★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Official Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.
Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Simon Kinberg (screenplay), Jeremy Slater (screenplay), Josh Trank (screenplay) supposedly based on the works of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Stars: Miles Teller (Reed Richards), Kate Mara (Sue Storm), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm), Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm), Toby Kebbell (Victor Von Doom), Reg. E. Cathey (Franklin Storm)
FANTASTIC FOUR is one of those movies that will probably have a Netflix documentary made about the production in about 20 years. It is a bad fumble by a studio and talent that should never have messed up on this level. My review is going to be in two-parts. The first part is addressing the film on its own merits divorced from the source material. The second part is a dissection of why the deviations from the source material sealed their....doom (pun intended).
I rewatched the, mostly derided, FANTASTIC FOUR film from 2005 last night as a prelude to watching this one today. After watching both of them I can say that the 2005 version comes off pretty much like a super-hero sit-com with fairly cheap special f/x but enjoyable while the 2015 version comes off dark, depressing, and mostly incoherent. The new film is a bait-and-switch, or at least it was for me, in that the first half of the movie was actually kind of interesting and intriguing. Kicking off with Reed Richards as a young and brilliant child who has already cracked the code for teleportation—IF ONLY SOME ADULT WOULD LISTEN TO HIM! He has a lifelong friend and protector in the less brilliant but implicitly athletic Ben Grimm. In this version of the story, both come from clearly blue collar backgrounds somewhere unclear in the state of New York. Reed's parents don't have a clue what to really do with him and Ben's family runs a salvage yard. This is clearly supposed to set up a bit of a class conflict between Reed and Ben with the more upper class Storms (Sue and Johnny) and Victor von Doom. And in a better constructed film that might have actually been followed through more explicitly.
Dr. Franklin Storm, Sue and Johnny's father, is a scientist in charge of a program attempting to perfect human teleportation to explore an other-dimensional planet they have discovered and named Planet Zero. Why Planet Zero? The less questions you ask the more you will be able to handle this movie, so it's better you just don't ask.
Reed, Johnny, and Victor are the ones who decide after a night of imbibing that it's just not fair for the government to come in and use their technology to send some astronauts to Planet Zero and prevent them from being as famous as Neil Armstrong. So they decide recklessly to do it themselves under cover of night. Reed calls in Ben to tag along because, sure, that's what stupid college kids do. Sue, being the only one with any semblance of responsibility is not aware of this scheme.
So our four reckless drunk numbskulls transport themselves to Planet Zero where it's all dark and spooky and then things start going completely to Hell as the ground starts quaking and glowing green liquid (lava?) starts spewing everywhere and they hightail it back to their teleportation machine. But Victor doesn't make it, and when last we see him he is at the bottom of a mountain and his space suit is melting into his skin. For some inexplicable reason, as the door starts to close on Ben a whole bunch of rocks from the planet start flying purposefully into his compartment. Also, some flames appear out of nowhere and fly into Johnny's compartment. Again, no reason given for these seemingly sentient actions by rocks and flame. Also, during this, on our world Sue has become aware of what's happening and is trying to get these guys back by doing some sort of manual override of the remote return system. And when it does return, there is an explosion and she's blasted invisible.
What follows after the return is eerie and creepy and the stuff of a horror sci-fi film. What follows is a bit disturbing with the government taking control of the four and housing them separately where they are experimenting on them and studying them. Franklin Storm is demanding to see his children. And this is all very interesting up through the point where Reed breaks out, stretches his way in to see Ben and promises him that he'll fix things, and then runs away.
This is the point where the movie flashes a "ONE YEAR LATER" title card and an entirely different movie starts. Whereas the first half of the movie had a clear narrative and developing characters and relationships along with a unique horrific tone to it, the second half of the movie is all over the place tonally and narratively. Suddenly we've gone from something kind of haunting to a pretty run-of-the-mill super-hero movie. And it makes no sense. But then the government sends some astronauts to Planet Zero which means Doom has a chance to return here. So he does. And every gawdamned second he's on screen I wanted to set my hair on fire. Visually he's ridiculous looking. His motivations make no sense. His dialogue makes no sense. His powers make no sense. He's gone from being a somewhat vain aristocrat type to a skinny combination of the 1940s gasmask-wearing super-hero Sandman and Edvard Munch's "The Scream." At one point, he's literally walking down a hallway and just looking at random people and their heads explode like we've walked into a SCANNERS movie. However, at literally no point during the increasingly idiotic final act when Reed, Ben, Sue, and Johnny are fighting him on Planet Zero does Doom look at any of them and make their heads explode.
Seems to me if you're a psychotic robot man attempting to destroy Earth and you have the power to look at people and make their heads explode you might want to do that to the Fantastic Four if they're trying to stop you. And yes, Doom is tryin g to destroy Earth but we have no idea why or how he's doing it. First he says he just wants to return to Planet Zero and remake the planet into a kingdom he could rule but as soon as he gets his desire fulfilled he is suddenly making giant rocks fly up from the ground creating some blue electricity ring that starts creating a "black hole" (we know it is a "black hole" because thankfully Reed declared it so for the audience's sake) that is somehow now slowly sucking Earth through it into Planet Zero. Now, I'm not sure Doom has thought this through fully because if I'm on Planet Zero I'm not thinking it's a very smart idea to then bring AN ENTIRE OTHER PLANET piece by piece ONTO my planet. I doubt very much that anyone, including Doom, is going to survive that experience. Also...THIS IS NOT HOW BLACK HOLES WORK!
Anyway, the good guys win. Doom is defeated. And the Fantastic Four are created through one incredibly painful round of dialogue between our four heroes trying to come up with a name. And they also never actually sayyyyy the words but instead they flash the title card up instead of allowing us to hear Reed speak it. Reminiscent of Lois Lane not speaking the name "Superman" in MAN OF STEEL.
Now most people who keep up with the film-making scene know that the production on this film was in upheaval almost from the start. It started with Fox needing to get a movie rushed into production quickly so that their Fantastic Four contractual license (bought cheaply way back when Marvel was in bankruptcy rather than the darling of Disney) did not lapse and return the rights to Marvel. Then Fox handed a $120 million dollar budget to inexperienced young director Josh Trank and by all accounts a behind-the-scenes disaster went down. Taking into account some of the rumors that swirled and within the context of the movie I just watched, I'm going to hazard a guess that the first half of the film was basically all Trank had inside him to give to this movie. I think he basically hit a point where he was "done" but he still had an entire second half of a movie to construct and decided to just maybe not show up anymore. The entire second half of the movie (other than maybe the heads blowing up) didn't seem like the same movie as the first half. It felt like the kitchen had a whole lotta cooks playing around with the ingredients but nobody agreed upon what they were making or even which recipe to use.
Even within all that chaos, however, I have to admit that I like each of the main four actors. If I was going to make a FANTASTIC FOUR movie but keep the characters substantially younger than their comic book counterparts, then I would be completely okay with these people. They're giving it their best, but the chaos behind the scenes and shit-against-the-fan storytelling prevents them from ever rising up to catch a breath. They drown along with the rest of the movie.
What gets my ire up about this mediocre at best movie is that the source material from the comics really does completely give them everything they needed to make a truly fantastic film. The idea of using the Fantastic Four as the basis for a horror story about four individuals who are changed and twisted from within because of a science expedition gone awry is certainly fodder for a good story. Ask Warren Ellis. He did that in his ground-breaking series PLANETARY. So, it's not an original idea.
An original idea would actually be to adapt specific storylines from the classic eras of the FANTASTIC FOUR comics. The key here is that the FANTASTIC FOUR aren't really super-heroes so much as a family. They also are not tortured (altho Ben gets depressed sometimes). The relationships are clear with the brotherly interaction between Sue, the older sibling, and Johnny the hot-headed younger. We get to see the best-friend/brothers relationship of Reed and Ben. Then there's the comic relief of the Johnny and Ben relationship as buddies who both love and hate each other at the same time. These four are a family and the dynamics are like that of a family where frustrations and tempers can flare, but also each is completely devoted to the others to the point of self-sacrifice. And this family is a family of explorers and adventurers. They don't go on assignments for the government. They don't go on patrol looking for criminals. They seek out mysteries and explore the unknown. Their enemies come to them, more often than not. Doctor Doom is the would'a-could'a of the group. He's the vain and megalomaniacal college classmate of Reed and Ben's who was always just a little bit less intelligent than Reed and through his own hubris mangled his face in an experiment. When he returns on the scene after the Four have gained their powers, Doom has returned to his homeland of Latveria, a third-world country where he rules with a totalitarian control.
In other words, all the elements are right here for a relevant film about family, about wonder, about adventure, and maybe even a commentary on current world politics. Where the first film adaptation failed was in going for superficial laughs over substance, this film failed because it did not embrace the large canvas it had available and made, instead, a very insular and small film. It feels claustrophobic almost. There's grand cgi spectacle in it but it all feels very small and limited. The world of the Fantastic Four should be a world of excitement where anything is possible and mankind's potential is limitless.
The Fox bean-counters really need to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of whether it is in their best interest to keep dumping hundreds of millions of dollars down the shitter attempting to keep making movies that bear little more than the title in common with the Fantastic Four concept itself. Take a cue from Sony and their recent Spider-Man deal with Marvel giving Marvel back the basic creative control of the films but retaining involvement and profit potential for Sony. Imagine the marketing blitz available around 2020 after Marvel wraps up their Phase 3 with THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR PART 2 if Phase 4 was able to launch with "MARVEL'S THE FANTASTIC FOUR".
You don't even need to pay me for that million dollar idea, guys, but I wouldn't turn it down if you offered.
By the way, the following video is still the best FANTASTIC FOUR origin story ever done outside of the comics: