There have been far too many sequels and reboots coming out of Hollywood that are obvious money grabs. But “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” out now in theaters and doing gangbuster business, while both a sequel and a reboot, succeeds as a nostalgia trip and on its own terms.
The reason why is that the film not only provides some laughs and excitement, but also taps into something deeper than the usual comedy. In following the exploits of the grandchildren of original Ghostbuster Egon Spengler (the most nerdy one, famously portrayed by the late, great Harold Ramis) as they take on a supernatural infestation in the heartland of rural America, it draws strongly on the desire so many of us have to connect in some way with our beloved ancestors.
The rural backdrop also provides a fresh setting for the ghostly adventures, after the first two “Ghostbusters” movies and the unfortunately awful female-driven 2016 reboot all took place in New York City. Here, a single mom named Callie (Carrie Coon) moves to her recently deceased dad’s creepy house (called “the murder house” by one wisecracking person in the nearest town) with her two teenage kids Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (Mckenna Grace).
Nerdy Phoebe catches on first that something strange is afoot at the house and its sprawling surrounding farm, dubbed the “dry farm” because it consists of dry land and no crops. Poking around the house, she comes across the proton-shooting guns and ghost traps that Egon brought with him after he fell out with his fellow Ghostbusters years ago and moved to the middle of nowhere.
Meanwhile, Trevor finds the Ghostbusters’ Ectomobile in the garage and brings it back to life, unaware of its superpowered capabilities. When the town keeps getting hit with earthquake-like tremors, despite the fact that it’s nowhere near a traditional fault line, the siblings learn from their science teacher (Paul Rudd) that the shaking has been inexplicably growing in strength and frequency for quite some time.
Of course, it turns out that there are plenty of ghosts and other spiritual phenomena coming to life and emanating from a mineshaft outside of town. And as all hell starts to break loose, Phoebe and Trevor spring into action to save the world – with the eventual assistance of the surviving original Ghostbusters (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson).
Throughout all the action, Phoebe also encounters interactions with her grandfather Egon, first as he invisibly moves chess pieces on a board that she finds in the house and eventually in more substantial form. How director Jason Reitman and his co-writer Gil Kenan handle that vital aspect of the film is at once marvelous and touching to behold, providing a powerful emotional catharsis that is both unexpected and welcome on top of the special effects shenanigans.
“Afterlife” is a far better movie than either “Ghostbusters 2” or the femme-centric 2016 film, particularly in establishing characters you care about and in a fantastic action set piece midway through the film, in which the kids give chase to a ghost throughout their town at high speed with lasers firing away. Rudd largely disappears halfway through the movie, but he was likely just box office insurance so the movie’s big budget could get financed in spite of the young stars who are unknown on the big screen. Best of all, the movie has maintained or even surpassed the earlier films’ family-friendly qualities (it is rated PG-13), as this is a movie that teens and adults can watch and enjoy together.
The film’s obvious heart and attention to detail in syncing up perfectly with the now 37-year-old original comes from the fact that Reitman is the son of the original film’s comedy-legend director Ivan Reitman. Ivan is the lead producer on the film, and the script and resulting movie have the full support of Bill Murray, who hated the 2016 film and was forced to play a different character in that film as a cameo due to a legal loophole in his contract.
A key scene in making this all work so well comes when the kids call the Ghostbusters’ phone number that they see in YouTube videos of their 1980s ads and Ray Stantz (Aykroyd) answers. He explains why the team fell apart, recounting fictional events that parallel the sad split that occurred between the real-life Murray and Ramis after a difficult shoot together on 1993’s “Groundhog Day.”
It took over 20 years for that pair of comedy legends to reconcile as Ramis approached death in 2014 from a rare disease, but the way the movie handles Egon’s passing here is done with love and appreciation for Ramis as both a friend and costar (and cowriter of the first two “Ghostbusters” films). While the movie puts most of the heroics in the teens’ hands, viewers who stick around through the end credits will be rewarded with a great setup for yet another sequel that will put the action back in New York with the originals in charge again.
(“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is rated PG-13.)
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