The “Ghostbusters” franchise has gone through quite a few permutations in the decades since director Ivan Reitman’s original feature was released in 1984. And while the kooky spirit and basic concept of the first film remain unchanged in each iteration, from the two ’90s animated TV series to 2016’s gender-swapped reboot, the property itself is continually in a creative flux. It’s no wonder it’s going through yet another change — and showing marked growing pains in the process. Director/ co-writer Jason Reitman’s “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” hits the reboot button once more, this time carrying a familial cinematic legacy. Yet with all the nostalgia packed into the picture, its own refurbished identity is slightly compromised, functioning as a mimeograph of what came before it.
Rebuilding from the past is the guiding sentiment of this feature, not only in terms of one family renovating their lives, but also in the way Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan reconstruct elements foundational to the franchise (like certain props, characters, and story beats). Financially strapped single mother Callie (Carrie Coon) is facing eviction when she learns that her estranged, reclusive father (whose identity they take great pains to obscure at first) has died and left her his dilapidated farmhouse (which metaphorically mirrors their relationship). With no alternative living arrangements, she and her kids — teen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and tween Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) — pack up the car and head out to the quaint rural town of Summerville, Oklahoma.
As soon as they arrive at the front gates of the inherited estate, the family is greeted by scripture-covered signage harkening the end times. On the surface, it appears Callie’s father went a little loony, letting everything in his life fall into a state of disrepair. But intuitive intellect Phoebe suspects otherwise when clues begin to unravel secrets about her grandfather’s past life as a Ghostbuster and the pesky paranormal phenomena he was investigating at his time of death. Frequent earthquakes have plagued residents for years — all possibly connected to an old mining company with a haunted past on the outskirts of town. As Phoebe assembles the puzzle pieces, a familiar menace emerges, threatening to irreparably fracture her family and bring an end to the world.
Innovation is key and, up until the climax, the filmmakers deliver a fairly creative and mildly entertaining product. The trope of malfunctioning cell phones doubles as a clever way to do away with modern tech for a timeless throwback feel. They make full use of the Ecto-1’s capabilities, tricking it out with a swing-out jump seat and a floor hatch to release an R/C controlled trap, in an exciting action-forward sequence where the kids pursue a metal-masticating, corpulent blue ghost named Muncher (voiced by Josh Gad). Reitman doubles down on his dad’s indelible Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, delivering many delightfully sadistic miniature versions who roast, skewer and melt each other during a hilarious montage of mayhem in a Walmart.
Technical aspects beautifully build off the original. Composer Rob Simonsen’s score pays homage to Elmer Bernstein’s classic, unforgettable themes while establishing its own unique soundscape with similar instrumentation of woodwinds, strings, and heavy brass. Frequent collaborator Eric Steelberg’s cinematography is subtly influenced by László Kovács’s approach, simultaneously augmenting narrative undertones with his own hallmark grounded, humanistic touch. Plus, François Audouy’s production design and Danny Glicker’s costumes put clever spins on iconic moments from the ’84 film.
Grace is tasked to carry much of the film on her shoulders and she handles it with aplomb. She turns in an astute, captivating, vibrant performance as the film’s beating heart. Her droll delivery and natural ease with repartee work perfectly to enhance the comedic overtones. Coon’s work is filled with a palpable sense of vulnerability, soul and dry wit.
It’s refreshing to see a subversion of the male-driven “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II,” with the female characters developed better than most of the males. Callie’s daddy issues are written with depth and dimension, and are informed by compelling internal and external stakes. Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), the restless daughter of the town sheriff (played by a shockingly-underused Bokeem Woodbine), is shown with a bit more internality than Trevor, who’s crushing on her. His defining characteristic is his driving skill: He can get sideways in the Ecto-1 like he’s in “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” and barrel down main street in a pursuit as if he’s in “Bullit.”
However, other characters are awash with confusing creative decisions. Phoebe, who mentions she doesn’t process emotion like everyone else (hinting she’s “on the spectrum”), isn’t given much in the way of internally motivated obstacles to surmount. She’s treated like the stereotypical “awkward new kid,” though she’s anything but: Her perceived disability is brilliantly used as an asset from the start, and she’s continually spotlit as capable, fearless and fairly confident. She even becomes fast friends with Podcast (Logan Kim), a gregarious, inquisitive classmate named after his chosen profession. Her summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd) is passionate about science and seismology, but instead of teaching class, he plops his students in front of a VCR.
Still, what threatens to undermine much of our goodwill takes place in the film’s nostalgia-fueled finale, where nothing is sacred and the spectacle culminates in all-too familiar patterns. All the risks taken up until that point to deepen character drive and further thematic profundity on forgiveness, friendship and familial strife are given an entirely expected safe landing. Add to this a run time of two-hours plus, where every minute is felt, and this new journey feels a bit more busted than one would hope.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” opens in theaters on November 19.