After losing their Chicago apartment single mom Callie (Carrie Coon) moves her children to a creepy old country house in small town Summerville, Oklahoma that belonged to her estranged and now late father. While teenage Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) quickly lands a fast food job to try and cosy up to his girl crush, awkward introvert and wannabe scientist Phoebe (McKenna Grace) struggles to fit in. Instead she becomes intrigued by her grandfather's strange legacy, specifically the basement full of ghost-busting equipment. Eventually Phoebe and Trevor discover their mysterious grandfather's research is connected to an ancient otherworldly evil that once terrorized New York and will soon rise again.
While the response to this second sequel to Ghostbusters (1984), leaving aside the disastrous 2016 reboot, was as predictably divisive as greets any blockbuster in the twenty-first century, Ghostbusters: Afterlife stands as one of the better, more thoughtfully conceived franchise revivals. With Jason Reitman inheriting director duties from his father Ivan Reitman - and co-scripting alongside Gil Kenan, director of the similarly artful kids' supernatural romp Monster House (2006) - the next generation sequel adopts a canny commercial survival tactic. On the outside it presents itself as yet another cynical cash-in on a beloved Eighties property. Yet its seemingly calculated box-ticking nostalgia beats are wrapped around a much more heartfelt Jason Reitman drama about a family dealing with bereavement, bitterness and adversity.
The talky first act may turn off fans waiting for characters to break out the Proton packs yet sets up themes and character dynamics that make up the spine of the movie. And elevate Ghostbusters: Afterlife above the shallow cash-grab it could so easily have been. Sure, Reitman Jr. layers the film with crowd-pleasing call-backs to the original (reoccurring gadgets, variations on iconic scenes, even music cues lifted from Elmer Bernstein's score designed to twang your nostalgia cells) yet weaves them originally into an all-new story. One arguably with more substance than the unintentionally mercenary message of the first Ghostbusters, arguably the only movie where the Environmental Protection Agency are the bad guys (that's the Eighties for you). The key to unlocking the real agenda at play in Ghostbusters: Afterlife lies arguably in Carrie Coon's unexpectedly real performance as Callie. Her character echoes Jason Reitman's back catalogue of acid-tongued anti-heroines (Charlize Theron in Young Adult (2011) and Tully (2018), Ellen Page in Juno (2007)): cynical yet vulnerable and lashing out at the wrong targets. Callie's simmering resentment for an absent father blinds her to her own daughter's need to connect to the family legacy and thus forge her own identity as a bright and intrepid scientist.
While Stranger Things alum Finn Wolfhard is on charming form as snarky but insecure teen hero Trevor, the standout turn comes from talent to watch McKenna Grace, building on the promise of Gifted (2017). Instantly iconic as complicated (and, as some suggest, possibly Asperger's afflicted) geek girl Phoebe she brings a deliciously deadpan wit and girl power gumption that energize every scene she is in. Elsewhere Paul Rudd, by now a genial presence no matter which franchise he's slot into, essentially essays the Rick Moranis role as Phoebe's helpful back-story-explaining schoolteacher-cum-Ghostbusters fan boy-cum-love interest for Callie.
The film has its flaws: a superfluous sequence with Stay Puft mini-marshmallow men there just to placate the marketing department and romantic subplots that don't really go anywhere. At first glance the third act threatens to slavishly mimic the original until Reitman puts a fresh spin on some old plot points and throws a few welcome curveballs. Various talk show appearances more or less spoiled most of the film's big surprise cameos (although Olivia Wilde fans will likely do a double-take). But that does not make them any less delightful and satisfying. Even affecting in bittersweet moments that acknowledge the passing of time including a climax that, though it flirts with exploitation, miraculously pulls off sincere tear-jerking pathos.