Have you ever read a Fantastic Four comic? Did it make you smile? If so, you should probably steer clear of Josh Trank’s FANTASTIC FOUR, a film that I suspect would equate generating a smile with some sort of failure.
A word of warning: this review contains SPOILERS.
This new retooling of the story takes a few cues from Brian Michael Bendis’ Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, only to jettison any sense of energy or uniformity. It starts out with Reed Richards as a kid talking about how when he grows up, he wants to be the inventor of a working teleporter. His teacher chastises him and tells him to pick a real career. This type of dressing down from teachers is sadly not unheard of. But in this film, the scene rings false, particularly in the relaxed and cruel manner in which these disparaging words are dispensed.
Seven years later, Reed (Miles Teller) has made friends with the working class Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and the two are ready to unveil their creation at the high school science fair. And it works. Though it creates a loud noise that causes some minor damage to the gymnasium, Reed and Ben demonstrate a fully functional teleportation device in front of hundreds of people. The response on the part of the judges is to angrily mock Richards and Grimm, saying there was no science on display in their project. They disqualify them from the fair, amidst other threats. This is the beginning of a pattern that will be repeated throughout the film. FANTASTIC FOUR relies on characters reacting in ways that defy all forms of logic, simply to move the inconsistent story forward.
Brilliant scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara) happen to be standing nearby. They’ve been looking for bright minds to help in their project, specifically the exact same project Reed and Ben just demonstrated. Quite fortunate that a famed scientist was scouting talent at high school science fairs and just happened to be within eyeshot of the exact same invention he and his team have been working on. Reed is drafted to help build the teleportation device for the government. He starts working with Franklin and Susan in New York City’s Baxter Building.
There are also two late additions to the team. Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) is Franklin’s biological son. He has a high IQ but he’s also rebellious and acts out against his scientifically minded family. Johnny is working on the project only until he can get his car back. Yes, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds.
Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) meanwhile is a troubled loner who had left the project years before, after developing a distrust of the government. He reluctantly joins the team, but exhibits petty jealousy and pines for Susan. The person who we know will become one the Fantastic Four’s greatest adversaries has been written as an immature, socially awkward, pitiful whiner who is shy around girls.
The team gets the machine working, teleporting a chimpanzee to an alternate dimension that is called the Negative Zone in comic lore, but referred to as the less inspiring Planet Zero here. This is the only test the teleporter receives, as the government immediately says they are now ready to send human subjects. Our heroes are upset when it is made clear that they will not be the first humans to visit this alternate dimension, the project instead being handed over to trained NASA personnel. This is disappointing but not unreasonable and it’s surprising that anyone besides Victor reacts as headstrong and foolhardy as they do.
Reed, Johnny and Victor drown their sorrows by passing around a flask and in a fit of drunken misguidedness, decide to teleport themselves without any silly government interference. This film devotes more time than any previous incarnation to describing how the Fantastic Four got their powers and it couldn’t be less awe-inspiring. Cosmic rays? Nope. An accident in outer or interdimensional space? Not exactly. So how did they get their powers? Well, they were really drunk, you see…
Before he can sober up too much, Reed even calls up his old friend Ben to join the adventure. The four make the journey, ready to plant an American flag on Planet Zero. But after investigating a strange glowing green ooze, the terrain erupts around them. Victor is lost and the rest of the team barely make it back to their own dimension. They return exhibiting the powers we know them to have. Reed screams as his body stretches, Ben cries out from a pile of rocks and Johnny appears to be a lifeless, flaming skeleton. Even Susan, who wasn’t invited for some unexplained reason, gets a blast of whatever they brought back with them. The whole sequence is over the top in its bid to be horrific.
By this point, FANTASTIC FOUR has already failed to impress despite its ambitions. But it is after the team gains their powers that the film truly goes off the rails. Reed escapes from the Area 57 black site while his friends remain in government custody. The military seems less interested in helping the team than they do in using them as weapons. One year later, they have succeeded in doing just that with the Thing, who is now responsible for at least 47 confirmed kills. Yes, the Thing. Benjamin Grimm. A weapon of mass destruction and mass murderer.
It’s astonishing that FANTASTIC FOUR seems unaware of the statement it has made. Victor Von Doom is the obvious villain of the film, but it appears as if his innate distrust of the government and everything it stands for was correct. The government wastes almost no time in trying to turn the Fantastic Four into tools, designed to clean up problem areas in the world where governments are fragile and financial interests are high.
Eventually, someone remembers that there’s a woman in this movie and Susan is tasked with getting on the internet so they can locate Reed. They do, bringing him back to the facility in a way that makes his earlier disappearance almost completely unnecessary to the plot. The government needed Richards not only for his powers but to rebuild the teleporter. The government couldn’t simply use the schematics or resources from before because… I really can’t remember. Honestly, there was probably some simplistic explanation given but at this point, I had stopped trying to apply any sense of rational thought in regards to FANTASTIC FOUR.
What I have described takes up the majority of the film, but it gets worse. Because with just over twenty minutes to go, we finally get the emergence of our villain – Victor Von Doom, still alive and now superpowered. Not only does Doom look ridiculous, he acts that way as well. The film had already painted itself into a corner by confirming Doom’s earlier suspicions about government shenanigans. So without much reason, it now turns him into a genocidal maniac out to destroy the world. The final battle is a mishmash of flying bodies amidst an ugly terrain with a painfully by-the-numbers approach. The film can’t even offer decent eye candy since, even at a budget of $122 million, the special effects in the newest FANTASTIC FOUR are worse than those seen in the 2005 version.
How did things go so spectacularly wrong? Already we have seen a behind the scenes drama that is more interesting and tragic than anything on the screen. Some reports have suggested that Trank was indecisive and ultimately destructive and that his erratic behavior is to blame for the mess we have now. Trank and his supporters have suggested he had a vision that was sabotaged from day one by people at 20th Century Fox. Does one side deserve most of the blame, or should the responsibility be divvied up equally amongst both sides? We will likely never know the full story. But FANTASTIC FOUR is so unremittingly awful and ill-conceived from start to finish, it’s hard to believe Trank’s original film could have been any better than the grotesque spectacle we are witness to now.
There are quite a few depressing similarities to Trank’s earlier film CHRONICLE. In that film, a group of young people discover a strange, otherworldly substance which gives them powers. A few of them learn to deal with their problems while one becomes a villain. Meanwhile, they argue and mope around, one of the group deals with an abusive home life, etc. All of these elements are repeated in FANTASTIC FOUR in the most uninspiring ways.
Everyone in the cast appears to be wearing a look of constant regret. One can picture them jumping at the chance to be part of a superhero franchise. Add to that the solid notices Trank received from his earlier film and it should have seemed like a no-brainer. But now they go through their parts, stifled by the terrible script and aware that they have found themselves in a complete misfire. Jamie Bell is miscast, even after he’s played by a walking hunk of rock, a hunk of rock that is no less expressive than the rest of the cast.
The character done the most disservice is Susan Storm. It’s appropriate that she is the Invisible Woman, since the film takes every opportunity to forget about her. Of the four, she is given the least amount of character development. As I mentioned earlier, she is not even invited on the initial trip to Planet Zero, despite being an integral part of the teleporter’s development. This is telling. There are lots of hints throughout the film that Trank would have preferred the character didn’t even exist. We are treated to a complete boy’s club with Susan occasionally interjecting dialogue to remind them that women have something to contribute, only to be ignored.
There are a lot of problems that doom this film (no pun intended, really), but the biggest is the tone. This is a humorless, bleak film that seems steadfastly opposed to its audience finding any enjoyment in it whatsoever. The only thing more grey and nondescript than the ugly cinematography is everything else. This isn’t a gritty reboot in the vein of BATMAN BEGINS, the DAREDEVIL TV series or even MAN OF STEEL, a film I also disliked. It’s an active battle against anyone mistaking these characters for people who could ever experience or elicit a sense of joy or wonder.
A film can be forgiven any sin, save one – the sin of being boring. This is a sin FANTASTIC FOUR commits from its very first scene, only to double-down with each moment that passes. Even the film’s mercifully short running time is betrayed by a narrative that creaks laboriously from one scene to the next.
FANTASTIC FOUR is not a film without promise. Unfortunately, it’s a film hell-bent on crushing that promise under the weight of its own sullen pretentiousness. The Worst.
RATING SYSTEM AND CRITERIA
- What was the film trying to accomplish and how well did it meet those goals?
- In addition to (or sometimes despite) that, how does the film hold up on sheer entertainment value?
The Best – Reserved for the absolute cream of the crop.
Highly Recommended – Very good. Far better than your typical film and one that I will remember for some time.
Recommended – Just what it says. This is a good film and earns a recommendation. Don’t think that because it’s not one of the top two categories that these films aren’t worth your time. The “recommended” tag is a winner and nothing to sneer at.
Barely Recommended – The middle of the road. Those films where I didn’t feel it was a complete waste of time, but it didn’t set my world on fire either. Not bad, but leaves me feeling bored and/or apathetic.
Disappointing – Close but no cigar. Does a few things right but is ultimately a whole lot of wasted potential. Not recommended.
Awful – A bad movie. Pure and simple. Not worth your time.
The Worst – The Britta Perry of ratings, though not as entertaining. The bottom of the barrel.