★★★★ - EMPIRE
- When penniless Callie’s (Carrie Coon) estranged father dies, leaving her a dilapidated house in the middle of nowhere, she has no choice but to move there with her kids, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and Phoebe (McKenna Grace). Phoebe very soon discovers her grandfather was Ghostbuster Egon Spengler and that there are many ghosts still unbusted.
Rebooting or revamping a film like Ghostbusters is tough. It’s not like trying to re-do a horror, musical or thriller, where you have a sturdy framework you can simply decorate with new ideas. With Ghostbusters, you’re trying to recreate a feeling. The joy of the original movie was far less in the busting of ghosts than in the chemistry between the busters. You can’t simply imitate that with a new cast, as the enjoyable but too slick and self-aware 2016 reboot showed. Jason Reitman’s thoroughly lovely Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t try to be exactly like the originals, made by his father, Ivan Reitman. A sequel-slash-restart, it instead shoots for its own version of goofy buddy comedy and funhouse scariness. It’s not quite the same as the Ghostbusters we know, but it entirely feels like Ghostbusters.
The focus is on Callie (Carrie Coon) and her two children, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), your classic 15-year-old who’d like to fast-track to 18, and Phoebe (McKenna Grace), a 12-year-old scientific genius loner. Callie is the daughter of Egon Spengler, the smartest Ghostbuster, which is no source of pride. He abandoned her when she was a child and went to live in a rickety old house on the edge of a sleepy town. When Egon dies, he leaves Callie that house. With no money to live anywhere else, she takes the kids to start some kind of new life in Summerville, Oklahoma.
Summerville is a place still slowly extracting itself from the 20th century. The town’s main social hub is a drive-in diner. The local school still uses VHS. The cinema is showing 1973 horror Cannibal Girls (director: Ivan Reitman). It all gives a sense of nostalgia that’s not overly cutesy but makes this film feel like its own little world, away from modern technology and ironic, winking humour. It helps zap you back to the feeling of watching films when you were a kid, whenever that may have been. The ‘real world’ feels far away, and anything could happen as these kids go in search of their own entertainment.
Reitman wrote Afterlife with Gil Kenan, director of 2006 animation Monster House. Kenan is an inspired hire. The tone of Monster House, a genuine horror movie for kids, with big laughs and small scares, is exactly what Afterlife needs. Like Monster House, it has a cast of appealing misfits and plenty of moments that won’t cause nightmares but will send goosebumps creeping up your skin. The smartest writing choice the pair make is to set the story in a town that feels like the past.
The film has plenty of fun before the ghosts appear, with Phoebe and Podcast running loose around town, playing with proton packs, forging a friendship based on mutual oddness. When the ghostly action really kicks in later, you can feel Reitman’s thrill in it, the enthusiasm of a man who has known Ghostbusters since he was six. He uses the same modest directing style as his father. Few flashy shots, but plenty happening on screen. Many of his effects have an 80s-style simplicity, but subtly so. Some of his ghosts appear to be puppets, not CG, and he knows the spooky power in a bit of dry ice and a coloured light. It’s rich with affection for its source but excited about new ways to play with it.
Of course, Phoebe discovers her grandfather’s true identity, stumbling across strange equipment in the basement and uncovering a supernatural threat that could destroy the world. As the plot unfolds, it’s packed with stuff for fans, but the throwbacks are secondary to the story of the new characters. And they are tremendous characters, all perfectly cast, with strong chemistry. Finn Wolfhard brings necessary warmth to the cocky older brother role. Logan Kim as Podcast, Phoebe’s motormouth classmate who documents everything, is like a fun-size John Candy. Mckenna Grace, though, is the heart of the film. In her preternaturally able hands, Phoebe is a quietly fearless kid who is fascinated by anything she doesn’t understand, be it gadgets, ghosts, or people. Grace uses shades of the late Harold Ramis’ performance as Egon, but with a rebellious streak of her own.
There are holes you could pick: there are a couple of plot points that feel under-explained. The fourth new ghostbuster, Lucky (Celeste O’Connor), isn’t very fleshed out. For a film called Ghostbusters it’s fairly light on ghosts. But it gives very little reason to want to pick those holes. It’s always fun, inventive and full of charm. If you have any concerns that Jason Reitman’s film might sully the legacy of his dad’s greatest creation, there’s nothing to be afraid of.
While full of love for the originals, Jason Reitman’s film firmly establishes its own new generation. On the potential here, Ghostbusters still has plenty of life in it.
- Olly Richards, EMPIRE
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now playing at Light House Petone and Pauatahanui!