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Ghostbusters: Afterlife collapses under fan-baiting nostalgia

Review: Out now, the latest sequel promises a fun dose of freaky ghosts but the Easter eggs edge out most of the good stuff.

Ghostbusters Afterlife

Ghostbusters: Afterlife aims to give the franchise a new lease on life.

Sony

Ghostbusters: Afterlife, in theaters now, is a direct sequel and unabashed ode to the beloved 1984 spook-zapping comedy... and the Ghostbusters toys, the Ghostbusters cartoon and just general nostalgia for the good old days. Sure, Afterlife makes some effort to chart a new direction for the specter-detecting franchise. But it's directed by Jason Reitman with input from his father Ivan Reitman, director of the original films, and it's absolutely stuffed with fan-baiting references to the '80s originals that pile up until they completely overpower any spark of originality.

Don't get me wrong -- I love Ghostbusters. I had the lunchbox. I bought the comics. I still have a cracked front tooth that I smashed going face-first off a picnic table while chasing "a ghost" when I was 9. So yeah, I got a kick out of some parts of Afterlife. In the opening scenes, for example, if you recognize the PKE meter you'll understand the significance of the spook-spotting gizmo lighting up as it detects a certain spectral presence. That moment in Afterlife, which connected the franchise's goofy ghosts with actual real death for perhaps the first time, gave me a genuine chill.

To start with, Afterlife does try to forge its own identity. By relocating the original film's smart-ass urban setting to nowheresville, Oklahoma (technically, Summerville, Oklahoma), Afterlife taps into a different vein of horror. The whole point of the original film's New York City setting was the comic incongruity of the supernatural shenanigans, but Afterlife brings in rural horror staples like a sinister house jutting from a hill, unsettling outbuildings and creepily rustling cornfields. 

Mckenna Grace and Stranger Things star Finn Wolfhard are new kids in this one-horse hamlet when their mysterious grandfather dies in mysterious circumstances. Grace, the Emmy-nominated star of The Handmaid's Tale, I Tonya and The Haunting of Hill House, furrows her brow and steals the show as a pint-size scientist who holds the key to completing grandpa's work (which just might involve saving the world).

Netflix hit Stranger Things recycled and remixed teen fantasies of the '80s like Ghostbusters and The Goonies, and now Stranger Things DNA is injected back into the source material as a crew of four preteens, including Wolfhard and a socially awkward but unusually capable girl, tackle supernatural menace in rural America. It's basically what someone who hasn't seen Stranger Things probably thinks Stranger Things is.

And the nostalgia-fest doesn't just extend to the franchise Easter eggs. The soundtrack is mostly classic soul songs, and the social hub of Summerville is a roller hop. Cellphones are jettisoned in the first 10 minutes, which you'd assume is the usual horror movie get-out clause but actually never figures into the plot. It seems the filmmakers just wanted to hark back to an older time, a sun-dappled childhood that may only exist in this kind of big-screen fantasy where misfit kids are also ace mechanics who flirt with each other up at the spooky old mine on the edge of town.

Among the grownups, Carrie Coon has little to do but fret while staying several steps behind the kids, while a reliably amiable Paul Rudd ambles through the film as essentially a spectator. But that's fine, because the kids are fun to hang out with while they uncover the town's mysteries (which old-school 'Busters fans will have already worked out, obvs). The film is at its most appealing when they're carving their own personalities and breathing new life into old ideas.

But the more they step into the shoes (and coveralls) of the original Ghostbusters, the more the old ideas elbow their way back in. The third act is a case of diminishing returns as more fan-pleasing references and Easter eggs are hurled at the screen like a speed run through a prop museum. It's telling that when one of the most loved original props takes center stage for a big action sequence, it draws not on what's seen in the original film but on the toy that was based on the cartoon that was based on the film. 

Afterlife desperately wants to be a tribute to the original, but it's really powered by the silted layers of commercialized nostalgia obscuring the utterly brilliant core idea of a gang of nerds zapping monsters.

Time and countless spinoffs (and the 2016 all-female version's death spiral into culture war) have enshrined the franchise with a weight and sanctity that seem pretty weird when you actually watch the originals. Ghostbusters '84 was an irreverent, chain-smoking Saturday Night Live spinoff, not some profound meditation on life and loss. So by the time you get to Afterlife's lumberingly sentimental, horribly derivative and cringily reverent ending, it's hard to believe this is the same series that threw out a gag about Dan Aykroyd being blown by a poltergeist.

One last quick question: Have you ever seen those really fancy toy statues? You know, the ones with sculpted lifelike heads and 20 different screen-accurate teeny-tiny accessories? The ones that come in a hand-numbered box and cost like a hundred bucks? The care and attention and reverence that go into those Ghostbusters collectibles makes them look absolutely accurate to the films, but the exacting detail and dead-eyed replica faces have nothing to do with the wit and life and spark of the actual people, the actual stuff that made you love those kooky Ghostbusters in the first place. By the time Afterlife's cynical finale rolls round to an inevitable (and frankly bizarre) post-credits scene, it feels like there isn't much of the spirit of the original films left.

Like I said, I had the lunchbox, but even I'm not buying what Afterlife ends up selling.