Starring: Miles Teller (Whiplash), Kate Mara (Transcendence), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station), Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot), Toby Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Reg E. Cathey (House of Cards), Tim Blake Nelson (The Incredible Hulk)
Director: Josh Trank (Chronicle)
Writers: Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect) and Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) & Josh Trank
Runtime: 1 hour 40 minutes
Release Date: 6 August (UK), 7 August (US)
The Fantastic Four haven’t had it easy in Hollywood. Sure, the two films directed by Tim Story from the mid-2000s weren’t the worst the genre had to offer, but as adaptations of Marvel’s first superhero family they were a complete disservice with poor storytelling, even worse pacing, and some bafflingly poor casting choices. But even then, that’s not arguably the worst thing they been associated with. Remember that low-budget Fantastic Four movie they joked about in the fourth season of Arrested Development? That wasn’t just a joke. That actually happened! Watch if you don’t believe me:
But now a decade after they originally messed it up, 20th Century Fox is taking another stab at making a Fantastic Four movie with a drastically different tone, a younger cast, and a fresh director in the form of Chronicle helmer Josh Trank…and yet still they just can’t catch a break. Ignoring the frankly disgusting amount of backlash against Michael B. Jordan being “wrong” to play Johnny Storm because of his melanin levels (geez, it’s 2015. Are we still on this?), the film has been plagued by reshoots, a very late marketing campaign, and vague reports of Trank being difficult on set. I’ve been an avid defender of this project from the word go, but as it went on even I got a bit nervous. Now having seen the result of their labours, I can safely say, “Damn it! The haters were right this time!” Much like the team itself, Fantastic Four is a noble experiment gone horrifically wrong and yet another embarrassment for the much-loved comic book.
The film draws most of its inspiration from the “Ultimate Fantastic Four” reimagining of the story, so the complaints about changes like the younger cast and retooled origin should be quelled. One of the main ideas it draws from this run is treating the story as less fantastical and as more of a hard science fiction story. It’s an interesting point of view on the material, viewing the story and characters in more of a real world context and how they would fit into our reality, much like what Man of Steel did. But just like Man of Steel, sloppy execution ruins it. Of all of Fantastic Four’s problems, all of them link back to its incredibly uneven pacing. The first half of the movie is actually pretty decent, slowly building up to the event when they get their powers and actually getting to know the characters a bit. Sure, it essentially takes them half the movie to get them their powers, but the slow burn gave it more of that sci-fi feel and was a nice change of pace compared to the rushed origin in the 2005 version. During this time, they also manage to actually make sense of some of the more silly aspects of the source material; for instance, they better explain why each of them gets drastically different abilities, and also why certain less qualified characters like Johnny (Jordan) and Ben (Bell) tag along. But once they finally get their powers, the movie then takes a complete left turn into awesomeness…for about ten minutes, then takes another left turn and promptly implodes. There’s a small stretch where the film turns into a David Cronenberg-style body horror flick and, as drastic a shift and as out there as it is, it’s really unique for a superhero film and I’m surprised they had the balls to do it. I was all amped up for where they were going to take it from there, but then the aforementioned implosion happens and the movie becomes an utter mess. The pacing picks up rapidly, almost like they’re trying to make up for lost time, and rushes towards its climax so fast that it’ll take you a few minutes to comprehend that the movie is over. The jargon-heavy dialogue suddenly becomes incredibly on the nose, with plot and character developments merely stated instead of naturally woven in, and the characters go from being three-dimensional people to static chess pieces that only move to advance the now paper-thin plot. All semblance of character and atmosphere and tone and detail gets jettisoned, which in turn actually makes the good first half of the movie not only feel like a distant memory but also irrelevant; there’s even a few subplots that are set up in the first half that are completely forgotten and unresolved by the end. It really does feel like someone cut a good 20-40 minutes out of the movie, and then shot some new scenes and dialogue to cover up the seams in the most slipshod way. I don’t know whom to blame, but something just went disastrously wrong here and I don’t think I can adequately explain it without going deep into spoiler territory.
The cast of Fantastic Four has some really high calibre players and a few of them get time to shine, but those that do are flattened into nothings by the midway gearshift. Miles Teller makes an excellent Reed Richards at the start, playing the character as this socially awkward and self-absorbed genius bordering on autistic. His performance reminded me a lot of Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, in that both of their characters are really fascinating to watch even if you don’t always agree with or even like them. Michael B. Jordan is also great as Johnny Storm, squashing the haters and proving he was a great choice to play the cocky hothead, getting in the film’s best lines and providing some relief during the more reserved first half. All of this is pretty much made null and void in the middle when they become bland shells of their former selves, but it was nice while it lasted. The rest of the cast, try as they might, don’t fare as well. Kate Mara’s Sue Storm is so constantly apathetic and cynical that you never really get to know much about her beyond one brief conversation with Reed, and she spends so little time with Johnny that them being siblings is a fact you might easily forget. Similarly, Jamie Bell’s Ben Grimm is absent for most of the film’s first half and his friendship with Reed is only explored on the surface level. The scene where Reed first sees what’s become of Ben after the accident is actually genuinely gut wrenching and emotional, but nothing like that is ever explored afterwards and it just feels like a waste. Toby Kebbell’s Victor Von Doom is set up quite well as this pessimistic anti-authority figure with a superiority complex, but once he is reintroduced as the villain they spend no time on him whatsoever. They don’t explain what he’s been up to, what exactly he’s planning to do, how his powers work, what exactly motivated him to enact his vague plan, he barely even exchanges dialogue with his former colleagues; it’s like Venom in Spider-Man 3, but much, much worse. Reg E. Cathey’s main role as Franklin Storm seems to be to spout important sounding exposition (because I guess they couldn’t afford Morgan Freeman or something, because he’s the king of that), but he does share a few good moments with Johnny and their father-son dynamic is probably the most genuine of the character relationships. Lastly, and certainly least, Tim Blake Nelson’s Harvey Elder is a cookie-cutter banality of a secondary antagonist. The whole “government wanting to use experiment as weapon” story is already played out as it is, but it’s especially played out here and Nelson’s performance is so drab and unimaginative that you wonder why they hired an actor of his skill level for such a thankless role.
Josh Trank’s Chronicle was a really imaginative look at the superhero genre from a unique perspective, and the idea of that mind taking on an established property like Fantastic Four has some great possibilities. What exactly happened to that guy, I don’t know, because this movie honestly looks like it could have been made by anybody. It’s all competently shot and edited, but there’s no real sense of unique flair to it. I guess it’s kind of hard to nail down Trank’s style from only one film (and a found footage film at that), but this is starting to make me think Chronicle’s strength was in its writing and actors rather than its direction. But maybe this could be the hands of some outside interfering force, as can be seen in the film’s few fight sequences. Whilst Chronicle’s action was creative and wild and took full advantage of its characters’ abilities, the action in Fantastic Four is incredibly generic and the unique power set of its characters feels drastically underutilised. There are a few inspired moments like Sue using her force fields to fly or Reed stretching his facial features to disguise himself, but otherwise they use only the most obvious applications of these powers. The CGI is very inconsistent throughout, ranging from pretty good to “is that even finished?” Rendering The Thing in CG rather than as a practical effect is actually a rare case where the computer beats doing it for real, as it allows them to realize the true scale and impact of the character, and the effect is genuinely well done. But Johnny’s full body fire and Sue’s shields only look passable at best, whilst the rendering of the alternate dimension they visit often looks the CGI backdrop covering up a green screen that it is; the worst part is the glowing green energy seeping in the ground, which looks like somebody playing with various bloom effects in Adobe After Effects. Even the film’s score is bland, and I should not be saying that about a score co-written by Philip Glass, one of the great composers of our time.
Fantastic Four is an absolute mess, but I’ll at least concede that it’s an interesting mess. It doesn’t merely feel like some paint-by-numbers superhero film that some studio pumped out just to compete with Marvel Studios. Somewhere hidden within this jumbled heap is the spark of a great idea crafted by people who actually cared, but somewhere along the way something happened. I don’t know if it was studio interference or mere incompetence, but something went wrong and the whole film suffers for it. The first half of the movie is pretty decent, even brilliant at times, but all goodwill is lost by the end and now I’m somewhat pining for the days of Michael Chicklis in a rubber orange rock suit; at least his version of The Thing had a more defined personality. I’m not angry at Fantastic Four. I’m just sad and disappointed. I’m sad and disappointed because this movie didn’t just shoot itself in the foot. It shot itself in the face. Repeatedly.
FINAL VERDICT: 4/10