Callie (Carrie Coon) doesn’t much look like the daughter of bespectacled, deadpan-voiced, poofy-haired scientist and erstwhile ghostbuster Egon Spengler, brought memorably to life by the late Harold Ramis, whose specter haunts the new movie Ghostbusters: Afterlife in more ways than one. Callie’s daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), though, is another story. The unruly mop of hair—shared by her on-screen brother Trevor (Finn Wolfhard)—and her decidedly familiar (yet non-trendy) glasses establish the resemblance, and her flat affect seals the deal. Grace has been the go-to choice for playing young versions of characters as disparate as Captain Marvel, Tonya Harding, and Daphne from Scooby-Doo, and it’s a clever test of her range to have her play a de facto young Egon.
Phoebe doesn’t know much about her grandfather’s exploits as an expert ghost-trapper—almost confusingly little, given her fascination with all things STEM. She gets the opportunity to learn more about her lineage when single mom Callie hauls the kids off to Oklahoma to clean up Egon’s dilapidated old homestead. Egon, like the actor who played him, has died, though his passing inspires considerably fewer loving memories than Ramis’ did. Callie has been estranged from him for years, while the townsfolk know him primarily as the “dirt farmer” with the weird house, tinkering with some unseen project. Egon’s old pals Venkman, Ray, and Winston are nowhere to be found. Soon, Phoebe is talking to her teacher, Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), about the area’s unusual seismic activity, and sensing a possible presence in her new home. As it turns out, there may be something strange in the neighborhood.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a deeply nostalgic exercise. That much is clear from the outset, as is so often the case with movies that combine decades-later sequelizing with franchise-hungry rebooting. But it’s worth asking what, exactly, this movie is nostalgic for. The original Ghostbusters became a classic by merging loopy, fantastical nonsense with vaguely countercultural comic looseness (or, put another way, by leavening Dan Aykroyd’s sensibility with Bill Murray’s). Ghostbusters: Afterlife, directed and co-written by Jason Reitman, has no particular comedic sensibility at all. A funny comedy about a group of nerds and slobs has been reshaped into a very different sort of retro-’80s sculpture: a neo-Spielbergian kid adventure, this one with with warm sitcom wisecracks and a bad running joke about bad jokes. Yes, Ivan Reitman’s son has turned Ghostbusters into Super 8. Only Super 8 had vastly funnier dialogue.
There’s nothing wrong with a kids’ adventure movie. It’s even kind of sweet to see Ghostbusters re-contextualized as, well, a bunch of kids playing Ghostbusters. It’s also notable that Reitman has made a movie that looks and feels different from any previous iteration of the series, with magic-hour location shooting and a few neat images—the Ghostbusters’ rickety old car sailing through a cornfield—that Reitman supposedly had rattling around in his head for some years before he figured out what to do with them.
What he finally landed on was expressing the utmost reverence for the iconography of his dad’s movie. This involves treating the semi-lunatic rantings of Dan Aykroyd as holy scripture and a bunch of Halloween-costume accessories as the very soul of the film—and perhaps of cinema itself. For much of its running time, Afterlife lingers on the stuff, in shots that lovingly reveal ghost traps, proton packs, and that rickety ECTO-1, which ’80s kids may fondly remember as a kickass toy, despite appearing in the movie primarily as a combination of light gag and scene transition. Ghostbusters featured zero big ECTO-1 chase scenes. Ghostbusters: Afterlife rights this grievous wrong. It’s a wonder that no one rediscovers the rich, refreshing taste of Ecto Cooler; maybe that’s on deck for the sequel.
These bits and pieces of the fantastical do have an appealing tactility, which Reitman cannily exploits as his new characters languish. The movie makes a half-hearted attempt at forming a new quartet of squabbling, bantering heroes, with the siblings joined by Phoebe’s new pal, self-nicknamed Podcast (Logan Kim), and Trevor’s instant crush Lucky (Celeste O’Connor). The lack of actual screen time the four spend together as a group is a hint that the mix of younger and older kids is an act of demographic positioning more than anything else. Grace and Kim do show some comic snap, though there’s only so much they can do with lines like “so this is happening”—non-jokes that require a Bill Murray-level talent to really pull off. That Peter Venkman DGAF vibe is passed around a few characters, most pleasingly landing on Rudd’s Mr. Grooberson, who teaches summer school by throwing on whatever inappropriate VHS tapes he finds lying around. But many of the movie’s scenes feel divvied up between the actors, rather than thoughtfully constructed.
Eventually, Ghostbusters: Afterlife attempts to show the same affection towards its people as it does toward all of their toys—and this, too, feels like a closed loop within the addled brains of the fandom. The movie initially positions Egon Spengler as a negligent dad who died alone and near-destitute, then investigates how that counterintuitive (or at least counter-comedic) assumption might not be correct. It’s a particularly craven reboot strategy: Send the audience on a journey of assurance, in this case that their childhood heroes were great and the toys they played with were super-cool. So cool, in fact, that the movie shoves aside its own new creature designs to re-create more and more stuff from the first movie as it goes on, part of a chain reaction that produces a stomach-churning pile-up of fan service in the last 30 minutes. Why should anyone say funny lines when there are iconic things to repeat?
Not all stomachs will churn. This is a Ghostbusters movie that meets kids closer to where they live. And judging from its rapturous reception at an early Comic Con screening, plenty of adult fans will be beside themselves with glee, too. In some ways, it’s a harmless night out for the faithful—the equivalent of a quote-along/egg hunt at a local rep house, with some likable new performances thrown in. Yet seeing Reitman inherit this particular mantle is still discomfiting. His hit-and-miss filmography of comedies and dramas includes a couple of incisive ones about the pleasures and perils of nostalgia. Now he’s made a franchise-starter about how great his wealthy father’s movie is. That movie is also framed as a tribute to someone who often seemed like he could take or leave the prospect of another Ghostbusters sequel, reducing Harold Ramis to an absence from a franchise without paying any attention to his comic sensibility. Afterlife wants desperately to summon the spirit of watching the first movie back in 1984. It winds up ghoulish in the wrong way.