By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Carrie Coon, Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Gil Kenan and Jason Reitman
In a film positively swimming in fan service, there’s one “homage”–a walking, talking one–to the original GHOSTBUSTERS that stands out. The normally blonde young actress Mckenna Grace, who faced more serious supernatural peril in THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE and ANNABELLE COMES HOME, is initially unrecognizable in GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE, with unruly dark locks and owlish glasses cuing us in to her heritage. It’s not giving anything away to say that her tween heroine Phoebe is the granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler, played by the late Harold Ramis in the first two GHOSTBUSTERSes. What is just as clear here as in her many previous movies and TV appearances is that Grace is a terrific young talent; she’s not just promising, she has arrived. Carrie Coon, playing Phoebe’s mom Callie, gets top billing in AFTERLIFE, but Grace owns it.
Casting Grace was one of the smartest moves director/co-writer Jason Reitman made in rebooting the franchise begun by his father Ivan (who’s on board here as producer). One of the canniest was to frame this film not as a knockabout comedy, but as a Spielbergian kids’ adventure/fantasy, complete with cinematography (by Eric Steelberg!) that emphasizes backlighting and lens flares and a Rob Simonsen score that evokes the strains of John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith. Thus, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE evokes two different kinds of ’80s nostalgia, guaranteeing its appeal to a wide swath of grown-up fans, while the new emphasis on under-18 ’Busters makes it catnip to the new generation. The calculation of this can’t-lose conception fortunately doesn’t overwhelm the entertainment value, thanks to the sincerity of the younger Reitman’s approach, thought the familiarity becomes a distraction as the movie heads to the finish line.
After a prologue establishing that someone (guess who?) is having trouble wrangling the spectral activity at a remote Oklahoma farmhouse, we’re introduced to Callie, Phoebe and her brother Trevor (STRANGER THINGS’ Finn Wolfhard), on the brink of eviction from their apartment. Fate (crookedly) smiles upon them by delivering a new place to live: that same farmhouse, rundown and barely habitable, which Callie inherits from her recently deceased father. Upon their arrival, the residents of Summerville, OK have few kind words for her dad, but as Phoebe explores around and under the house, she discovers some familiar equipment and other clues as to what he’d been up to. The science-obsessed girl soon realizes, and embraces, her grandfather’s legacy–while the more practical-minded Trevor finds the Ecto-1 in a barn, restores it to working order and takes it out for a joyride.
They’re going to need all that gear and more when ghostly activity in and around Summerville begins going off the charts, and the chief pleasure of AFTERLIFE is watching the formerly withdrawn Phoebe grab onto her newfound busting duties with both hands. She’s a heroine that any viewer of any age can root for, imbued by Grace with vulnerability, smarts and determination as it becomes evident that it might just fall to her to save the world. The rest of the cast is appealing too, in roles that are rather more functional, including the trio of characters neatly slotted in as best-pal/romantic interests: Logan Kim as Podcast, the social-media-fixated kid who befriends Phoebe; Celeste O’Connor as Lucky, Trevor’s crush object who gradually warms to him; and Paul Rudd as Mr. Grooberson, the science teacher who thinks his subject is really cool, and strikes sparks with Callie.
Rudd also carries a good deal of AFTERLIFE’s comic content, which he does ably, and has a major setpiece in an otherwise deserted Walmart where he encounters both a Terror Dog and a swarm of Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men who, this time, stay their normal size. There are a few new creatures introduced in AFTERLIFE, but the emphasis is on old fiends (and even the most prominent fresh “face,” the hungry, corpulent Muncher, is essentially a Slimer stand-in). Reitman handles the action sequences with verve, and, in this more straight-faced film, whips up a few spooky setpieces too, but it would have been cool to see some more originality in the spirit brigade. Particularly in the final act, which is pretty much (and very intentionally) a duplication of that in the ’84 GHOSTBUSTERS with a change of setting.
Throughout, GHOSTBUSTERS: AFTERLIFE trades hard on both the thrill and comedy of recognition, with many totems, lines and callbacks to its predecessor (the first one, of course–there’s not a lot relating to the less-beloved GHOSTBUSTERS II here). Even Ivan Reitman’s much earlier horror/comedy CANNIBAL GIRLS gets a shout-out. Your mileage may vary in terms of how much of this you can handle; to this reviewer, the heart behind this production takes quite a bit of the curse off it. By now, it’s no secret that a few familiar faces turn up to take part in the climactic action, and only the most hardened cynic could avoid getting just a bit of a lump in the throat during certain moments here. However (SPOILER ALERT), it is a shame that Sigourney Weaver is relegated to only a brief bit halfway through the end credits, and that she doesn’t get to share a girl-power scene with Grace. When ALIEN is inevitably remade 15 years or so from now and Grace is cast as Ripley, it’s easy to imagine Weaver smiling in approval.