In a video introduction appended to preview screenings of Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which opens November 19, director Jason Reitman promised Ghostbusters fans that they were about to embark on “the Easter egg hunt of their lives.” That’s definitely one way to look at it. Reitman’s sequel is indeed filled with references to things that most Ghostbusters fans will fondly recall: props, characters, entire scenes and lines of dialogue, et cetera. It’s a Lucite-encased collectible of a movie, one that treats every last bit of Ghostbusters arcana with worshipful awe, then carefully arranges them inside a tightly guarded, climate-controlled case to be purred over by other dewy-eyed collectors. If you enjoy remembering Ghostbusters, then Ghostbusters: Afterlife offers a nonstop thrill ride of recognizing stuff.
Another, more exhausting way to think about the film is as a corrective to Paul Feig’s 2016 Ghostbusters reimagining, Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, which became such an unlikely flashpoint in the culture wars, even Donald Trump was compelled to weigh in. For those with a lingering, dyspeptic churn of hatred toward Feig’s women-led reboot—which has since become folded into a much larger campaign against diversity, “wokeness,” and even film critics themselves—Ghostbusters: Afterlife provides a soothing alkali, validating their intense emotional attachment to this franchise by elevating every Twinkie and throwaway joke from the 1984 original to the realm of sacred lore. It’s the kind of movie that’s often described as a “love letter” to fans, pandering to them in a way that’s shamelessly obvious, yet that undeniably makes them feel good, the way bustin’ should.
The result isn’t so much a proper continuation of Ghostbusters—an irreverently funny movie about scrappy, working-class New Yorkers snarking on the apocalypse—as it is a heartfelt tribute to “what Ghostbusters means to me,” which can be defined as a broad, roaming vapor of nostalgia that encompasses everything from the Real Ghostbusters cartoon to Hi-C Ecto-Cooler to those carefree, sun-dappled years before your parents got divorced. It’s telling that Afterlife is, essentially, a movie about kids putting on Ghostbusters costumes and playing with all their cool toys.
There are pleasures to be had in that, of course; any child of the eighties can tell you that playing Ghostbusters can be an awful lot of fun. While Reitman’s film mostly abandons the wry, self-aware comedy that his father (director Ivan Reitman), Bill Murray, and the late Harold Ramis brought to Dan Aykroyd’s supernatural obsessions, he still finds some moments of inspired zaniness—particularly in a slapstick sequence in which demon dogs and miniature Stay-Puft Marshmallow Men run rampant through a Walmart. Both Carrie Coon, as the jaded daughter that Ramis’s Egon Spengler left behind, and Paul Rudd, as a slacker science teacher and in-universe Ghostbusters fanatic, elevate their warmed-over rom-com material with natural timing. And while Afterlife liberally trades on your affections for the original films, it’s never cynical about it; the tone remains uniformly sentimental and sweet, even as it tips fully into mawkishness by the end. If you’re even a casual Ghostbusters fan, you’d have to be a mood-slimed curmudgeon not to get a kick out of seeing some familiar faces, or to feel a Pavlovian twinge of excitement at the first wee-ahhhh of the Ecto-1’s siren.
By design, Ghostbusters: Afterlife doesn’t offer up anything too new—which makes Mckenna Grace such a notable exception. The Grapevine actress plays Phoebe, Egon’s precocious, twelve-year-old granddaughter, who moves with her mom and brother into Egon’s dilapidated Oklahoma farmhouse and soon rediscovers her family’s secret legacy. (That the Ghostbusters have been largely spurned and forgotten by a world that narrowly survived not one, but two extinction-level paranormal invasions is never really explored here. Nor is the identity of the woman whom the aloof, asexual Egon apparently married and impregnated—but I digress!) The film rests on Phoebe, who seems at first like just another “Easter egg” with her familiar quiff of curly hair, round glasses, and stony affect. But Grace turns what could have been fan-service imitation into a fully realized human you actually care about.
Grace has already made an impressive career out of doing just that: she’s been Hollywood’s go-to actor for playing the “young” version of characters since around 2013, racking up appearances in major films such as Captain Marvel and I, Tonya, and TV shows such as Chilling Adventures of Sabrina—all before she turned fifteen. That’s not likely to be the case for much longer. Ghostbusters: Afterlife should make Grace much too famous to ever pass as someone’s doppelgänger again—and her screen presence here confirms it would be a waste of her talents. Her Phoebe puts a nuanced spin on the nerdy introvert trope: she’s gawky yet self-assured, confident in her superior intellect yet never emotionally cold. One of the film’s ham-fisted attempts to inject some humor finds Phoebe telling people bad jokes as an icebreaker; it’s a cheap running gag that works solely because of Grace’s deadpan timing. She shows even more comic spark in her exchanges with Rudd, as well as with Phoebe’s more peacockish friend, Podcast (Logan Kim), and her brother, Trevor (Finn Wolfhard, marking time between Stranger Things seasons). Grace can also sell her more heartfelt family-drama moments with Coon, and she looks both authentically terrified and galvanized by the film’s swirling, CGI spooks. Phoebe is at the center of nearly every scene, and Grace more than earns it with her performance.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife is just one part of what’s been an exceptionally big year for Grace: she received an Emmy nod over the summer for her run on The Handmaid’s Tale, booked a role in Olivia Wilde’s biopic about Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, and—more recently—signed on to star in a sequel to Lifetime’s remake of The Bad Seed that she’ll also executive-produce from a script she cowrote. She’s a burgeoning multi-hyphenate, and given the obvious attention that Ghostbusters commands—along with its likely box-office success—Afterlife is bound to be what fully launches Grace into the next phase of her career. Already, Phoebe is being hailed as the kind of protagonist who should inspire the next generation of kids to fashion particle accelerators out of cardboard and run around their backyards insisting that they’re scientists, man. It’s a happy irony that a film haunted by its past would portend Mckenna Grace’s bright future as a leading actor. That’s a far better discovery than any Easter egg.