Ghostbusters: Afterlife

It takes courage to make a Ghostbusters movie that isn't a straight comedy. The risk of alienating the audience by giving them something other than what they expect is front and center. Jason Reitman, son of original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman, deserves credit for taking that risk with Ghostbusters: Afterlife. There are several hilarious scenes of supernatural silliness here, including an encounter with a Slimer-like apparition and a sequence involving mini-Stay Puft marshmallow men. More often, though, the tone has the dark, mysterious feel of something like Stranger Things. The story is slow to start, and shifting between the two approaches isn't always smooth, but once you get beyond that, this sequel proves to be an entertaining and meaningful modern-day take on the beloved franchise.

Callie (Carrie Coon) has just been evicted from the apartment she shares with daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) and teenage son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard). The only place for them to move is into the ramshackle old house in a dead-end Oklahoma town that she inherited from her deceased absentee father. Not long after moving in, the kids find unusual objects around the home. Trevor discovers an old white conversion car out in the barn, while Phoebe stumbles across a weird meter of some sort, as well as a trap-like gizmo. Phoebe shows them to Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a seismologist moonlighting as a summer school teacher. He tells her that her family may have a connection to one of the fabled Ghostbusters who saved New York City back in the '80s.

Do they ever. As paranormal activity begins spiking across the town, Phoebe and Trevor have to learn how to use the tools they've discovered. Fortunately, an unseen spirit is present to guide them.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife has a lot of elements I've become tired of in “brand” movies – cameos, Easter egg references, an overdose of nostalgia, etc. We've gotten to a point where studios lean too heavily on such fan service. Part of it stems from a desire to protect the franchise so they can keep cranking out sequels. Another part of it is simply lack of imagination. Too many directors believe that stringing together bits and pieces designed to elicit a flash of recognition from the audience is the equivalent of actual storytelling.

What's the difference this time? I think it's intent. Reitman and co-writer Gil Kenan (Monster House) are trying to build directly on the legacy of the original Ghostbusters. The plot envisions what might have happened to the business started by Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, and Egon Spengler after they captured all the ghosts and restored sanity to the world. In other words, the cameos and references don't feel tossed in, they feel thoughtfully incorporated. By the time of the finale, which contains yet another gimmick I usually despise (but won't reveal), you can see the game plan in its entirety. Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn't cynical about the fictional world it's playing in. It loves the characters and scenarios created by Ivan Reitman, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis decades ago, and strives to find new substance within them.

Beyond that, the mixture of old and new works. Mckenna Grace is terrific as Phoebe, the science-loving kid who forms an important connection with a spirit. She's funny, especially in the character's penchant for telling dumb jokes. In the dramatic scenes, the young actress demonstrates an ability to hit the right emotional beats without causing them to feel manipulative. Carrie Coon and Finn Wolfhard are also good, and Paul Rudd skillfully brings the hardcore comedic element. Toss in those aforementioned cameos and you get a nice passing of the torch from one generation of Ghostbusters to the next.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife's paranormal scenes are highly enjoyable. Any fan of the series will love seeing the Ecto-1 speeding recklessly through a field, or watching Phoebe learn how to use one of the ghost traps. One scene, with Gary facing down some spirits in a Walmart, is particularly inspired, capturing the kind of zany energy that defined the original. Perhaps the most notable quality, though, is how the film uses its concept to pay tribute to the late Harold Ramis. No Ghostbusters movie has had the level of heart that this one does.

The slightly uneven tone doesn't ultimately detract too badly. Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives fans stuff it knows they'll love, while simultaneously spinning that stuff off into a pleasing new direction. You can sense the affection with which the movie was made.

out of four

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is rated PG-13 for supernatural action and some suggestive references. The running time is 2 hours and 4 minutes.