FANTASTIC FOUR REVIEW
BAXTER BUILDING DATA FILE
DIRECTOR: Josh Trank
STARS: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Reg E. Cathey
GENRE: Sci-fi /Comic Book
Certificate: PG-13 /12 A
Run Time: 100 minutes approx.
Reed Richards creates an inter-dimensional gateway. He and his team cannot resist visiting the new universe. They are changed into super-beings, with powers that frighten and repel them yet naturally remain of great interest to the military. Matters are complicated further when one of the team becomes the super-villain, DR. DOOM. The remaining team must join forces and pool powers to defeat the threat.
I once met a great film director and asked his secret to success. ‘Be nice, decent and liked. Talent and hard work go so far but you need a network of support and good will’. He was right. Just look at the sad mess of FANTASTIC FOUR, including its muddled marketing and mismanaged Director.
You see: this whole thing COULD have been retrieved from total flop status via basic damage limitation. Instead, we have been almost programmed NOT see it at best and DESTROY the piece critically if we do endure a viewing.
20th century Fox might be thought to resemble a moustache twirling, string pulling villain of the piece here? The trailer strategy was unclear; 3-d conversion plans changed and there was no critics’ screening. One might suspect them of deliberate self-sabotage in a bid to force a deal with Marvel Studios.
Sony managed to get the best of both worlds. They retain Spider-Man; yet now benefit from association with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All they needed was one Spider flop last year as catalyst. But Fox seemed to want better for FANTASTIC FOUR, despite the confusing marketing moves. They apparently wanted their OWN take on an expanded Marvel universe. X-Men and Fantastic Four would equate to the Marvel AVENGERS.
Indeed, so keen were Fox to protect their new franchise that they apparently seized control of the film’s editing. Trank was ‘locked out’. He might thereby seem an innocent victim, but for nasty rumors regarding his conduct. And there does not appear to have been a truly determined effort on Trank’s part to redress things. That’s plain odd in an era of social media (which he did use and sometimes injudiciously, even petulantly). Where is SUPER-INJUNCTION MAN when you need him?
IE: Context DOES impact content and the perception of product. If you are thought of as unsympathetic, then your final hope of spinning a bad film into a good one is lost. Things are compounded if working as a renegade outside of studio support. ‘A house divided cannot rule’. Result here: FANTASTIC FOUR is a truly terrible film.
The pace is sluggish. There is no sense of creative transition between or within scenes. One may as well be simply looking at a sequence of stills or simple home video footage. This is ironically enough a mercifully short movie. It somehow feels like the longest super-hero film in history; as elongated as one of its super-human heroes.
Ah yes, those recurring words: super-hero. This is technically speaking a super-hero, comic book, genre picture. It should be done under trade descriptions. It is at least ONE HOUR before ANYONE gets any power or does anything remotely ‘super’. Once everyone is empowered, there is a complete absence of joy in the newfound abilities granted, despite a truly awkward attempt at a rousing and sequel friendly ending.
Admittedly, one would be fairly miserable if converted to a human mass of rocks (Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm /THING). But the rest of the team have no such excuse. They SHOULD be lapping it up. This is not a Christopher Nolan Batman film or even a Zack Snyder runner up.
Some might also say that Trank was going for a body-horror, David Cronenberg vibe. Fine, except that even Cronenberg at his darkest allows characters and associated atmospherics to exude some fun, albeit of a macabre and ‘dark’ variety. Dark need not mean dull or dour and even if it did, FANTASTIC FOUR was NOT the forum to experiment with tone in too radical a fashion.
The F4 comic books were at their heart, light and optimistic affairs. Of course, there have been new iterations and updates. But those are variations on a theme; the central message and tone remain set in those initial images of the 1960s.
And the previous F4 movies of 2005-7, although weak, at least managed to capture the original comics’ basic visual scheme. That was perfectly adequate in a Saturday morning, kids’ cartoon way. Heck, even the Roger Corman 1994 version has some enjoyment value in the ‘so bad it’s good’ way, thereby making for a fun watch akin to flicking through a comic book.
Put simply: the source material simply did not require an over-earnest, reverent elevation to some more worthy or substantial interpretation. This should be a pop art period piece with upbeat tone, stopping just short of camp. The key to success is so simple; so clear and so painfully absent here.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar and sometimes a comic book / cartoon is just a comic book /cartoon. I’m not disrespecting the medium but applauding its variety. There is zero merit in imposing a universally ‘dark’ or ‘gritty’ tone. And that’s a painfully obvious fact in Trank’s movie and a sad thing to watch. In his bid to be ‘different’ or even subversive, he has simply created a failed clone in a batch of now frequently indistinguishable comic book formula ‘origin story’ films: Tragic Irony #1.
There are MOMENTS of playful, child-like enthusiasm and optimism that simply happen to be shot at night (dark visuals; bright tone). Remember another man who accomplished that balance and made it a signature move? Mr. Steven Spielberg. Tragic Irony #2: one is watching Trank simultaneously ignite and extinguish his inner childish imagination and with that, his career prospects. He fails to exploit his own potential.
Had Trank been encouraged (perhaps by a more collaborative studio) to harness those sparks of ability, then we might be looking at joint winner of the ‘Heir to Spielberg’ award (standing with Colin ‘Jurassic World and Star Wars 9’ Trevorrow and JJ ‘I reboot everything now’ Abrams).
But the film would never have won awards in any event, even with improved tone. You will witness some of the flattest line delivery in history here. Kate Mara (so good in HOUSE OF CARDS) may as well turn to wood as her special power, despite looking lovely. Jamie Bell is given little to do here and one simply cannot judge quite how effectively he emotes in Mo-Cap. He is yet to find his adult version of Billy Elliot and may have to face life as a solid supporting actor but never the movie star.
Are there ANY redeeming qualities? It goes without saying that the special effects, lighting and location work are excellent. Dr Doom is a great villain and visually compelling; injecting real threat and tension to the movie for a brief period. Miles Teller has a young Richard Gere quality in some shots and Michael B Jordan does have a charismatic presence.
And contrary to popular belief, there IS also a fairly clear verisimilitude in story and structure: a welcome change in a genre now bloated by continuity and faux plot twist complexities. The pseudo-science is fairly sound and the building montages match that sense of innovation. But those isolated merits do not make the movie entertaining, watchable or distinguished as a whole.
A good ‘comic book’ film is not about how ‘dark’ or ‘original’ the vision. What matters is a cohesion in tone and execution; via clarity in pace and escapist joy to pervade and redeem even the ‘darker’ moments. See: IRON MAN; BATMAN BEGINS; SUPERMAN II; GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Don’t see FANTASTIC FOUR. Even out of morbid curiosity or cinematic masochism.
Fantastic bore. Grade D-OOMED.