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‘Ghostbusters: Afterlife’ Is an Unexpectedly Nuanced Story of Trauma, Forgiveness, and Healing

lol jk

Yeah, fuck that ghost up, kid.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures/AP

“I played the voice of a toy,” Orson Welles said dismissively of his final role as Unicron in the feature-length ’80s cartoon The Transformers. It was “all bad outer space stuff” about “some terrible robot toys from Japan that change from one thing to another…I play a planet. I menace somebody called Something-or-other. Then I’m destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.”

With each new blockbuster rollout, and each actor’s earnestly related tale of her character’s “journey,” I’m finding it harder not to be nostalgic for the days when movie people were openly cynical about the mercenary aspects of their trade. There’s no shame in a nice fat paycheck. But you know how you and I can’t just have to do our jobs anymore—now we have to love our jobs? Well, stars, they’re just like us. The big cash-ins these days demand complicit investment in the significance of a project. When Chloé Zhao namedrops Malick because she shot parts of her superhero movie in natural light, who even knows where the non-disparagement clause ends and the quasi-sincere rationalization begins anymore.

As a showbiz baby born into this hustle, writer/director Jason Reitman is a special case. But man, has he been shoveling it in advance of Ghostbusters: Afterlife. Making a sequel to the smash hit his father Ivan directed in 1984 “became a metaphor for my own fears about picking up the proton pack myself,” he’s said, as though he’s been reluctantly drawn into the family business like Michael Corleone. Reitman has joked uneasily about his father watching over him, literally seated in a chair beside him, the whole time he was making a movie about his “abandonment issues,” which sounds unbearable no matter how healthy your relationship and also like a very bad way to make any movie—unless you want it to feel as micromanaged as Ghostbusters: Afterlife does.

Now, far be it from me to put words in Carrie Coon’s mouth. She may have had a lovely time filming this movie, and now she gets to go back to prestige TV, where no one requires her to respond to “It’s probably just fracking” with “Well, it’s fracking annoying, that’s what it is.” But I would wholly understand if she blurted to some interviewer: “I play Single Mom, who spends the first half of the movie venting second-hand Spielbergian frustrations about her absent father to help the director process his daddy issues, about five minutes flirting with Paul Rudd, and the rest of the time being confused and concerned by all the special effects.”

So the deal here is, Coon is the daughter of Egon Spengler, one of the original Ghostbusters, which the movie doesn’t quite come out and say right off but who appears in Harold Ramis-like silhouette before he dies. (Ramis himself, who co-wrote the original Ghostbusters script, died in 2014.) She inherits his Oklahoma farmhouse and moves her two kids there. Her son, Trevor, is Finn Wolfhard, who seems as startled as the rest of us by the fact that he’s a teen now. Mckenna Grace is nerdy tween Phoebe, the true heir to her grandfather’s legacy, from her identical eyeglasses to her science acumen to (eventually) her ability to bust ghosts. (Are there some kind of ecto-midichlorians that carry Ghostbusting powers through a family line?)

The kids eventually get a ghost trap working, fire up a proton pack, and even get the old Ecto-1 Cadillac limo up and running. And their reward for all this effort is that they essentially have to act out a slight variation on the original Ghostbusters finale, with a mountain standing in for a skyscraper this time.

As for Rudd, he roams amiably through the film, serving as love interest/exposition channeler/comic foil/whatever’s needed; he has an adorably stressful run-in with some tiny Stay Puft Marshmallow Men in a Gremlins-y supermarket scene. There’s also Podcast (Logan Kim)—and, well, whoever thought it would be cute to introduce a boy with a podcast who calls himself Podcast and always talks like he’s narrating a podcast should be forced to drive across the country with him while he does his schtick. And back again. And I mean a really long country, like Russia.

Still, a bunch of kids stumbling across vintage Ghostbusters gear and learning how to battle the paranormal—that’s not a totally bullshit premise for a movie you’d drop your own kids off at before you go do some shopping. And the all-too-rare moments Ghostbusters: Afterlife allows itself to be that roller coaster of movie are tentative fun.

But Reitman can’t just let these kids have a fucking adventure of their own. Shouldn’t they be allowed to place themselves in age-inappropriate danger, make some fart jokes, maybe even make out a little, without mom, her boyfriend, the reanimated corpse of J.K. Simmons (don’t ask), a team of overpaid IP lawyers, an internet’s worth of experts in Ghostbusters lore, a trio of bored septuagenarian comics (fine, I’m rounding up for Aykroyd), and god knows how many Reitmans helicoptering over their shoulders the whole time?

The ending, even cornier than you think they’d dare, dives headfirst into rank, sentimental ectoplasm. But I hope it brought Jason and Ivan closer together, or drove them further apart, or whatever they wanted. Don’t call us, guys, we’ll call you.

Special Screenings This Week

Thursday, Nov. 18

Castle in the Sky (1986)
AMC Eden Prairie 18/AMC Southdale 16/AMC Rosedale 14
Celebrating the 35th anniversary of the Hayao Miyazaki classic. 7 p.m. More info here. 

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
Parkway Theater
Quentin Tarantino killed Hitler and freed the slaves, and now he’s comin’ for you, Charlie Manson. $9-$12. 8 p.m. More info here.

The Association of Moving Image Archivists Roadshow
Trylon
Promising more than 20 films and videos in 100 minutes, from Mexico, Thailand, and New Zealand, with clips of Louis Jordan, a dancing Bobcat, Baltimore breakdancers, and Jack Lemon’s first screen appearance. Introduced by Minnesota Historical Society Archivist Joe Larsen. $8. 7 p.m. More info here.

Friday, Nov. 19

Fitzcarraldo (1982)
Trylon
An opera lover forces Peruvian natives to carry a ship over a mountain. If you’re only gonna see one film in the Trylon’s Werner Herzog series, this is probably the one. $8. 7 p.m. Also 7 p.m. Saturday, 3 & 6 p.m. Sunday. More info here.

Saturday, Nov. 20

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989)
Alamo Drafthouse
Anyone out there ever seen this one before? $12. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Nov. 21

Gintama THE VERY FINAL (2021)
Area theaters (see below)
The anime series wraps up, promising “This is the actual ending.” Sounds like they mean it. 3 & 7 p.m. Also Monday 7 p.m. More info here.

Monday, Nov. 22

Woyzeck (1979)
Trylon
Not to be confused with Herzog’s Stroszek, screening next week. $8. 7 & 9 p.m. Also Tuesday. More info here.

Opening This Week

Julia
Hey, look! It’s a Julia Child documentary!

King Richard
Will Smith’s first foray into Shakespeare?

Ongoing in Local Theaters

The Addams Family 2
Antlers
Belfast (read our review here)
Clifford the Big Red Dog
Dune (read our review here)
Eternals (read our review here)
The French Dispatch (read our review here)
My Hero Academia: World Heroes’ Mission
No Time to Die (read our review here)
Ron’s Gone Wrong
Spencer (read our review here)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage