So I ignored the warnings and went to see the new Fantastic Four reboot. I knew the odds weren’t good — critics were shut out of preview screenings and there were rumblings of a mess behind the scenes with director Josh Trank, the promising filmmaker who brought us Chronicle, one of the few watchable found footage films in history. Early reviews have been borderline terrifying.
Still, I wanted to decide for myself. I think Trank is a good director with a distinct visual flair and approach to characters, and I loved the casting of fresh, up-and-coming names such as Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B Jordan and Jamie Bell. The trailers looked fantastic too, so I figured things couldn’t be that horrible.
And honestly, it’s not THAT bad. Certainly not 9% Rotten Tomatoes bad. For starters, it’s very different to the 2005 film, the only things from which I remember were the campiness and Jessica Alba’s abysmal blonde dye job. So that’s a good thing. Secondly, the young performers are all terrific dramatic actors who provide solid efforts across the board. Thirdly, Trank maintains much of his unique visual style. It’s a little dark, a little gritty, and the effects have an impressive realism to them when they probably would be cartoonish in lesser hands.
That said, I can’t deny that Fantastic Four is a savage mess. The tone, the pacing and the script are all over the place. Something must have gone very wrong during the filming and editing process because there was so much potential. If only the pieces could have been put together in the right way the film could have been a smash.
The story starts off with plenty of intrigue. A fifth grade genius, Reed Richards (who grows up to be Miles Teller), designs a teleportation device which he powers up with the aide of a classmate, Ben Grimm (who grows up to be Jamie Bell). Seven years later, their work is discovered by Franklin Storm (Reg E Cathey), who hires Richards to work alongside his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and the pioneer of the project, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Franklin’s troubled biological son Johnny (Michael B Jordan) also gets involved.
As you probably already know, the experiment leads them to develop an assortment of superpowers. The problem is that at least half the film is about getting to this point, and by the time they get there there’s not much time for much else. Consequently, the film feels like the extended pilot of a TV series where everything is about setting the stage for the future. It’s an origins film that spends all its time on the origin part and doesn’t give our new heroes enough time to bond and form a real team. Certain arcs and character development sequences take far too long, while areas you would have thought are important end up being rushed or skipped over entirely. In a typical film, characters are supposed to grow from point A to point B; this film spends most of its time stuck at A and teleports to B at the very end.
It felt like they had to fit a 3-hour movie in 2 hours but couldn’t decide or agree on which bits to emphasise and which bits to cut. It’s as though everyone involved in the project expected there to be more sequels and thought it was therefore okay to deliver an incomplete first film.
The signals of messiness are sprinkled throughout the movie. It starts off with a cutesy, innocent vibe infused with some light humour, but the lengthy middle section is dead serious and flat — and worst of all, boring. The best and most compelling part of the film is when they travel via the machine and seeing their transformations for the first time. It’s basically a horror film at this point — and a very good one too — but it fits uncomfortably into the overall picture. The final climax reverts to more typical action hero cliches, which it inevitably had to do, though it’s clunkily thrown together and basically discards the tensions between the characters built up throughout the film. The “hero” speeches and dialogue as the film nears the finish line also comes across as forced and arbitrary.
The script struggles as well. There are aspects that fail the logic test, and the characters’ motivations don’t always make sense. The result is a story that tries to be more grounded than the film it is rebooting but ends up lacking credibility.
It’s unfortunate that Fantastic Four turned out the way it did because there was so much potential. While it will ultimately be remembered as a failure, the film still had a few solid moments and some flashes of brilliance that sadly remind us of what it could have been.
Some day we might hear what really happened behind the scenes. At the moment a sequel is scheduled for a June 2017 release, but it remains to be seen whether they will really go ahead with it given the poor reviews and lower-than-projected earnings. I will no doubt be in the minority, but I still want to see it made. Fantastic Four was not so bad that it can’t be redeemed by a great sequel.
2.75 stars out of 5
PS: Trank, who was painted as a tyrant by some reports, is either shifting the blame or genuinely had his hands tied by his bosses. In response to the negative feedback, Trank posted and hen quickly deleted this message on Twitter: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”