20th Century Fox
There’s an argument to be made that Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four is a superhero property best left on the page. Roger Corman made a stab at it in 1994 resulting in a cheap, cheesy and officially unreleased feature film, and it was followed just over a decade later with Tim Story’s far more expensive but still cheesy attempt. The latest incarnation comes from Chronicle director Josh Trank, and while it has a bigger budget and a more serious tone it’s also the least entertaining adaptation yet.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been tinkering on a teleportation device since he was just a boy alongside his friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), but when his “biomatter shuttle” catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and the deep pockets of the Baxter Foundation he’s brought aboard to compare notes with another young genius, the not at all suspiciously named and probably fun to hang out with Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Together with Storm’s brilliant daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and headstrong son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) they create a machine capable of transporting people to a planet in another dimension in the hopes of solving Earth’s resource needs, but bad science, immaturity and a sociopath with a grudge threaten to destroy humanity instead.
There is so much wrong with the new Fantastic Four that writing about it feels more like an autopsy than a review. It’s useless to point fingers as there’s no single person or entity to blame – this is simply a legitimately bad movie that (with one exception) feels utterly devoid of entertainment, intelligence and creativity.
The script – credited to Trank, Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect) – at least as represented onscreen, struggles to find its voice but instead only succeeds at recycling basic introductions and setups that fail to build to anyone or anything of value. The story beneath the action wants to be about family, about their strength as a team, but the Manson family had more moments of growth and bonding than these fools get.
The boys are the ones who take a drunken trip across space and time, completely dissing Sue, and not only is that slight never addressed, she only gets her powers as a result of being collateral damage in their explosive mistake. Ben’s transformation into The Thing – the only one of the four to be permanently, visibly altered – teases the existence of an incredible emotional hurdle for him to overcome if he wants to stay friends with Reed. We see that understandable rage briefly, but all is forgiven and dropped just as quickly.
That same misguided need to rush also kills the one element that begins to actually work in this colostomy bag of a movie. Mr. von Doom is left behind on Planet Soundstage, but Reed, Johnny, Ben and Sue awaken after the test run to discover the changes they’ve undergone – Ben is rocks fused with more rocks, Sue is fading in and out of visibility, Johnny appears to be a corpse on fire and Reed is strapped to a gurney with limbs stretched to impossible lengths. There’s a real sense of the gruesome here, from Johnny’s burning body to the suffocation of Ben’s rock collection to Reed’s naked flesh distorted and pulled like hairy taffy, and the body horror of painfully shifting biology affects viewers both viscerally and emotionally.
And then it’s gone. We jump one year ahead, and instead of getting to witness the team learning about their abilities and coming to terms with their conditions we’re dropped into their work with military forces and efforts to rebuild the machine. It feels as if an entire second act has been excised – character growth, conflict definition, the establishing of stakes – and boom, it’s time for the final action set-piece. That’s inexcusable, but the damage would have been less severe if the finale was exciting or memorable in any positive way.
A fist fight on a sound stage back-lit by a giant flashlight is neither memorable nor exciting.
If the actors involved weren’t recognizable as talented young performers of this era, this could easily be mistaken for a film from the ’90s. By recognizable I mean only physically as their talents apparently went the way of the second act. Teller is at his best when his energy is rattled, but here he’s muted and out of place. Jordan and Bell are both too frequently lost amid their respective special effects. And as befitting the Invisible Girl, Mara is given insultingly little to do aside from play den mother to the boys. Kebbell would have knocked von Doom’s descent into madness out of the galaxy, but we see none of it.
It looks and feels like no one took the role of film steward seriously. How are they transmitting video signals from another dimension at all let alone in a matter of seconds? Why is 20-year-old Reed in a science fair with kids half his age? Why are von Doom’s villainy and powers so scattered and nonsensical? (Although that does allow for more David Cronenberg love when von Doom starts displaying a particular Scanners-like ability.) And not for nothing, but it’s a bold choice bringing in wig makers for re-shoots but apparently not letting them take a look at earlier footage of Mara so they can, you know, try to match her hair. Nobody cared enough about the little things, the big things or anything at all.
Fantastic Four is a bad movie. It’s not “fun” bad, it’s just bad. And that’s too bad.
The Upside: Brief body horror moments and Ben Grimm’s trauma
The Downside: Script lacks energy and purpose; minimal cast chemistry; CG inconsistent; dull until the even duller third act; every stab at humor or thrills falls flat