Jason Reitman takes over from his father, Ivan, as he directs the new Ghostbusters movie: and there’s a touch of Gremlins and The Goonies about it too.

There’s inevitable paradox sitting at the heart of the fourth Ghostbusters movie, Ghostbusters Afterlife, is ever-present throughout its 127 minute running time. It’s this: how much do you want to appeal to 80s Ghostbusters fans, and how much do you want to be your own thing?

Thus, the script – penned by Jason Reitman and Gil Kenan, with the former directing – immediately makes something of an unexpected turn (assuming you’ve not seen the trailers). It moves Ghostbusters away from its home town of New York City, and takes us instead to a small town in Oklahoma. That’s where Callie (Carrie Coon) drives her two children – Phoebe and Trevor, played by Mckenna Grace and Finn Wolfhard – to see what her late estranged father has left her. Callie’s a single mother, is broke, facing eviction from her home, and hoping that her inheritance will dig her out of trouble. Inevitably, things don’t quite work out as she hopes.

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Ghostbusters: Afterlife thus sets its stall out as, surprisingly, a small family picture for a generous amount of its running time. Phoebe and Trevor attend the local summer school, under the watchful eye of the terrific Paul Rudd’s horror movie-loving Mr Grooberson (and Rudd’s choices of inappropriate films are quite delicious, just for good measure wheeling in the big telly on a trolley into the classroom). They also make friends with Celeste O’Connor’s Lucky and Logan Kim’s Podcast. The casting of Wolfhard from Stranger Things is clearly no coincidence, as there’s a feeling of the show’s influence over the production.

That said, the first hour in particular is both unexpected and the film at its best. Reitman gently teases the Ghostbusters angle, with the occasion drop of Elmer Bernstein’s original score, a YouTube clip here and there, and characters finding bits of memorabilia around the place. But for good chunks, it feels more like he’s making a tribute to The Goonies and a bit of Gremlins than a Ghostbusters film. Moving the setting to the wide outdoors, for a long time he pulls back on the visual effects (save for the opening sequence), and instead gives space for Mckenna Grace and Carrie Coon to absolutely excel. They really do as well.

Reitman holds back the Ghostbusters element for so long in fact, that it brought to mind the director’s cut of James Cameron’s Aliens: that’s the version that started with a punch, and then kept building and building under the aliens themselves were finally revealed. It’s not an exact parallel – this review is far more spoiler-light than it may appear – but there’s certainly some degree of shared ethos.

I must say: I really appreciated the effort made here to cut through the usual bloated effects-driven blockbuster. At no point did I feel the film was really soaring, but the build up I found genial, quietly witty, and introducing new characters I actually found myself really caring about.

Necessity though means it then has to turn into another film, and that’s where my interest levels started to drop. Again, treading spoiler light, there’s been little complexity or ingenuity to how the plots of Ghostbusters movies tend to resolve themselves, and there’s a degree of going through similar motions to wrap the story up here. Of course, the first film took a wonderful leftfield turn with a huge creature stomping through New York, but as the ghostly stuff starts to rise in Afterlife, it did strike me there’s little compulsion to change the toolkit. Ghosts turn up, they may or may not be busted.

Granted, Ghostsbusters at its best has always been character and wit as much as the spectacle. But I confess as much as fans may be delighted with Reitman’s greatest hits tour that he ultimately pulls out – and there’s a moment right near the end that ends up dominating its finale – I found the relegating of the characters we’ve been following all film come the final act a real disappointment. Theirs was the story that the film had set up to tell us, and whilst it doesn’t quite dismiss them, Ghostbusters: Afterlife ultimately gets distracted by trying to satiate – with some success – its older fanbase.

I do wonder if the story that the film is telling here would have worked better away from the Ghostbusters franchise, which comes with touchpoints and demands that need to be met. Even the (well worth stopping for) mid- and post-credits stings shortchange the new generation, and I found myself wondering if we could have had a few more minutes with the new lot to see just where their story ended up.

Much as the film faces its paradox then, so do I. I’ve written copious amounts of words on blockbusters that don’t try something a little different, and here’s the fourth film in a saga that for longer than expected becomes very much its own thing. Conversely, that makes it all the more disappointing when all the whizz-bangs and flashy effects come out, to the detriment of the story I was hugely invested in.

Who knows? There may be more adventures down the line, and Sony’s Ghost Corps production company logo pre-empts the whole thing. But if that happens, I’d love them to really take a leap here, give Phoebe and Callie a full story, and see where things went from there. They started something a little bit daring here. It’d be nice if they could finish it.

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