Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Movies by the Numbers: Ghostbusters Afterlife (2021)

How far would you go? Just how much are you willing to sacrifice for your life's work? Would you give up your savings, your career, your friends, your reputation, your family... your life? Director Jason Reitman honours his father's work with his latest film, Ghostbusters Afterlife, which also honours my favourite character in the franchise, Dr. Egon Spengler, played by the late Harold Ramis.

Dr. Spengler's daughter, now an adult and mother of two, didn't know her father. Her children know nothing of their grandfather. They don't know why he abandoned the family, moved to a creepy run-down farm in the middle of nowhere, and filled his property with junk. The grandkids don't know of the Manhattan Cross-Rip of '84, have never seen a miniaturized particle accelerator backpack, and don't recognize the old Cadillac rusting in the barn...

Through exploring their granddad's property, and thanks to teacher Paul Rudd's stories of New York in the '80s, Phoebe and Trevor piece together just who their Grandpa Egon was, what sort of life he lived -- and what he died fighting for. But with little more than their grandfather's old gadgets, an once-white Cadillac, and the couple of misfit kids from town they might call friends, can they possibly stand a chance where even Dr. Spengler, the Brains of the Ghostbusters, fell?

Of the main cast, the only actor I recognize is Paul Rudd, who is such a good casting choice that his inclusion alone gave me cautious optimism. (Were I casting a 'Busters movie, he'd be one of my four. 'Nuff said.) As Phoebe's enthusiastic teacher with a deep-seeded lifelong in-universe love of the Ghostbusters (and more than a little interest in her mom), Rudd delivers every line, displays every facial expression, with his distinctive down-to-earth style. Good use of Paul Rudd can elevate any project, I find, and Afterlife is even better thanks to his inclusion.

Not to say anything bad about the rest of the cast. I don't know any of the kids' actors and despite my reservations, they were largely all right. Phoebe is the clear standout, and I'm pleased with how she was written and played. The hair and glasses are great design elements, too. Little Phoebe is a Spengler, through and through. The other kids didn't really stand out, but at least they had enough strengths and good moments to help offset some of their annoyances.

I also have to commend them for just how versatile the cast is. There are so many good characters for people of all ages and 'Buster familiarity to associate with. Some will be the kids, just learning about Ghostbusting for the first time, finding an exciting world they will carry with them for life. Some will be Paul Rudd, the lifelong fan, now a grownup, who can't keep the smile off his face.

I get the impression that some scenes were cut short, as they don't always flow well from one to the next. Dialogue explains everything well enough and long-time fans can follow the logic, but I am very much looking forward to the deleted scenes and/or extended cut.

In an age where rights holders churn out transparent cashgrabs to "monetize dormant IPs," it's a breath of fresh air to find someone who genuinely cares, and Ivan's boy has done a hell of a job in the director's chair. There are plenty of throwbacks that do not feel out of place, or forced, or overly wink-and-nod. Some fun sight gags and plenty to analyze in the background will reward old fans and eagle-eyed viewers but in no way detract from the film. More importantly, the emotional core at the heart of Afterlife feels genuine.

This isn't some soulless payday. This is Jason Reitman saying "I love you, Dad." This is the people who made Ghostbusters happen saying "We miss you, Harold Ramis." This is a message to the fans: "Thank you for spending these decade with us." Any targeting of nostalgia is real; it's Jason Reitman's nostalgia, too. Any use of real-life brands comes across more as a bit of real-life authenticity and not a shallow advertising attempt. And think of how many real-life brands appeared in the original film: I can think of a chocolate bar, a snack food, and a soft drink offhand.

The emotional core is true. I'm convinced that some of the actors' tears were real. Yes, Afterlife has plenty of comedy, but more than its fair share of darkness as well. People around me were wiping their eyes in the theatre and I do not blame them. Afterlife will make you laugh, and for some of the viewers around me, it made them cry. The film pulls no punches and even opens with a particularly brutal scene (the technical elements of which are exquisite, I might add).

Visually, Afterlife is outstanding. There is always something to keep the eye hunting in the set design. Keep searching the backgrounds; maybe on your next viewing. Technical elements are strong; the Reitmans have a knack for composition and framing. Visual effects combine practical and digital and look so good that I didn't even think of them. I've spent so long along capture streams with the movies and cartoons and games that I've forgotten how dated the original '84 effects were (though groundbreaking at the time). That is perhaps the biggest praise I can give Afterlife's visual effects: they look, sound, and feel so right that I didn't even think about them. They capture how I remember Ghostbusters feeling.

Your ears are in for a treat as well. Elmer Bernstein's classic theme returns, revisited, throughout the movie. Classic sounds are back and better than ever, from the whirring of PKE Meters, the familiar capture stream energy, and the bass of the timeless powerup sound. The equipment has been modified, not redesigned, and feel consistent with the universe and art style of the brand. Paragoggles are still paragoggles, but at some point, Egon built a camera into them. In no way do the additions to the proton pack make it less recognizable. The PKE meter's new function came as a surprise -- and there I was thinking it was just a fun play feature on the new toy!

And of course, the Ectomobile. She's back and seen better days, but still kicking. Still busting. New features seem almost out of the animated series (or at least the Kenner toy line), but I don't mean that in a bad way. The gunner seat and Remote Trapping Vehicle make for dynamic scenes of 'busting that we haven't seen in the movies until this point. Might be a little too Real or even Extreme for some 'Busting fans, but Afterlife's exciting use of the Ecto-1 as a mobile paranormal elimination platform makes it so much more than just transportation for personnel and equipment, and does not feel out of place with the brand.

There's so, so much that it gets very right, and even its weaknesses are not enough to take away from its many strengths. He who dismisses Ghostbusters Afterlife as nostalgia-milking product placement will miss out on something special. You don't need to be a 'Busting enthusiast to enjoy the film, but if you are, get ready for a hell of a ride. Ivan's boy has done a great job. Worth the wait and worth seeing, and for Ghostbusters fans, at least once.

Rest well, Dr. Spengler. Your legacy is in good hands.

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