For all the nifty Easter Eggs we won’t reveal and all the delightful callbacks we’re not going to discuss and all the respectful tributes we won’t detail, the action-packed, frantic, loud and incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is missing one major, precious, scientific, cinematic element:
A truly involving and cohesive new story.
Since the release of the monster smash supernatural comedy hit and genuine cultural phenomenon that was the original “Ghostbusters” in 1984, we’ve seen a number of follow-ups and reboots and spinoffs, from the 1989 “Ghostbusters II” to animated series and video games and theme rides and the disappointing remake in 2016 — but this is a generational sequel to the first two films, with director/co-writer Jason Reitman (son of “Ghostbusters” director/producer Ivan Reitman) moving the story to the present day (intriguing) and relocating it from New York City to Oklahoma (perplexing).
“Afterlife” is bathed in nostalgic, Comic-Con-level worship of artifacts and props and touchstones from the original, with lingering shots of a P.K.E. Meter and proton packs and the refashioned 1959 Cadillac that became the Ecto-1, not to mention the makeshift flight suit uniforms, a billboard for Stay-Puft marshmallows and a fire pole, among other visual references. That’s all well and cool, but what’s missing through much of the movie is a sense of awe — and consistently sharp comedy.
To be sure, there are some genuine and hearty laughs sprinkled here and there, but far too often we’re growing restless (the running time is about 20 minutes longer than the 1984 film) during the run-of-the-mill chase sequences and the exposition explaining why we’re in a small town in Oklahoma and what’s about to happen in small-town Oklahoma if somebody doesn’t do something to stop Zuul and the Keymaster et al., from staging a Reunion Tour.
The main story kicks off with financially strapped single mother Callie (the always wonderful Carrie Coon), her teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and 12-year-old daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) packing up and heading to the town of Summerville, Oklahoma, after Callie’s estranged father has died and left them the “Dirt Farm” (as everyone in town calls it), where he holed up and conducted mysterious experiments. It’s no great spoiler to reveal that crazy old coot was one Egon Spengler, who abandoned Callie when she was a baby, cut off contact with his fellow Ghostbusters and died alone and in debt. There’s got to be more to the story than that, right? They wouldn’t do Egon (and the late Harold Ramis) like that, would they? Of course not — but when the explanation finally comes, it just doesn’t add up. There are so many unanswered questions.
Mckenna Grace does a remarkable job as Phoebe, who is like a mini-Egon. (She talks about how she doesn’t feel things like most “normal” people do, leading us to believe she’s on some kind of spectrum, as Egon surely was.) Phoebe is the true center of the story — uncovering scary secrets in an abandoned mine, watching YouTube videos of the Ghostbusters in the 1980s and teaming up with her new friend Podcast (Logan Kim), who calls himself Podcast because he’s always Podcasting, to investigate all the paranormal gurglings and burblings all around town.
Paul Rudd lends his easy comic charm to the role of Gary Grooberson, who is the Rick Moranis/Louis Tully of this story and has a goofy, irresponsible charm, e.g., his idea of conducting summer school class is to pop in VHS copies of horror films such as “Cujo” and “Child’s Play.”
Director/co-writer Reitman’s choice to set the primary story in a small, remote town in the middle of nowhere makes for a bounty of sun-drenched, Spielbergian shots, and it’s kind of neat that he’s fashioned this as primarily a kids’ adventure story a la “The Goonies” and “Super 8.” Still, as the end of the world once again seems nigh, we miss the chaos and madness in New York City.
In the climactic act, when “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” doubles down on the nostalgia, what should be a triumphant moment comes across as predictable, underwhelming and in one particular instance, more ghoulish and weird than emotionally impactful. When it’s time to answer the question of Who ya gonna call, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” comes across as a well-intentioned and sincere but unfortunate misdial.