Beyond Darkness, Beyond Fear, Lies The Fantastic
There’s a line which appears in all the trailers for this release which states, “Dr Storm, we gave you six years and billions of dollars and you gave us nothing. What’s different now?” A very apt statement which ironically could easily be turned on Fox. You withheld the rights from Marvel because you thought you could do a better job and this is what you give us? As someone who actually enjoyed the Spider-Man reboot and its sequel, my opinions on these things can sometimes fall into the minority. But I stand united with apparently anyone who sat through this mess. And I tried. I tried so hard to like this film. Despite going with the Ultimate Fantastic Four origins (dimensional travel rather than astronaut accident), casting teenage versions rather than older actors and Victor Von Doom simply being a young immigrant rather than a genius wizard dictator, I was open-minded. I went into this film with below zero expectations (if such a thing is possible) and even went out of my way to find something positive about this release but I was browbeaten by a sheer fucking blunder of a movie; and not even on a wholly offensive Transformers level but by an unexpected inexplicably dull shapeless form. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s cover the synopsis first.
The first act lays a lot of ground work establishing the vast but thoroughly unappreciated genius that is Reed Richards [Teller]. Richards and his friend Ben Grimm [Bell] work on a machine which is capable of teleporting matter to an unknown location. Unbeknownst to them, a scientific group are simultaneously working on the same thing, based on the computations of an equally intelligent but incredibly arrogant and volatile scientist, Victor Von Doom [Kebbell]. Running the operation is Dr Franklin Storm (played by Reg E Cathey) with the aid of his daughter, Sue [Mara]. Storm reaches out to Reed and brings him in on the project. After Franklin’s son Johnny [Jordan] gets into a racing accident, he forces him to work on Reed’s Quantum Gate to prove a semblance of responsibility rather than wasting his talents. After successful tests, the group are told by the financiers that NASA will take over, sending manned data collection missions. Drunkenly the four boys decide the discovery of this planet/dimension is theirs to claim and mount an unauthorised expedition. Naturally, everything goes horribly wrong; Victor is left behind seemingly dead, Ben, Reed and Johnny suffer horrible side-effects and Sue (who brought them back after discovering what they had done) is hit by a shockwave from the gate. And that’s when the film gets really shit. How do they learn to control their newfound powers? Who knows? Reed escapes the facility and then we jump-cut forward a whole year.
In the comics, the Fantastic Four relies on a trinity of elements to produce a successful story: family, science and adventure. In this regard it truly stands apart from other comic books. Admittedly, it’s not always great, the title’s been around since the sixties and I can only think of a handful of runs that are even worth pursuing but it has its own unique style and that’s what people like about it. What’s more it’s a title that spawned some of Marvel’s key races and characters, including Dr Doom, whom I believe to be Marvel’s greatest villain. The FF should be a unit comprised of the smartest people in the room who care a little too much but can’t take the time to explain to you what they’re talking about. Like walking in on a married couple arguing with extreme ferocity about something incredibly mundane – they’re clearly passionate but you’ll be fucked if you know what the hell the problem is. On paper, this film should have succeeded and succeeded well. John Trank is a promising independent director with vision, the cast is made up of amazing talent and fit the roles well and the Fantastic Four has the luxury of two different source material origins, meaning you’re not forced to retread the old “my mum and dad got shot in Crime Alley” thing again-and-again. And the worst part is that under all the shite, there are glimmers and glimpses of a decent film. With a stronger script and different production design this could have been a new confident step forward for Fox’s superhero universe.
So what exactly is wrong with this film? Primarily, it’s not actually a film, it’s a sneak preview montage reel, an unfinished look at a future release, an extended trailer for an entire TV series worth of material. Fantastic Four doesn’t really fit into the established guidelines of storytelling, structure or character development (admittedly, this isn’t always a bad thing). The first half is decent enough but once the superhero element kicks in, it gets Green Lantern bad – and the fact that the introduction of super powers somehow decreases the entertainment factor is just baffling. Any hope that had been generated in the first act is immediately squandered the second the abilities kick in: the pacing falters all over the place, we jump-cut ahead an undefined passage of time and then another year into the future, the finale is stupidly rushed and anti-climactic, the dialogue worsens and the interaction between the leads is amazingly unconvincing. Thanks to this total functional failing, it feels like an entire act’s worth of material is missing. So many shots from the trailer never materialise in the film and you start to get the impression this feature was tinkered with all the way up to release. Even the poster above is completely inaccurate. Where are those destroyed buildings in the release? In fact, when was a city ever in danger? To make the disjointed nature worse, Fantastic Four fails to actually produce an adventure. The public are sick of origin stories yet we are still expected to stomach them. Most studios seem to be stepping away from superhero origins, preferring to use flashbacks to detail a hero’s rise to power. Fantastic Four is ALL origin story and it’s not very well told. The whole thing mostly takes place in two locations (a lab and an alien desert) and the story part of the narrative is never presented; it just flops from development to development with little scale or ambition not to mention the classic problem of show AND tell delivery.
As stated, the Fantastic Four thrives on family, science and adventure. We’ve already established that the adventure element quickly dissolves and the science section gives way to clunky dialogue, what about the family? Interestingly the characters and their thespian counterparts serve up all the ammunition to both love and hate them. Miles Teller does a wonderful job with Reed Richards; intelligent to a fault, constantly pushing forward with no real regard for those around him. But when you don’t form any sort of plausible bond or credible connection, this just makes him come off like a self-centred, socially inept dick. Michael B Jordan is a great Johnny Storm, displaying talent and drive without constantly resorting to childish hijinks. Victor is also very interesting. I think Toby Kebbell is an exceptional actor and he excels in everything he appears in. This version of Doom is a pessimistic nihilist, arrogant and distrusting of corporate greed and the lesser elements of human nature. This misanthropy is a really nice touch and goes on to at least somewhat justify how he would become so bitter and destructive by the end of the film. But then his ‘Doom’ look is fucking dumb. I mean, there are salvageable bits of his outfit but it’s just really stupid looking and as much as I hate to say this, the Julian McMahon costume from Fantastic Four was better. Ben Grimm is hideously underused but Jamie Bell does his best with what he’s given. The real crime is that all the humour and charm that defines Grimm is completely absent. And finally Sue. Even in the comics Sue Storm is a tricky one to get right but when written well she’s a fascinating individual. Unfortunately Kate Mara is the worst incarnation of Sue Storm to date. That’s right, I’m saying Jessica Alba with her crappy wig-like hair and bulging contact lenses was a better Sue than this timid, mumbling, out-of-place after thought.
Despite everything I’ve said above, there is a tiny modicum of positive points to revel in. First of all, the score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass is really good. Nice recurring themes, fitting, memorable and frankly better than most Marvel releases have offered us. Secondly, the film isn’t available in 3D. There are many different stories from various sources as to why it’s a solely 2D release but the one I like is that the director flat out refused a 3D conversion saying it would sully the finished piece. And finally, the cinematography is arguably impressive. Yes, everything has that contemporary gritty high-contrast, desaturated feel to it (which will no doubt define this decade in the worst possible way) which feels somewhat inappropriate for this source material but it’s still very effectively executed on a technical level and this deserves to be mentioned.
But in all honesty, why are any of us surprised this movie turned out to be a hatchet job? We’re not talking about the nurturing of something special by filmmakers who are weaving stories that feel like they need to be told, it’s accountants and executives bashing absolutely anything out to retain the property rights. Say what you will about the DC cinematic universe, they set Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice’s release date back a year to get the film right (although that remains to be seen). Due to a rights technicality, the only reason this film is being actioned is so Marvel don’t get their property back. All of this leads me to believe that despite their back catalogue of amazing releases 20th Century Fox is hands down the worst studio operating today. Their goals are purely fiscal, their methods are appalling, they have no respect for audiences or filmmakers with a shred of creativity and they are burning their own money for seemingly no other reason than spite. But as much as Fox infuriate me, I’m just running out of energy to hate them. I was hard on Ant-Man because that studio is capable of so much more and I was disappointed. With this film, I found myself uncharacteristically lenient because I know Fox have absolutely no idea what they’re doing and I still ended up struggling to find redeemable qualities. So is Fox an evil and sadistic corporation who hates both the art of cinema and the movie-going public or are they incompetent simpletons? I’m starting to get the impression it’s the latter and reviewing their movies is like beating up a disabled child, it’s cruel.
6th August 2015
The Scene To Look Out For:
**There’s a spoiler here but I was inclined not to mention it; after all, the film spoils itself**
The on-screen embodiment of this entire film takes place when Victor is brought back to our world and reaps his revenge. Having been abandoned for a year, Doom returns to Earth only to learn that his friends neglected him, the suits took over the project and the military have already weaponised the newfound powers. In an act of rage and defiance (hinted at in the first act when explaining why Victor left the project originally) Victor frees himself from his restraints and uses a telepathic power to maliciously rupture the heads of anyone in his way. The unstoppable tone of his rampage is straightforward, inconsolable and one borne of isolation and resentment. It’s a very cool development. And yet, this dark, cranium-exploding terror is marred by that piss-poor cellophane suit and a complete disregard of this power when it comes to attacking our central characters. Stomping through the corridors, Doom detonates heads with ease but when the Fantastic Four appear, he merely pushes them aside. One could argue it’s because the origin of all their powers is the alien world and the powers cancel each other out or that this unit was actually just a Doombot and Victor can only dispense a limited amount of power from such a distance buuuuut that’s bullshit. It’s just bad writing.
Dan Castellaneta plays Reed’s science teacher and he has to be one of the most backward and ignorant characters in the film. For whatever reason he vindictively ignores Reed’s achievements, effectively explaining that scientist is “not a realistic job” and dismisses Reed’s science fair teleportation device (WHICH WORKS, I might add) as a cheap magic trick. What a fucking tool. But that’s kinda the point. Here is an authoritative figure who is supposed to support and nurture this young man’s talent and instead all he does is stifle and frustrate the boy – which is a commendable point of character development and a hint of what this film could have been.
“You’re a dick”
In A Few Words:
“With a history of terrible Fantastic Four films this release really didn’t have to achieve much to be crowned the greatest FF release. Yet somehow it’s one of the worst. Astonishing”