Summerville, Oklahoma, is a charming small town with a mysterious secret. The familiar setup of “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” brings to mind the paranormal, Midwest nostalgia of Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” a comparison that is even more clear with the casting of the show’s star Finn Wolfhard as 15-year-old Trevor. The sweet yet unoriginal homage aims to please everyone by catering to sentimental adult fans in the audience, with lots of Easter eggs and familiar cameos, but it also desperately wants kids to relate to the preteen main characters. The result is a toothless, predictable sequel that ultimately fails to leave anyone fully satisfied.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is the newest installment in the supernatural franchise, released more than 30 years after “Ghostbusters” and “Ghostbusters II.” Unlike the 2016 all-female reboot, which ignores the history of the four original paranormal vigilantes, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” builds upon it and adds a new chapter to the story. The film follows Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and Trevor as they learn about the ghost-busting past of grandfather Egon Spengler, played by the late Harold Ramis, who appears via archival footage. Director Jason Reitman, son of director Ivan Reitman of the 1984 and 1989 films, bears the legacy of the original movies just as Phoebe carries on her family’s tradition as a ghostbuster in her own right.
Yet, nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake is not a good enough reason for a sequel. Though it’s clear that Rietman genuinely hoped to pay tribute to his father’s work, all the quirky gadgets in the world — proton pack, ghost trap, ectomobile — don’t make up for a lack of consistency and originality. Each familiar prop lingers on screen for a moment too long, as if to say “Ha! See? Did you catch that?” It’s cute but superficial and ultimately detracts from the story at hand.
Instead, it’s the characters that bring heart to the supernatural comedy. Paul Rudd plays deadbeat summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson and convenient love interest for the kids’ single mom (Carrie Coon). Versatile and talented, Grace excels as Phoebe the lovable science whiz, and her off-beat chemistry with breakout star Logan Kim — who plays aspiring journalist Podcast — keeps the movie’s momentum going. Phoebe’s dad jokes are witty enough to elicit a groan and a chuckle from the audience, but nothing can beat the ridiculous hilarity of the first film, or even the 2016 version’s “Saturday Night Live”-style comedy.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” however, becomes silly and over-the-top at the end as it devolves into what can only be called camp, which is not necessarily a bad thing — after all, that was part of the original’s charm — but it’s a choice that doesn’t fit with the earnest tone of the first half. The sci-fi drag queen that is the ancient deity Gozer alongside the glowing red eyes and thundering voices of the Keymaster and Gatekeeper make for a goofy, fantastical romp down memory lane. Even the Stay Puft marshmallow man makes an adorable but unexplained appearance in the form of hundreds of tiny cannibalistic, gelatinous creatures. It’s only Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Ernie Hudson, who appear in a predictable cameo, that abandon all pretense of gravitas to embrace the playful fun.
To give the film credit, it’s not merely fan service or an obvious cash grab in the way that other franchises often beat a dead horse with more and more sequels until it stops coughing up money. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is an earnest attempt to conjure up the spirits of the first cult classic, but in the end, it proves that sometimes it’s better to leave the ghosts of the past in the ancient Sumerian temple where they came from.