Nostalgia-driven stories are one of the most frustrating aspects of so many recent sequels to and reboots of past franchises. On the one hand, they’re mostly harmless, and if people enjoy that, then so be it. On the other hand, it’s irritating and even a little sad to see studios and filmmakers exhibit such a lack of confidence in new stories and creators that they continually fall back on rehashes of things that worked before. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife,” the fourth “Ghostbusters” film overall and a sequel to 1989’s “Ghostbusters II,” walks a fine line between old and new: an entertaining throwback to the family movies of the 80s, a son paying tribute to his father’s legacy, a bevy of fun new characters, and a heavy reliance on Easter eggs and a story we’ve seen before.
Set 32 years after the events of “Ghostbusters II,” “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” opens with seemingly little connection to the previous series. After the death of her estranged father, Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon) moves with her two children—disinterested teen Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and plucky science enthusiast Phoebe (Mckenna Grace)—to his crumbling farmhouse in Summerville Oklahoma. The Spenglers have just been evicted from their apartment, but it turns out that Callie’s father didn’t have anything to leave them outside of his house and all his debts. As they struggle to adjust to their new surroundings, Phoebe makes a startling discovery among her grandfather’s belongings. Furthermore, according to Phoebe’s new teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), Summerville has been experiencing intense earthquakes despite not existing on a fault line.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is directed by Jason Reitman, the son of original “Ghostbusters” director Ivan Reitman, from a script by Jason and Gil Kenan. Reitman’s fondness for not just the series but the time period it was made in is apparent throughout. The first hour of the film is its strongest, introducing us to the new characters and inserting references here and there that help gradually build up the mystery of what is happening in Summerville, and what Spengler was doing there that prompted him to abandon his friends and family. Reitman imbues these scenes with a feeling of whimsy and wonder that’s apparent even when the Ghostbusters connection becomes incredibly obvious. It helps too that the new cast is so charming. Coon and Rudd have fantastic chemistry, Grace completely sells her loveable dork turned hero, and Logan Kim as her new friend Podcast (“I call myself that for my podcast”) adds a dose of quirkiness to the crew. Moreover, the complicated feelings of loss and resentment the Spenglers carry for a father and grandfather they never knew are woven throughout the film, lending it a heavy dose of heart that culminates in a lovely tribute to Harold Ramis, the actor who played Egon Spengler in the original films and who passed away in 2014.
It’s the second half of the movie where “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” begins to falter. It remains largely entertaining, and its visuals have a distinctly 80s look and feel that may not be entirely appropriate for a movie set in the present day, but complement the throwback nature of the story well. But it’s toward the end where the film starts to deviate from the new characters it built up, substituting them for a story that feels in some ways like a rehash of the first movie, appearances from creatures like the Stay Puft marshmallow that are cute but unnecessary, and cameos and heavy-handed references that diehard fans of the franchise may appreciate, but that otherwise come off as awkward and forced. It isn’t enough to ruin an otherwise perfectly charming movie, but it feels less like it ends with promoting the next generation of Ghostbusters, and more like it ends in hero worship for the original team. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a fun movie, but I saw more potential for the continuation of the series with Paul Feig’s 2016 all-female reboot. I can see the potential with “Afterlife” too, but much of that is dependent on any future sequel’s willingness to part with nostalgia and place its faith in new characters and stories.
“Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 124 minutes. Rated PG-13.