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Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021)::rating::3::rating::3

This review will represent a savage battle fought between my mind and heart. After all, the former is completely aware that Ghostbusters: Afterlife is a blatant attempt to cash in on the most lucrative currency in all of pop culture: Nostalgia. Meanwhile, my inner goob is a total sucker for proton packs, Trotsky-colored coveralls, and the whiny siren of Ecto 1. Over the course of this film, both combatants have plenty of evidence to demolish it as the embodiment of either greedy cynicism or undiluted sentimentality. So, who wins that brawl? Strangely enough, it’s my gut, which says that moviegoers will look within the very soul of this sequel and see exactly what they want to see.

Normally, I would caution that spoilers are coming, but if you haven’t seen Ghostbusters, I honestly don’t know what to say. If that is the case, this will be like one of those job interviews where the boss gives you a tour of the office that ends with the alleyway and a dumpster full of raccoons. If you haven’t seen Ghostbusters (I’ll even give you a pass on II), you’re basically telling me you haven’t seen the Mona Lisa at the Louvre or the Grand Canyon at sunset. I mean, what the hell have you been doing with your life? Should this review actually contain spoilers, I’ll assume the wolves who raised you didn’t have access to DirectTV.

Anywho, Afterlife takes place 30 years after the events of Part II. Much like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises, the Ghostbusters have done such a good job bustin’ that their very line of work has gone extinct. They fracture in four different directions, with Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis, who passed in 2014) playing the role of curmudgeonly doomsayer: He warns anyone who’ll listen that this newfound tranquility is simply the eye of the hurricane. Judgment Day is still boiling on the horizon.

We then cut to the film’s primary storyline, in which a struggling family relocates to some podunk burg in Oklahoma. Callie (Carrie Coon) is an amiable single mom who constantly stresses about providing a roof for her two kids and dealing with their disparate emotional needs: Fifteen-year-old Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) can almost taste the tantalizing independence that comes with a driver’s license and a job at the local greasy spoon. Meanwhile, his little sister Phoebe (McKenna Grace) is an introverted geek who seems to have an intuitive gift for anything scientific.

Turns out, Phoebe’s genius is no accident: Callie is Egon’s estranged daughter. We learn that long ago, Egon abandoned his family to investigate and contain an apocalyptic threat brewing near the town of Summerville, Oklahoma. When he tragically dies, the icky, snuff-film mansion where Egon conducted his research goes to Callie and her kids. Although they aren’t thrilled with the new digs, even a murder-house beats the streets.

As the family gets acclimated, they start to learn more about Egon and his supernatural business there. The locals referred to him as “the Dirt Farmer,” and regarded him as nothing more than a harmless, gibbering kook. Of course, the Spenglers slowly find that not only was Egon onto something, but these discoveries may have implications for his long-lost relatives, as well.

It also goes without saying that our plucky family inevitably meets cute with the local population. The film tastefully avoids the trope of showcasing Small Town America as the exclusive dominion of grinning, banjo-plucking idiots. Just about everybody we meet in Summerville feels like a three-dimensional person: Gary (Paul Rudd) is a gifted seismologist who’s currently stuck babysitting summer school delinquents. Logan Kim plays the aptly-nicknamed Podcast, a precocious little boy who totes a shotgun mic and tape recorder in the ambitious hope that a new episode will spring up any minute. Finally, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor) is an older girl who works at the diner and gives Trevor a very real reason to like Summerville.

In an ironic twist, much of Afterlife feels a lot like Stranger Things, which itself drew inspiration from the original Ghostbusters. (It even underlines this point by shoplifting Wolfhard from that series.) You can also easily spot Spielbergian flashes of Goonies, Poltergeist, and E.T. Put another way: The first two acts of this movie are only loosely tethered to the franchise mythology. Sure, we get generous helpings of Elmer Bernstein’s bouncy score and a few YouTube clips of the original movie. Otherwise, this resembles just about any other modern pastiche of 80s event cinema.

Oddly enough, this first chunk of the movie actually works best. Grace, playing the Nerdy Girl of Destiny, delivers a performance that’s both endearing and funny. Rudd supplies the film with emotional ballast, while also never taking any of its goofiness too seriously. His character serves as the dorky father figure Phoebe never knew she needed, and the freewheeling fun that stirs romantic interest in the burned-out Callie. Even Wolfhard and O’Connor share a few genuine moments of teenage awkwardness.

I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say the movie goes full Ghostbusters for its final stretch. And…it goes so hard that it’s difficult to sift through all my feelings. On one hand, this isn’t just fan service–director Jason Reitman (son of original director Ivan) delivers an ice-bucket drench of 80s nostalgia. There are big cameos, callbacks to the first film, and even some poignant moments that address the loss of Ramis. These scenes deliver a lot of what franchise fans have been waiting decades to see.

On the other: Oscar Wilde once observed that when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. Yes, it’s great to see these familiar faces, and bustin’ makes me feel good. But, I also get what J.J. Abrams was talking about when he said that Luke Skywalker was almost impossible to shoehorn into the script for The Force Awakens. In earlier drafts, Luke would pop up in the story, and his character would absolutely dominate everything else in the movie. That’s kinda what happens in Afterlife. Once the series legends arrive, it’s difficult to pay attention to the story that’s been developed thus far.

And that’s really a symptom of a bigger issue: Iconic franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Ghostbusters have lived long enough to become victims of their own success. On a personal level, those aren’t just movies. They’re a big reason why I fell in love with movies, and rewatching them makes me feel like a little kid again. Now imagine millions of fans just like me. Any filmmaker who reboots or builds on those franchises has to contend with that, and many–if not most–have been roasted for even trying.

On that front, Afterlife somehow fails and succeeds at the same time. Even if it could never be the Ghostbusters III we always wanted, this still manages to be a fairly decent sci-fi flick. It’s well-acted, well-made, and never boring. My heart says this movie is worth four stars, while my brain wants to take that down to two and a half. So let’s go with my gut, which suspects the real answer lies somewhere in between.

125 min. PG-13. In theaters.

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