Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) Jason Reitman - Movie Review
Ghostbusters: Afterlife 2021 by Jason Reitman Writers: Gil Kenan, Jason Reitman (written by) Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis (based on the 1984 Ghostbusters, written by) Stars: Mckenna Grace, Logan Kim, Finn Wolfhard, Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon, Celeste O'Connor, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, Emma Portner, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Josh Gad, Olivia Wilde, J.K. Simmons Run Time: 124min Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for supernatural action and some suggestive references
Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on IssuesEtc.org where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers)
A down-on-her-luck single mother, Callie (Carrie Coon), moves her young nerdy science-obsessed daughter Phoebe (Mckenna Grace), and mechanically-inclined teenaged son Trevor (Finn Wolfhard), to her estranged father’s farmhouse to settle his affairs after his sudden death. The dilapidated farmhouse holds secrets to a mystery slowly uncovered by Phoebe and Trevor. The local abandoned mine and their deceased grandfather are both connected to a paranormal event from the 1980s involving the famous Ghostbusters.
Jason Reitman’s supernatural comedy Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021) completely ignores Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters: Answer the Call (2016)— a lacklustre gender-swap reimagining of the franchise—opting to create something that faithfully continues the Ghostbusters story for a new generation of potential fans while respecting the original fans. Frankly, this is a bit of a relief. In the last few years reboots, re-imaginings, remakes, sequels, prequels, and spin-offs have all too often vandalized the very products they are building upon. When this is deliberate it’s often accomplished by means of deconstruction and ideological reconstruction. Feig’s Ghostbusters: Answer the Call is a good example: take the Ghostbusters film franchise from the 1980s, disassemble it, inject a modern feminist underpinning, swap out the central male characters for female versions of the same characters, then reassemble the modified whole general concept, sprinkle in Ghostbusters winks and nods to appease or entice the original fans while theoretically making it feel exciting to a potential new audience.
Historically, the Ghostbusters franchise appealed more to male audiences so this approach would be potentially interesting to the studio and prospective new investors because if it works it would broaden the consumer base and generate more profit. It then becomes important who is tasked with creating the work. If he or she is not as passionate about the project as they are about certain other ideas and beliefs the very thing that made the original a cherished classic cult film may be devalued. If the original fan base feels their beloved franchise or film is devalued they will conclude that they are also devalued and the whole endeavour is simply a money grab or something required to maintain copyright or perhaps an underhanded ploy to parasitically spread certain ideas not original to the franchise. This is the gamble, one recently taken by Disney with the Star Wars sequel trilogy. Efforts to broaden an audience without maintaining previously established quality and continuity can ostracize faithful fans whose dollars are necessary to undergird future financial growth. Basically, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Chase the ones in the bush hard enough while neglecting the one in the hand and you may be left with empty hands!
Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters film nearly put the franchise in its grave; with Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman the original director of Ghostbusters (1984) and Ghostbusters II (1989), the franchise has received a new lease on life. In 2016 Ghostbusters: Answer the Call came across as an acerbic and bitter SNL sketch that might have worked as a five-minute skit but certainly not as a feature-length film. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the opposite. Made with a lot of heart, this new film is a kind, gentle, respectful tribute to Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters films. Jason Reitman clearly loves and honours his father’s work. Christian viewers, aware of the relationship between these directors, may want to contemplate the way in which Ghostbusters: Afterlife serves as an example of a son fulfilling the positive aspect of the Fourth Commandment where children are to honour, serve, and obey their father and mother, and love and cherish them. A by-product of this love and respect is a fan base that, by extension, feels cherished and respected.
Jason Reitman is definitely a different kind of director than his father and Ghostbusters: Afterlife is understandably a different kind of film. The original film’s pacing is much faster and within thirty minutes all the core characters are introduced and everything is set up in the most entertaining and economical way possible. Viewers expecting that kind of structure to the new film may be disappointed. Jason Reitman is best known for directing films like Thank You for Smoking (2005), Juno (2007) and Up in the Air (2009) which include comedy but are more dramatic character studies. Knowing this makes it easier to see why the pacing of Ghostbusters: Afterlife is more leisurely and focused on developing the new central character Phoebe and the location of Summerville, Oklahoma. While Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and Annie Potts reprise their classic roles as Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Winston Zeddemore, and Janine Melnitz in Ghostbusters: Afterlife Jason Reitman doesn’t rely on the characters his father introduced in 1984 to carry his film neither does he use them as props for cheap jokes and non-sequitur cameos as was the case in Feig’s Ghostbusters: Answer the Call.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife largely revolves around Phoebe excellently played by Mckenna Grace. This is the kind of character which could annoy audiences if presented as a smirky ‘know it all.’ While the young girl is smart and capable regarding science and engineering, she is socially awkward. Interestingly, Phoebe doesn’t come across as smug or condescending even when she is being smug and condescending. Rather —and this is the big reveal fans of the original will happily see coming a mile away—she’s the perfectly lovable granddaughter of Dr. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) equally embodying his quirky persona.
In the 1980s Egon Spengler wouldn’t have been described as autistic. Now, because of greater public awareness and the popularity of characters like Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons/Iain Armitage) in The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon, giving this read to the Spengler character implies that his granddaughter Phoebe might also fall somewhere on the autism spectrum. Notably, Jason Reitman and Mckenna Grace don’t use this as a crutch or cheap ploy to garner sympathy from the audience making Phoebe an endearing character worthy of stepping into the shoes first developed by Ivan Reitman and Harold Ramis.
Ramis, who played Spengler in Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II (1989) and helped write the original screenplays, died in 2014 and with his death hopes for a Ghostbusters original cast reunion seemed to have died with him. Thankfully the thought dawned on the Reitman’s that the death of a cast member, even one as valuable as Ramis, need not impede a comedy about ghosts. They simply needed to incorporate him into the story as a ghost. They do this in a thoughtful and touching way especially during the climax of the film’s third act. This is one reason why Christian viewers will want to think long and hard about the idea of ghosts and the way they are presented in this film.
For generations Dan Aykroyd and his family have been committed Spiritists and adherents of Spiritualism. It was Aykroyd who came up with the initial concept for the Ghostbusters in the early 1980s. Spiritualism is a religious movement popular throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries which teaches that the dead in the form of spirits and ghosts have both the desire and ability to communicate with the living and that the living can likewise communicate with the dead primarily by way of mediums and clairvoyants via séances. Concepts like ectoplasm popularized in the Ghostbusters films originate with Spiritualism. Biblical prohibitions against communication with the dead and spirits can be found particularly in Leviticus, “Do not turn to mediums or necromancers; do not seek them out, and so make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God,” (Leviticus 19:31). “If a person turns to mediums and necromancers, whoring after them, I will set My face against that person and will cut him off from among his people. Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God. Keep My statutes and do them; I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Leviticus 20:6–8).
Films like Ghostbusters: Afterlife and the rest of the Ghostbusters franchise are important for Christians to carefully consider. First, dealing with a topic in a comedic way is by design disarming and therefore capable of slipping past the Christian’s powers of discernment unless they are paying close attention. In addition, grief and loss often leave people, even Christians, vulnerable to the temptation of wanting to communicate with loved ones who have died. Things unsaid, unfinished business, and loneliness all contribute to a desire to keep in contact with the deceased. Ghostbusters: Afterlife is dedicated to Harold Ramis and the way they deal with his character Dr. Egon Spengler could encourage viewers toward wanting a similar sort of reconciliation and happy reunion with their deceased loved ones this side of the great hereafter. Since Jason Reitman handles this with such warmth and respect audiences will certainly be softened toward these sorts of ideas. But just because something is nice and produces warm feelings doesn’t make it true. Christians will want to remember what Solomon teaches in Ecclesiastes “the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:5–6). For family members of Christians who have died with their faith in Jesus the important thing to remember is that they are with Christ awaiting their revealing on the Last Day at the second coming of Christ Jesus where they will not be ‘ghosts’ for eternity but numbered among the resurrected (1 Corinthians 15:51-53, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18).
Second, apart from the idea of ghosts and spirits there is another aspect of the film Christians will want note. The idea of a supernatural apocalypse is as much part of Ghostbusters: Afterlife as it was of Ghostbusters (1984). Again, there is the impending arrival of Gozer the Gozerian a fictional ancient Middle Eastern cataclysmic deity bent on destroying the world and enslaving mankind. Originally the wisecracking Venkman, Stantz, Spengler, and Zeddemore heroically thwarted Gozer and saved New York City. In this new film the team of Phoebe, her friend Podcast (Logan Kim), their summer school teacher Mr. Grooberson (Paul Rudd), mom Callie, brother Trevor, and his crush Lucky (Celeste O'Connor) heroically add their efforts to save the day and thwart another attempt to enter the world by Gozer the Gozerian (Olivia Wilde with voice acting by Shohreh Aghdashloo). As in the original film the Bible passage Revelation 6:12 “When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood,” plays a part in ‘prophetically’ describing Gozer’s supernatural apocalypse. Of course, the passage from the Revelation of St. John found in the Bible is centred on Jesus’ Second Advent and is not a portent prophesying the future arrival of a demonic entity that must be stopped to save humanity. Christians believe firmly that the return of Jesus on the Last Day will usher in the resurrection of the dead to life eternal. No one will be able to stop Jesus’ return when He comes. In a way then Ghostbusters: Afterlife has again presented in a negative light the prospect of the future coming Last Day.
As is usually the case for Christians and non-Christians alike it’s best not to take religious ideas from film and hold them as true. When presented with religious beliefs, even in a supernatural comedy like Ghostbusters: Afterlife, viewers need to test them against what they believe. Christians will want to test them against Scripture and what the Bible teaches with an awareness that humour and emotion can distract from the task. Unlike crime dramas or historical fiction, sci-fi fantasy and supernatural genre films regularly present viewers with unique cosmologies (big picture world-building religious ideas) intended to explain why things are the way they are in the world of the story being told.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife falls squarely into the adage “It's not what you say—it’s how you say it.” Pitching a Ghostbusters script to the studio that focuses primarily on the endearing granddaughter of one of the original Ghostbusters and the posthumous reconciliation of the adult daughter with her estranged deceased father basically has the effect of creating opportunity for the film to appeal to a wider audience that would include more female viewers. Jason Reitman succeeds in 2021 where Paul Feig failed in 2016 because Reitman does what his father did: he invites everyone along for the ride and doesn’t put down or mistreat any particular segment of the film’s potential audience.
Is Afterlife as good as the original? No. But it is entertaining. The effects are well done, and the supporting cast of Paul Rudd, Carrie Coon and Logan Kim are all great even if Finn Wolfhard from Stranger Things doesn’t have much to do. Bill Murray as Peter Venkman is fun to see again on the big screen and thankfully, he isn’t playing Venkman as an angst-ridden Wes Anderson version of the character. The film likely didn’t need all the little Stay Puft Marshmallow Men gags but overall it neatly fits into the expanding Ghostbusters story while honouring the original. Still, Christian viewers need to remember that what is being said is just as important as how it’s being said–in fact more so. Viewers and families should be careful when it comes to any theological or religious ideas offered concerning life after death because the reverent and charming way Reitman presents these ideas may contribute to them slipping inadvertently under the viewer’s catechetical defences.