‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is indeed haunted. But it’s not just the likes of Muncher and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man that need to be zapped into proton packs. This film is haunted by the specter of the legacy of the 1984 “Ghostbusters,” which isn’t just lurking around the edges but literally baked into its DNA. Co-writer and director Jason Reitman is the son of Ivan Reitman, who directed “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II,” and Reitman the younger has described “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” as a family movie, on screen and behind the camera, with his father offering input on set.
The result is a tedious and juvenile project so slavishly devoted to the original that it’s cringeworthy. Yet, it doesn’t manage to capture the essence of what made that supernatural slacker comedy appealing at the time (that honor would go to Paul Feig’s 2016 all-female reboot, but no one wants to have that conversation).
Where “Ghostbusters” was irreverent, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is deeply reverent. The tone is far more 1980s Stephen Spielberg than it is 1980s Ivan Reitman, and it’s aimed squarely at a very young audience, even though it seems this franchise keeps being refreshed for the 40-year-olds for whom “Ghostbusters” remains a beloved memento of childhood. And yet, for a film that’s trying so very hard to be Amblin, there’s little sense of wonder, or suspense, or adventure. It’s formulaic storytelling embroidered with tired “Ghostbusters” references.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” brings a new family into the ghostbusting dynasty, which includes a single mom, Callie (Carrie Coon), and her two kids: brainy tween Phoebe (Mckenna Grace of “The Handmaid’s Tale”) and gawky teen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things” and “It”). Callie is a bit of a loser, bad with money and down on her luck. When her estranged father dies and she inherits his property, she hauls her kids off to rural Oklahoma to investigate the value of his ramshackle old dirt farm. As one might surmise, said farm is bursting with mysterious artifacts and ghost-hunting gear. With Phoebe’s round glasses, mop of dark, curly hair and skill with numbers, anyone with even the most casual passing interest in “Ghostbusters” can see where this family story is going.
As a slice of nostalgic kiddie adventure inserted into “Ghostbusters” lore, where the script should, or could, be earnest, rather, it is sarcastic and dripping in irony. As dirtbag mom Callie, the talented Carrie Coon is saddled with aping the style of disaffected cool that only Bill Murray can pull off. The character and her sardonic dynamic with her children doesn’t work, and the quip-overload dialogue feels instantly dated. It doesn’t help that Phoebe’s best friend is a character nicknamed “Podcast” (Logan Kim), which might have felt somewhat fresh and relevant several years ago. Nevertheless, Kim is charming, and he brings the comic relief that this otherwise humorless film so desperately needs.
In trying to please everyone, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” should ultimately please no one except the most hardcore of fans whose idea of a fun time at the movies is pointing at things they’ve seen before. There’s no sense of a distinct perspective or anything to say at all; it treats the original movie’s silly gags as sacred mythology, but because that film never took anything seriously, there’s no meaning in the imagery. It’s just there to recognize, for a fan to feel a sense of belonging within the familiarity of a totem or a catchphrase. Reitman has described “Afterlife” as “the greatest Easter egg hunt of all time,” which is one of the darkest statements on the state of blockbuster moviemaking today, demonstrating the idolization of intellectual property that sidelines all original storytelling for nakedly transparent and manipulative fan service in pursuit of the bottom line. And that’s the scariest story of all.
In theaters Nov. 19.
What “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” • 1½ stars out of four • Run time 2:04 • Rating PG-13 for supernatural action and some suggestive references