'Fantastic Four' (2015)
If there’s one thing that can be said about the new ‘Fantastic Four’ reboot, ‘Chronicle’ director Josh Trank certainly had a unique take on the material. This isn’t the dysfunctional family superhero fun of the comics (‘The Incredibles’ remains the closest thing to a proper ‘Fantastic Four’ movie), and thankfully it’s not the tin-earned stupidity of the early 2000s movies either.
Trank tried to transform Stan Lee’s first gang of superheroes into a strange body horror/science fiction story that’s certainly unlike anything else in an overcrowded superhero blockbuster market. Unfortunately, those intentions slowly disappear as the movie stumbles toward a supremely disappointing climax. There was probably a great ‘Fantastic Four’ movie to be made out of Trank’s original pitch for the project, but this isn’t it.
Things kick off in childhood when a boy scientist Reed Richards and his kindly dumb buddy Ben Grimm set to work on a transportation device that shuts down the power grid of their home town. Years later, Richards (now played by Miles Teller) and his assistant Grimm (Jamie Bell) debut the fully functioning transporter at a high school science fair, where it’s dismissed by the judges but draws the attention of super scientist Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). It turns out that Dr. Storm has been working on a similar device that works almost as well as Richards’. Even more bizarrely, Reed has accidentally discovered a portal to another dimension.
Soon, Richards is shipped out to Dr. Storm’s institute, where he’ll use his innovations to perfect the dimension-hopping machine along with Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and a loner scientist ominously named Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Somehow, they make it happen. But then they’re told that they aren’t allowed to go to the other dimension themselves. (Say what?)
After a drunken night of bitterness, Reed, Johhny, Victor and a tagalong Ben decide to send themselves to other side. Once there, things go disastrously wrong, trapping Doom in the other dimension and permanently altering Reed, Johnny, Ben and Sue (who shows up at the last minute to help) in ways familiar to comic book fans.
For those who know the original origin of the Fantastic Four, that’s actually a pretty clever twist on the old tale. All the right beats are here, only now with a more speculative science fiction twist as opposed to sci-fi fantasy. After the big accident, Reed’s body-stretching, Sue’s invisibility, Johnny’s ball of flame, and Grimm’s rock body are all introduced through painful body horror, which is again a very clever twist on a superhero origin story that works so well it’s surprising no one thought of it before.
While the pacing is a little choppy getting to that point and many of the would-be comedy one-liners fall flat, ‘Fantastic Four’ is actually quite an intriguing movie for this first hour. The cast are all quite strong and eccentrically chosen. Trank’s slick and shadowy visual aesthetic provides just the right combination of dread and wonder. Plus, the filmmaker has actually found a way to make the overly familiar superhero origin story structure feel fresh by shifting genres and not treating the characters as heroes at all. Unfortunately, around this point the story has to become a superhero tale, and that’s when the whole movie slips away from Trank and co.
Once the Fantastic Four get their powers, they’re swept up into a secret government facility that hopes to use them for dirty dealings. Again, it’s a clever twist on classic comic mythology, yet this time it never fully plays out. This section of the movie is rushed through at top speed to get to a point where the portal to the other dimension is opened again, allowing the now super-powered Dr. Doom to return for a big silly CGI battle. It’s sad to watch the movie devolve into the same CGI character vs. CGI character fights that tend to drag down all movies in the genre, and even sadder to watch it happen so awkwardly.
The final forty minutes or so of the movie have none of the flow of the first hour, and it feels like huge sections of the story were either lost in the editing room or watered down through one too many rewrites. It’s hard to say exactly what happened, but clearly the movie was tampered with at some point in the process. Based on the spectacular finale of ‘Chronicle’, Trank knows exactly how to shoot a massive superhero showdown, so how he could conclude such a promising movie with such a mess of a climax remains a mystery. It’s tempting to blame it all on studio interference, but who knows?
‘Fantastic Four’ went from being such a secretive production to such a troubled production (if internet rumors are to be believed anyway) that it’s impossible to say what went wrong, yet clearly something did. The cast are currently doing press stops openly admitting that they’ve yet to see the movie. After doing a ton of press for the ‘Fantastic Four’ trailer and showing up at Comic-Con, Trank has been oddly silent in the rev up to the release of his massive blockbuster.
The movie falls apart so oddly and spectacularly in its second half (building up to one big lame final line that Joss Whedon did infinitely better earlier this summer in ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’) that something must have gone wrong. There are even big eye-popping scenes from the trailer that mysteriously didn’t make the final cut. Obviously, someone got nervous and choppy in the editing room while gearing up for release, but maybe the problems started far earlier, perhaps even on the set.
Regardless, this edition of ‘Fantastic Four’ is tough to watch because it starts so promisingly before completely falling apart into something generic, overly somber, and worst of all boring. I suppose it’s a mild improvement on the previous ‘FF’ movies, just not by much. It wouldn’t surprise me if the movie tanks and the franchise has to be rebooted again. At least if this franchise has to move on, the cast is strong enough to do something interesting next time, provided that whatever behind-the-scenes shenanigans spoiled this movie don’t ruin things again in the sequel. This film is undeniably a disappointment, but thankfully it’s at least not an outright disaster.