Jason Reitman’s take on his father’s original films finds a difficult balance
With Hollywood playing it safe with films from now on, it’s hard to truly exhume much originality with blockbuster fare. As such we are resorted to an endless revisiting of dusty IP. However, this remodeling can be enjoyable, if one learns to balance the shell of nostalgia with a meaty interior. This difficult balance is achieved with the newest Ghostbusters movie.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) is the third official film in the Ghostbusters series, but the fourth overall after the failed reboot Ghostbusters (2016). Afterlife follows Callie (Carrie Coon), the daughter that original ghostbuster Spengler (the late Harold Ramis) walked out on. Now a single mom with two children Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace), and struggling financially, Callie is forced to move into the crumbly farm in the middle of Oklahoma that her father left in his will. As the family moves there during the summer, they begin to slowly uncover the peculiarities around the place.
Afterlife is directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed the first two Ghostbuster films. Jason has cut his teeth in mid-budget fare that is slowly disappearing in Hollywood. The likes of Juno (2007) or Up in the Air (2009) are films that would find it hard to get made today. As such a shift to the franchising that studios are undergoing seems like his only path. However, Reitman isn’t diluted in his style and craft by the weight of the IP. The American director manages the difficult balance of offering a new story to those uninitiated in the franchise, while throwing morsels to us nerds that have been Ghostbusting for years.
It is the “nerd” element that is most gratefully restored in Afterlife. The 2016 reboot had devolved into a CGI action-comedy extravaganza that lost its initial charm. Reitman brings back this ode to nerds by donning Afterlife with the air of curiosity and wonder that all aspiring scientists have. This is most clearly encapsulated in the character of Phoebe, who is a recluse genius who begins to bond with the local science teacher Grooberson (Paul Rudd). It is when these characters let loose on their passions that Afterlife truly recalls the excitement of the original film.
In crafting the tone for Afterlife, Reitman smartly steers away from the comedic elements for a more family-centered tale. The ambience is rightfully ensconced with the creepiness that made the original film have truly scary moments. There is also a clear inspiration taken from the 1980s small-town Spielberg films. This is evident even in the music by Rob Simonsen, which is extremely John Williams-y. However, what truly makes Afterlife work is Reitman’s ability to reduce the scale of the story to that of a struggling family trying to find their footing. Coon is spectacular in the mother role that once again feels two small for the most underrated actress of today. Rudd is as solid and strong as he is ageless. Wolfhard is fine, coasting on a similar vibe to his Stranger Things (2016-) appearances, but Afterlife truly lies on the shoulders of the young Grace. McKenna Grace has proved to be a ubiquitous and extremely talented child actor. Afterlife might be the biggest display she’s had in the spotlight since her surprise-hit tearjerker Gifted (2017), and she truly makes a spectacular use of it. Phoebe could have very easily devolved into a stereotypically nerdy kid, but Grace manages to find a depth and emotional weight to her that are truly affecting.
Reitman admirably chooses restraint throughout much of the film, be it in character moments, exposition, or even action scenes. His use of practical effects, both as a nod to the original as well as aesthetic choice is incredibly refreshing, given the CGI splattered films that have taken over the world. However, it is in the finale that these subtleties and balance is tipped over. The third act soon begins to feel awfully familiar. That’s not to say that fan service moments aren’t delightful to watch, but they do bring down the harder work that Afterlife had undergone to distinguish itself from past films. As a result, the climax of this film becomes both alienating and predictable. However, there is a very touching tribute to the late Ramis that only stone-hearted viewers will be unaffected by.
In the end, Ghostbusters: Afterlife proved to be a rather delightful surprise. Reitman takes the reins in an effective manner and finds a very difficult balance between nostalgia and originality. The film is anchored by a strong performance from Grace and begs more from the rich contributions of Rudd and Coon. While the finale might devolve to unoriginal beats and an overindulgence in fan service, it doesn’t take too much away from a sequel that finally lives up to its original film.