Filmsy Reviews: Fantastic Four
Fantastic Four (20th Century Fox, 2015)
Director: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey
Quick summary: Four people acquire fantastic abilities. There's a bad guy, some weird planet, and stuff happens.
Rating: Fantastic Fraud
I'll start by going straight to the point: Fantastic Four is not a good movie. If you pay any attention to movie news, you probably suspected as much. You probably heard it was critically panned (it got a lousy 8% on Rotten Tomatoes), and that it's doing very badly at the box office. It's possible you might have also heard that the director himself complained about the movie on Twitter, citing differences with the studios and not having any say on the final stages of production, which makes it very unlikely he'll return for a sequel still scheduled for June 2017, even though some fans are already asking Fox to give the film rights back to Marvel.
What you might not have heard is that Fantastic Four isn't nearly as terrible as they're making it out to be. Don't get me wrong; I wouldn't recommend anyone to watch this movie: it's messy, disjointed, and equal parts boring and ridiculous. I'm just here to say I don't think it's getting a fair shake, and people are talking about Fantastic Four as if Tommy Wiseau had partnered with Ed Wood's ghost to work on M. Night Shyamalan's reimagining of Battlefield Earth, starring Rob Schneider, Steven Seagal and Hayden Christensen.
Produced by Uwe Boll, of course.
I think that most people were already predisposed to hate this movie no matter what, due to a series of external factors I don't feel like getting into. And I realize opinions among fanboys about comic book movies are pretty divisive, but there is more or less a consensus on what are the very best (The Dark Knight, The Avengers) and the very worst (Green Lantern, Catwoman). The new Fantastic Four is not a good fit for either of these categories. It belongs among the ranks of movies like Man of Steel, X-Men 3 and Daredevil. And while that's not precisely good company, it's still orders of magnitude above Ghost Rider and Elektra.
With that out of the way, let's focus on the movie's faults and merits. Fair warning: there aren't many merits.
This is actually the third incarnation of Fantastic Four. The first one was made in the '90s with a very low budget, and it was allegedly never meant to be seen by the public, but merely so the studio could keep the film rights to the characters. Then came the commercially successful but critically trashed movies directed by Tim Story in the early 2000s (the ones with Jessica Alba). So when a new reboot was announced, I was very apathetic to the whole thing. I had completely forgotten this movie was being made until last month, when the final trailer was released, and I also found out that the guy who did Chronicle was the director. That had my attention, because Chronicle was a very innovative take on the superhero genre, to the point it made me watch a found footage film and kept me interested until the end. So I knew I had to check it out.
If the movie had been half as good as this trailer promised, I would've been really happy. It made it seem like a unique take on a familiar genre, taking your typical Joseph Campbell hero's journey and turning it into Fantastic Voyage meets Alien, very much in the spirit of the original run of the comic book. Too bad the actual movie failed to deliver on that promise.
As is customary for first movies or reboots, this was an origin story. Concretely, it's lifted from the pages of Marvel's Ultimate Universe, and it's a retelling of science prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his childhood buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) building a teleportation machine in a garage as a high school science fair project. When Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his scientist daughter Sue (Kate Mara) witness what looks like a failed attempt to make it work, they reveal that they are conducting similar research and ask Reed to be part of a team to finally get it right. Together with Sue's rebellious brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who's a very skilled mechanic, and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), another brilliant scientist who has a thing for Sue and some serious attitude problems but is otherwise an alright guy, the Baxter Building team manages to build a teleportation device, only to discover it actually leads to what looks like another dimension, which they label "Planet Zero". When the people in charge find out about this amazing development, they decide the project would be better in the hands of more experienced scientists instead of a bunch of teenagers. Richards and company don't take the news so well... and you can probably guess what happens next.
They send in Matt Damon, that's what happens.
The movie starts well, if a bit slowly. We get introduced to the characters, get a glimpse of their personalities, and an idea of what to expect. But about about a third in, there's a sudden wide turn while shifting gears, and it's like watching a completely different movie. Had it remained that way I'd be okay with it, but instead the movie keeps changing pace and shifting gears while the road gets bumpy. Then right before the end, the engine finally gives up and goes on in flames. I realize that's probably not a faithful analogy because I know next to nothing about cars, but it still makes more sense than what actually happens on screen.
And while the actors do the best they can with the material they got, one of my main complaints, which I didn't see in any of the reviews, is that the group dynamics feel very artificial. The Fantastic Four are supposed to be very tight, because they don't save the world together as just a team; they are also a family. But at no point did I feel that kind of chemistry with any of the main characters. I didn't feel the connection of Ben and Reed's lifelong friendship, nor did I perceive a genuine sibling bond between Sue and Johnny, which should have been there, race difference notwithstanding, since there was good rapport between Sue and her adoptive father. There's definitely not any sort of connection among Sue and Reed either, and we are supposed to be rooting for them as a romantic couple. There's nods to the rivalry between Reed and Victor, but it's very subtle, and Doom's spiral into villainy happens in a way that renders these interactions absolutely null. Johnny and Ben's frenemyship was barely hinted towards the very end of the film.
The plot is at times utterly simplistic, and then it gets incredibly and unnecessarily convoluted. One scene is deadpan expository dialogue, while the following one attempts levity, and the one after that looks like something out of a slasher movie, then it's back to serious business. It's like everyone in the universe this movie takes place was bipolar. Not only that, there are so many continuity gaffes it's hard not to spot them even if you're not the type who pays attention to that sort of thing.
At one point, I was expecting Human Torch to be replaced by this fella without it being addressed at all.
It seems like the only consistent thing about Fantastic Four is how inconsistent it is. Considering all the reshoots that were made at the last minute, and Trank's remarks about not having final cut, I'm thinking there might be some truth to the rumors about executive meddling, and perhaps this movie would've ended up very differently had the director had his way. At this point it hardly makes any difference, though.
What bothers me is that throughout the whole movie, there are hints that this could've been a great movie. The casting is pretty solid, the action scenes are well executed, and its visual style remarkable. The script could've used some work, especially Act 3, which looks like it was improvised on the last days of shooting, and there are other elements that are either missing or look out of place, but there's undoubtedly a lot of potential that remained untapped, which is the real tragedy of this movie.
But the thing that really upset me about Fantastic Four, what made me consider it a bad movie as opposed a mediocre one, is that it committed the one truly unforgivable crime for a movie of its kind: despite all the craziness surrounding it, Fantastic Four somehow manages to be boring as hell. Say what you want about movies like Manos: The Hands of Fate or Sharknado, but at least you can watch them with friends and have a good laugh at the expense of bad cinema. A boring movie, on the other hand, has no such value, and thus can be considered a complete waste to watch it.
There's not even a part where the Thing honors his surname and goes all grim.
Given the poor reception that Fantastic Four got at the box office (about $26 million, for a movie whose budget was 5 times that), I probably don't need to tell you to avoid it. But don't wait for it to come out on video, even out of curiosity to see if it's really that bad, because again, it is not THAT bad, but it is a fantastic bore, so it's not worth your time.
What you should be watching instead
If you are interested in a movie that combines action and comedy, featuring intense family dynamics, compelling storytelling, superpowers and a megalomaniac villain, look no further than The Incredibles.
Big Hero 6 is another great option that touches on some of the same themes.
But if you want something more dramatic, like dealing with a radical transformation and how it would affect normal people in a realistic world, Josh Trank already made the perfect movie with Chronicle.
Seriously, Chronicle is brilliant, and if you haven't watched it already you should go do that now... if only so you could then spend the rest of the week scratching your head wondering what went wrong along the way between that and Fantastic Four. And speaking of disasters, remember what I said at the beginning about the Corman movie? Turns out they're making a documentary about it, which you can help to fund. Here's the trailer for it:
You can even watch the full movie online since someone took the task of uploading it, but I won't be linking to it for legal/ethical reasons. If you're curious enough and have no moral qualms about piracy, it's not that hard to find if you know your way around search engines.
Still better than Green Lantern... seriously, fuck that movie.
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