday.
Not that Summerville is a thriving farming community; it’s just another distressed small town in Middle America, complete with a roadhouse, a hardware store, a Chinese restaurant, a public school, a bunch of closed-up shops, and a massive Wal-Mart. All the teens work at the roadhouse, and all the parents not named Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd) must work at the Wal-Mart. He’s a seismologist stuck teaching summer school at the local public school, with the word “teaching” here used loosely.
Nothing about Summersville feels authentic. It’s like a movie set of Middle America crafted by someone who has neither visited Middle America nor seen a movie set in Middle America since 1984. And with a few exceptions, Ghostbusters: Afterlife feels like it could be set in 1984. Or maybe it was made in 1984, and they just now discovered the reels. The score by Rob Simonsen plays like canned John Williams, the cinematography from Eric Steelberg has all the stability of Hollywood studio filmmaking, and the insight from writer/director Jason Reitman goes no deeper than the top layer of popcorn.
Over the past few years, the Ghostbusters franchise has been tumultuous, to say the least. Back in 2018, Reitman was doing Q&As at the Telluride Film Festival for The Front Runner when he mentioned he was working on the new Ghostbusters movie, proclaiming to bring the story back to where it belonged, or something along those lines. This was two years after the female-led Ghostbusters engendered more toxicity and vitriol than any movie deserves. With that Ghostbusters not far from memory, Reitman’s comment rang slightly defensive. (Is that a nice enough way of putting it?) Afterlife shows Reitman meant it, but not quite with the bro-heavy slant those remarks seem to lead. Instead, Reitman gets to have his cake and eat it too, effectively remaking not one but two Ghostbusters under the guise of a sequel that Xeroxes as much as possible as it can from the source material.
To that end, Afterlife works. It is a well-made movie full of genuine affection for the franchise and the era in which Ivan Reitman—the director of the ’84 Ghostbusters and Jason’s dad—made it. The elder Reitman also produces Afterlife, and in a taped intro accompanying the screening, the younger Reitman jokes about making a movie about a family with your family and all the hassles that lie therein.
That’s all well and good. Hollywood loves a family, on-screen or off, and getting everyone together makes studios grow a big rubbery one. But neither Reitman nor co-writer Gil Kenan have an original idea in their script. Nothing about this Ghostbusters, that Ghostbusters, small towns, families divided and reunited, reconnecting with old friends, fitting in, fracking (it comes up a surprising amount), or even the financial toll of bustin’ ghosts that goes any deeper than, “Cool.”
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan
Based on the 1984 film, Ghostbusters, directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis
Produced by Ivan Reitman
Starring: Mckenna Grace, Finn Wolfhard, Carrie Coon, Logan Kim, Celeste O’Connor, Annie Potts, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson
Columbia Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 124 minutes, Opens Nov. 19, 2021.