Sunday 9 August 2015

REVIEW: Fantastic Four

I wanted to like this film, I really did. I was highly suspicious of the idea of a dark, gritty, realistic take on the Fantastic Four, the most colourful and inoffensive of the Silver Age comic book heroes. Yes, they faced monstrous threats, and yes, there were tragic elements – Ben Grimm's self-loathing due to his transformation, most notably – but it was essentially cosmic fun in primary colours. So getting Josh Trank to make a dark sci-fi film based on the property did not appeal to me. But then... I read about the production, Trank's vision for the project, saw the trailer which promised a genuinely different look at the franchise. I was ready to enjoy a completely different Fantastic Four. Then the reviews started coming in, and I wanted to enjoy it all the more, because everyone else said that I shouldn't. Unfortunately...

Fantastic Four is a failure. A qualified failure, to be sure, but a failure nonetheless. It's a real pity, because there seems to be a decent film buried in there somewhere. Trank has taken to social media to defend himself, suggesting that the studio hacked the film to pieces, and I can readily believe that. There's clearly a massive chunk of the film missing; as other critics have pointed out, it seems to entirely lack a second act. Or perhaps the second act is there, but the third act was that incoherent last fifteen minutes. I don't know; the whole film is so lopsided it's hard to tell. Nonetheless, Trank cannot be without fault here. The film is grey, slow and uninteresting for far too much of its truncated runtime. The cast, all of whom are perfectly excellent actors, lack the material to show this, and are severely lacking in chemistry. At no point did Sue and Johnny come across as brother and sister, there was no spark between Sue and Reed, supposedly set to one day fall hopelessly in love, and nothing made me believe that Ben would risk his life at a moment's notice for his childhood friend.

The relationships of the Four are the foundation of the comics' appeal. They are a family, joined by blood, marriage, friendship and trust. It's a great idea to see the early days of these relationships, the foundation of this family, but there's really very little sense that this is what we're seeing here. Even the childhood meeting of Ben and Reed, both troubled in different ways and unappreciated by their families, sets this up well but is carried forward poorly. There's no substance to these relationships. The only character who really does anything to hold the dynamic together is Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm, who convinces as a father, or father figure, for Sue, Johnny and Reed, and to a lesser extent, Victor (of whom more later). If it wasn't for his classy performance, it'd be hard to buy into anything we saw these kids accomplish.

Some fans have taken exception to the choice to have much younger versions of the Four than in the original comics, based more closely on the Ultimate Fantastic Four series that retold the characters' origins in a more modern setting. Personally, I feel this works, or at least could work, particularly the updating of their roles as interdimensional explorers, rather than astronauts, which feels very much of its time. However, it's no surprise that the film came out so depressing and dreary. The Ultimate comics line started off as an updated take on a classic romp, and ended up as pretentiously grimdark as Watchmen fan fiction. Aside from a handful of genuinely funny asides, this film is an utterly joyless.

There are elements there that are clear steps in the right direction. Reed is an astonishingly advanced child, far more intelligent than anyone else in his school (admittedly not saying much, considering how breathtakingly stupid the staff there are). As an adult, he's enthusiastic but emotionally illiterate, yet compassionate. Johnny is intelligent and capable but at risk of letting his more anarchic, fun-loving tendencies take over his life. Those are the right traits for these characters. On the other hand, Ben displays very little character once he's grown up, until he is transformed into a CGI behemoth. What a waste of Jamie Bell. Sue is at least characterised as a scientist, contributing to the mission, which is a step up on previous portrayals, but she is also lacking in character, and for Pete's sake, they don't even take her on the mission. I'll say that again: Sue Storm is not included on the mission of discovery that creates the Fantastic Four. Apparently it's a boys only club, since Victor von Doom goes in her place. She gets zapped with powers anyway, but for crying out loud.

There are some very odd decisions in the script, as well. Making Sue a Kosovan orphan, giving Ben an abusive older brother (and forever sullying his catchphrase in the process), making Doom an aggressive emo IT guy. Just really bizarre story choices. At least the purported hacktivist backstory got dropped in production, but how can they get Doom so wrong again? He's really a very simple character. He wants three things: to rule the world and remake it as he sees fit, to prove he's better than Reed, and to win Sue's affections. Simple, easily explainable character traits. How can they get someone as good as Toby Kebbell and lumber him with such a waste of a character, eventually reducing to nothing more than an angry superbeing who wants the destroy the Earth for some ill-defined reason. Possibly revenge, possibly general lunacy, possibly something to do with his political beliefs that really doesn't make any sense. I'm not sure, the last battle was so rushed I lost the plot completely.

Trank intended to make this film a tribute of sorts to the work of David Cronenberg. As a big Cronenberg fan, I was entirely up for this; the Four's transformations are potentially horrifying and it would logically be a nightmarish experience before they got used to them. There's so much material for Ben, in particular, that would benefit from that approach. Apart from some visual nods to such Cronenberg classics as Scanners and The Fly, this approach is clearest in the mutations of the Four after their first catastrophic mission. Even this is woefully underexplored, though. There's clearly so much more material with the Four learning to accept and use their abilities that was excised to get this down to TV movie length. It's a shame, because a lot of what we do see is visually fantastic. Johnny truly is a Human Torch, the fire burning from within his body, while at last the Thing truly looks like a man of rock. Although, god, give him some pants. I have no desire to see the Thing's thing, but being confronted by its absence is almost worse. No wonder he's so angry at Reed. The mission to the other dimension is also visually interesting. Doom goes and pokes a river of what is seemingly some kind of living energy – having seemingly been trained by the Prometheus school of science – causing all the chaos in the first place, but this too is barely explored beyond the cool visuals. This strange otherplace is named Planet Zero, not the Negative Zone as in the comics. Perhaps it is so called because it is, in fact, the zero point between the positive universe as the Negative Zone? Or possibly it's called Zero because there's virtually nothing there. Where the hell's Annihilus when you need him?

After the overblown, chaotic ending, the Four appear to have bonded into a super-team, although there is no sense that they've earned this camaraderie or even really learned to work that well together. No one addresses that Ben has been killing people on behalf of the US military, that Johnny was keen to join him, or that several quite important characters have been killed off. Everyone seems to have forgotten the various betrayals of trust that led them to the situation they are now in. We cut to credits, after which there was a surprising lack of any extra scene or teaser. But then, they probably realised they weren't getting a sequel. Although not unwatchable, and featuring some interesting ideas, this is a grey, dreary take on what was once an exciting property. This should have felt like a rival to Guardians of the Galaxy, not The Dark Knight's embarrassing younger brother. The 2005 film wasn't great, but at least it was fun.

More grim than Grimm, this was a missed opportunity. 

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