Well, this has certainly been a longtime coming. The original 1984 Ghostbusters remains one of the most beloved comedies of all time. It’s one of those movies that helped define its decade and shape a generation. Simply put, Ghostbusters was a phenomenon.
Despite being an adult-oriented comedy, its fun, supernatural premise made Ghostbusters one of those movies that won over audiences of all ages, with toylines, video games and a popular cartoon series released in its wake. Such franchising may seem commonplace these days, but in 1984, the only other movie that had that kind of impact was Star Wars, released seven years prior. One would think with the level of success Ghostbusters reached, that we would have seen many Ghostbusters sequels by this point.
Five years after the first film, Ghostbusters II was released. Though a modest success, it failed to reach the critical and commercial heights of its predecessor (though the sequel has gained more appreciation in the years since). While it’s understandable that the humbler success of Ghostbusters II slowed things down, this was still Ghostbusters we’re talking about. A third film (and more) seemed inevitable. Yet fans waited and waited for years and years and years, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ never materialized.
It wasn’t for lack of trying. Series creator, co-writer and co-star Dan Aykroyd had ideas planned out, and even scripts written in various different forms over the years. I can’t remember a time growing up in which there weren’t talks of Ghostbusters III nearing production. And yet, it never happened. Despite being one of the biggest hits of the 1980s, one of the earliest blockbusters, and one of the most popular film franchises in history, Ghostbusters – as far as the movies went – seemed locked in the 80s.
Fast-forward to 2009, which saw the release of Ghostbusters: The Video Game on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Not only did the game bring back the original cast to voice their respective characters, it was even based on several of the potential Ghostbusters III ideas. The game’s success, and the fact it was able to nab the cast (including Bill Murray, who was previously reluctant to return to the franchise) revitalized studio interest in possibly producing a third Ghostbusters film. A few more years went by, and still, nothing came about.
Sadly, in 2014, actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis – who portrayed Ghostbuster Egon Spengler and wrote the first two films alongside Aykroyd – passed away. This halted plans for Ghostbusters 3 yet again, which eventually lead to Columbia and Sony deciding to outright reboot the franchise.
It didn’t go well.
The 2016 reboot ended up being a box office bomb and was, sadly, one of those things that became unnecessarily politicized due to its all female cast, with studios all too willing to vilify disappointed fans, and blaming its lackluster box office run on sexism (Wonder Woman and Frozen say hello, by the way). In actuality, it was the nature of rebooting the Ghostbusters outright that was so deflating to fans (myself included). Again, we weren’t talking about a franchise that already had several sequels and was in need of a fresh start. Ghostbusters bizarrely halted after its second entry, and ‘Ghostbusters III’ always seemed to be floating around. Fans simply wanted it to become a reality. A reboot was not something that anyone asked for.
Finally, in 2019, it seemed like Ghostbusters III was actually happening, with Ghostbusters: Afterlife being revealed by director Jason Reitman (son of Ivan Reitman, the director of the original two films). The movie was originally scheduled for a Summer 2020 release, but we all know how 2020 ended up, and the film’s release was delayed by over a year.
So here we are, thirty-two years after Ghostbusters II, and audiences are finally getting a follow-up to the classic 1980s films. Being thirty-two years old myself as of this writing, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is, in a way, a movie I have waited my whole life to see.
Though it isn’t the movie that I (and I think others) ultimately wanted, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still provides an entertaining feature that plays out more like a love letter to Ghostbusters, and a fun way for today’s kids to jump into the series, if maybe not the proper Ghostbusters III we’ve waited ever so patiently to see.
Appropriately set thirty-two years after the defeat of Vigo the Carpathian, the Ghostbusters have long-since disbanded due to the lack of supernatural activity in New York City. Right off the bat, that’s a little disappointing. Knowing that the Ghostbusters didn’t have any further adventures in between Ghostbusters II and Afterlife is kind of a bummer. The film could have at least said the ghost activity quieted down after another decade or so, to at least let us imagine the shenanigans the Ghostbusters could have gotten into together during that time.
Anyway, as the Ghostbusters went their separate ways, only Egon Spengler continued his research on the supernatural. These studies eventually lead him to the small town of Summerville, Oklahoma, a town founded by the Gozerian cultist Ivo Shandor (who was mentioned in the original film, and served as the villain in the 2009 video game). Sadly, Egon has recently passed away due to a heart attack, leaving his Summerville farmland to his estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon).
Callie has recently been evicted from her apartment in the city, and moves into her father’s farm with her two kids, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace), who never knew their grandfather and are unaware that he was a Ghostbuster. Though neither kid is too enthusiastic about living in the dilapidated farm, Trevor quickly takes to the new town, getting a Summer job at a restaurant to be close to his new crush, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor). The more socially awkward Phoebe has a tougher time fitting in, but manages to find a friend in a kid who calls himself ‘Podcast’ (Logan Kim). Though Phoebe is more interested in the ghostly presence that seems to be living in the farm than she is with the town itself.
Naturally, as time goes by, the Spengler kids begin to unearth their family history. Phoebe discovers her grandfather’s secret room, where he kept most of his Ghostbusters equipment, while Trevor repairs the Ectomobile hiding out in the shed. Additionally, Phoebe’s Summer school teacher, Gary Grooberson (Paul Rudd), a lifelong admirer of the Ghostbusters, helps the kids learn of their grandfather’s work.
Of course, with Summerville being founded by Ivo Shandor, there’s going to be more to the town than meets the eye. And Summerville hides a secret that connects it to the evil, interdimensional entity Gozer.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is undeniably a fun movie: It plays up the fanservice for the series and introduces us to some fun new characters, it’s a well-acted picture (with particular praise going to McKenna Grace, who fittingly makes Phoebe a young, female version of Egon), and the visual effects are quite good. But the film does hit a few bumps in the road.
Let’s get to the elephant in the room right away: the original Ghostbusters cast are barely in the movie. Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson and Dan Aykroyd all return as Peter Venkman, Winston Zeddemore and Ray Stantz (respectively), but only for a few all-too-brief moments of screentime.
Now, okay, I get it. It’s not their movie. I understand that, and I’m fine with it. After things got to a certain point, I always figured a potential third Ghostbusters movie would be about the Ghostbusters passing the mantle down to a new generation. The issue I have is that Ghostbusters: Afterlife isn’t that. The original Ghostbusters just kind of show up in Afterlife, without any real significance to the story, other than Egon’s legacy. While seeing Peter, Winston and Ray will always be a welcome sight, their role in Afterlife feels kind of like a glorified cameo. Annie Potts also returns as Janine Melnitz, but what you saw of her in the trailer is what you see of her in the movie. At least they’re all playing their beloved characters this time, instead of unrelated cameos like the 2016 movie.
What I’m getting at is the film really takes its time relishing in the fanservice of all the gadgets and gizmos of the Ghostbusters. The movie basks in the glory of the Ecto-1 and the ghost traps, but it didn’t stop and think that, just maybe, the fanservice Ghostbusters fans would most want is the Ghostbusters themselves? Again, I’m fine with the fact that it’s not their movie anymore, but after all the time that’s passed since Ghostbusters 2, I’m sure I’m not the only one who would have loved to have seen the iconic original cast actually have some role in the plot. I can kind of get what they were going for, building up to the classic characters that made us love the series to begin with. But after thirty-two years and all the start/stops of a potential third entry, we kind of want to spend a little more time with these beloved characters.
It just seems so weird that Sony and Columbia can’t seem to figure this out. First they give us a reboot that no one asked for, and now we finally have a follow-up to Ghostbusters 2, and the role of the Ghostbusters is minimal. It really shouldn’t be a difficult concept to grasp. You have a Ghostbusters movie, give us the Ghostbusters!
Okay, I’m going on about this quite a bit. But I think this is an important aspect to bring up because I think depending on how you view Afterlife’s position as a sequel to Ghostbusters II will affect your overall opinion of the film (if you’re a longtime fan of the franchise like me, anyway). If you’re looking at Afterlife as Ghostbusters 3, then you’re probably going to be disappointed, because it doesn’t really fit that bill. But if you view Afterlife as its own movie that simply takes place in the Ghostbusters universe, it becomes easier to admire.
Even with its merits, however, Ghostbusters: Afterlife still folds a bit under the pressure of living up to the original 1984 film, as much of the plot is derived from the mythology surrounding the Gozer character established in that film (and sadly, as a fan/nerd of the series, I can point out some inconsistencies Afterlife creates within the established Gozer mythology). One of the downsides to this is that Afterlife simply recreates many of the same story beats of the original film in regards to said Gozer mythology, instead of getting creative and making something new out of it (we are talking about an interdimensional god, after all. There’s plenty of room to get creative with that concept). There are so many directions they could have gone when you have a villain like Gozer, so it’s a shame that Afterlife chooses to fall back on familiar territory.
Unfortunately, as much as Afterlife loves to make callbacks and create fanservice, it only does so in regards to the original film. Because outside of a few background Easter eggs, the only reference to Ghostbusters II is that Ray is back working at his occult book store, first seen in the 1989 sequel.
Look, I understand that Ghostbusters II isn’t as esteemed as its predecessor (I love it to death, personally), but it’s still an important part of Ghostbusters history. The characters in Afterlife are constantly referring to the events of the original film as the “Manhattan Incident,” but shouldn’t it be the Manhattan IncidentS? Did everyone just forget that the evil spirit of a 16th century tyrant almost resurrected himself through a painting, and that the Ghostbusters animated the Statue of Liberty to stop him? That seems like something the characters in this movie should remember. It’s almost like Afterlife is embarrassed by Ghostbusters II’s initial reception, and glosses over its events as a result. But in ignoring the sequel to Ghostbusters, it makes Afterlife’s reverence for the series’ history feel incomplete.
Another downer is that the whole subplot involving the Ivo Shandor character feels underdeveloped, like maybe there were several scenes involving this aspect of the story that were cut from the final film. Ivo Shandor’s subplot in the film is introduced, forgotten about, and then rapidly resolved all at once (sadly for fans, this also probably means Ghostbusters: The Video Game is no longer canon). Without spoiling any details, the scene that wraps up Ivo Shandor’s role in the story is also the worst scene in the movie, being edited so sloppily you can tell some of its events are clearly playing out of order (and not in a way I think was intentional). The scene in question moves so hectically and sporadically, that I wonder if the editor downed an entire gallon of Kool-Aid beforehand. It’s reminiscent of the chaotic pace of The Rise of Skywalker, albeit not nearly that bad (and at least here it’s just a single scene, not the whole picture).
Aside from that one scene/subplot, most of my complaints with Ghostbusters: Afterlife are admittedly rooted in my status as a lifelong fan of the series (it plays up fanservice but doesn’t feature enough of the Ghostbusters themselves. It pays homage to the original film but ignores Ghostbusters II, etc.). Granted, due to the continuity of the films, I feel those complaints are still worth mentioning, but they are still the complaints of someone who’s been waiting their whole life for Ghostbusters III. But let’s be fair, Ghostbusters: Afterlife is not Ghostbusters III. It’s Ghostbusters: Afterlife. And that’s okay.
I admit it took me two viewings to be able to properly appreciate Ghostbusters: Afterlife. The first time, the shadow of its predecessors (and the whole “waiting my entire life” thing) worked against it. I still enjoyed it, but my misgivings were stronger the first time around. Only after seeing it a second time, and seeing it only for itself, did my complaints become more subdued.
There is a lot to like about Ghostbusters: Afterlife once you accept it for what it is. The film made the right choice by making its young heroes the descendants of Egon Spengler, with the whole film playing out like a loving tribute to Harold Ramis and the character he brought to life. There are also plenty of fun scenes to be had, with some highlights being a chase sequence where the kids follow a runaway ghost in the Ecto-1, and a scene where an army of mini Stay Puft Marshmallow Men torment Gary Grooberson in a Walmart.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is an entertaining movie. It may get bogged down at times by playing up the fanservice and not always getting it right. But this is a movie aimed more towards introducing a new generation of kids to the Ghostbusters. It presents the material in a more kid-friendly, Spielbergian way. So even though the film may fall back on nostalgia, it does open the door for a new direction for the series going forward. The Spengler family and their friends could have more adventures, and the film even hints that one of the original Ghostbusters may start things back up in New York.
During my first viewing of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there was a group of kids in the audience dressed like Ghostbusters. It warms my heart knowing that the series still appeals to kids today. I think it’s important to remember that Ghostbusters: Afterlife was made more for these kids, with us older fans still getting a little bit of what we want out of it.
Ghostbusters III, as we always wanted it, is a myth. Sony and Columbia (bafflingly) missed that opportunity years ago. But Ghostbusters: Afterlife gives us something else to enjoy in its own right. And if all goes well, maybe the kids that this movie was made for can get a Ghostbusters III of their own.