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Ghostbusters: Afterlife review – belated sequel trades laughs for cheap nostalgia

Jason Reitman's take on his dad's iconic series is certainly reverent, but its overly earnest tone makes it feel more like Stranger Things

The modern geek movie culture of valuing lore and references above all else has had some hideous effects on pretty much every popular genre but, as Ghostbusters: Afterlife proves, it mixes with comedy with a particular ugliness. In 1984, the first movie made waves as a classic buddy comedy that just happened to be high-concept, mostly serving as an excuse to let loose the improvisational powers of expert, SNL-honed comic actors and, though not as good, the 2016 Paul Feig reboot understood this core appeal. Afterlife, on the other hand, seems to have mistaken Ghostbusters for some twinkly-eyed E.T knockoff, trading in laughs in favour of reverent but cheap nostalgia.

Acting as a direct sequel to the less-loved Ghostbusters II, Afterlife completely erases the 2016 take from existence to pick up with the recently-deceased Egon Spengler’s family. Flat broke and recently evicted, Spengler’s adult daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) moves herself and her two kids – 12-year-old science prodigy Phoebe (McKenna Grace) and a surly 15-year-old named, for some reason, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) – to an old farmhouse in rural Oklahoma that acts as her only tangible inheritance from her eccentric dad.

As it turns out, Spengler had a reason for hiding away from his family in this decrepit old mess – the nearby town of Summerville sits atop an old mine positively bursting with ghosts, and the time is almost nigh for their chaotic emergence into the world, with only the sceptical Spengler clan standing in the way.

It’s a decent enough premise, but writer-director Jason Reitman, taking the reins from his dad Ivan, is concerned with this intergenerational saving-the-world plot that he completely forgets to bring anything in the way of funny or memorable gags. Reitman clearly loves Ghostbusters, as all the close-ups of the old gear set to soaring music will attest, but it doesn’t feel like he gets Ghostbusters. The end product feels more like the Halloween episode of Stranger Things where the kids dress up as the original crew.

The presence of Wolfhard only makes these comparisons more obvious, but Stranger Things has a far more likeable cast than Afterlife does. With the exception of Paul Rudd having fun as groovy teacher Mr. Grooberson, it’s hard to care for anyone – Phoebe is basically The Big Bang Theory’s Sheldon Cooper and she’s generally, somehow, the least annoying person on screen. When things fly into action mode, Afterlife gets a lot more fun and, though a lot of the set-pieces are pretty obvious fan-pandering, they are still enjoyably chaotic and bolstered by some excellent effects work, mixing practical and CG to great effect, balancing the impossible speed and agility of the ghosts with some real weight to their movement.

It’s hard to avoid spoilers in talking about how the original crew make their presence known, but suffice to say it’s uninspired and occasionally bordering on the ghoulish, leaving a bad taste in the mouth. If nothing else, Afterlife shows that Reitman could marshal a solidly enjoyable kids-vs-monsters action caper, his devotion to the Ghostbusters “brand” doing little but holding him back. About halfway through Afterlife, Phoebe reveals her family lineage to a new friend, who responds: “You’re related to a legend, you can be anything!” If only Reitman was able to take his own advice.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is now showing in UK cinemas.

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