This year’s Fantastic Four represents Fox’s third swing at bringing the super team to the big screen. Armed with a talented young cast and a fresh origins story, this reboot might be the closest this franchise has come to success, but it’s still not nearly far enough.
Whereas the earlier films simply modernized the Fantastic Four of the 1960’s, director Josh Trank (Chronicle) relies on the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic as his source material. Here, Reed Richards is a childhood prodigy who tries to build teleportation devises out of re-purposed N64s and scrap. Seven years later, Reed, played by Miles Teller (Whiplash) and his buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, Snowpiercer) show off his refined machine to Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, House of Cards), who thinks that Reed is close to cracking inter-dimensional travel and invites him to come and work at the Baxter Foundation for prodigies. With the help of Storm’s children, Sue (Kate Mara, 127 Hours), Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle), and the not at all ominously named Victor Von Doom (Tobey Kebbell, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Reed builds a gateway to another dimension. When the first manned mission goes terribly wrong, the four are left with strange abilities and Doom is presumed dead in an alternate dimension. But of course, no one with a name like Doom stays dead for long.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Fantastic Four is how solid the first forty minutes are. The film’s first act plays like a vintage sci-fi movie and the setup works really well. The film’s cast does their best to overcome the more painful bits of dialog; Teller and Mara turn in particularly solid performances, squeezing drops of chemistry out of a clunky script. Jordan and Bell are given little time to develop any real pathos, but each give it some solid attitude. It’s a pedestrian, but perfectly pleasant blend of nonsense science and team-bonding right up to the moment that they hop into the alternate universe. By the time they snap back to reality, it feels as though the film is just as unprepared to cope with Reed and the gang’s new powers as they are.
Fantastic Four is two decent films squeezed into one insufferable one. The first is a throwback science fiction film about traveling to another dimension. The second is about a team of superheroes. The gutsy decision- and the one they did not make- would be to have this film end with the Fantastic Four getting their powers and leave the training and hero-team building for a sequel. A superhero film that doesn’t feature any superheroes is a hard sell but seeing the mess this film’s second half is, I would trade in my ticket in a second.
The second half is in such shambles it barely merits discussion. The government quickly scoops up Sue, Johnny, and Ben and looks to turn them into weapons. Reed goes rogue, primarily so Teller can re-appear with a patchy beard and a chip on his shoulder. And Dr. Doom makes an appearance in the film’s final 20 minutes to accept his award for modern film’s lamest villain. Kebbell seems equal parts confused and uninterested with his motivation and it’s hard to blame him. With the exception of a vague romantic history with Sue, there’s really very little to the character before or after his transformation from Victor Von Doom to just Doom.
The film features some solid makeup effects on both The Thing and Doom, but they are both so underutilized, we never get the wow moments that would let them shine. Jamie Bell does his best behind motion capture and voice modulation, but even great technology can’t bring wooden dialog to life. Kebbell’s arrival as Doom represents a quick blip of energy in the film’s slog of a third act but he quickly wears out his menace once it becomes clear that he has no real baring on the plot. He’s just there to blow people’s heads up with his mind and destroy the world for reasons that are clear only to him.
Superhero films don’t set the bar particularly high in terms of screenwriting ingenuity, but the script for Fantastic Four is a unique kind of disaster. The script feels like it was pieced together from the drafts a dozen different mediocre writers; three writers ended up with their names on it with Josh Trank sharing the blame with Simon Kinsberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jeremy Slater (credited with the equally terrible Lazarus Effect). It makes mistakes even the weakest entries into the genre nail down. Immediately after Reed and the others get their powers, the film jumps forward a year cutting out the best part of any origins story- the development of the heroes’ powers. The film is so eager to get to its climax, it completely forgets to make us care about the characters getting there. This would be understandable if the finale were at all compelling or even made sense. At some point Marvel should really institute a ‘No shooting beams of light into the sky’ policy.
Verdict: 1 out of 5
It’s no secret that Fantastic Four was a troubled production, which can often spell disaster for a film. So it may not exactly be a surprise that Fantastic Four is a mess, but it is shocking what an unmitigated one it is. There’s little point in assigning blame to one person when there’s so much to go around. The film’s young cast does its best to create small sparks of chemistry, but there’s no chance of anything catching fire in this wet blanket of a film. This third failed attempt to bring the Fantastic Four to the big screen begs the question if it should be the last. They’ve already green-lit a sequel for 2017, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see those plans get scrapped. I honestly can’t think of a single reason to pay the price of admission, except maybe intense morbid curiosity.