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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Review: Fantastic Four

In the current mold of superhero film-making, it's difficult to escape the prevailing wisdom of how studios formulate their respective franchises. There's the Marvel method, which embraces the colorful comic tones and inherent silliness of the medium, but at its worst can lead to tedium. The efforts of other studios (Fox, WB, Sony) in recent years have been more on the side of grounding everything in reality, which has an even worse success rate, particularly when its lesser attempts lead to self-parody.

Josh Trank, before taking over the Fantastic Four series, surely had a good deal to learn from, including the missteps of the Tim Story directed 2005 effort, which treated the material in an almost camp fashion. The filmmaker known for the found-footage critical darling Chronicle clearly had an original approach he wanted to imbue the material with. His idea: highlight the sci-fi and body horror aspects at the core of the FF, a la David Cronenberg.  While this isn't my ideal version of the Fantastic Four,  it's an approach that could work if the studio was on board.

As it turns out, Fox probably wasn't. Whether Trank lacked the support or the skill to execute that vision (or both) - it's easy to see that something went wrong.

For the FF experts in the house, Fantastic Four pulls significantly from the "Ultimate" take by Brian Michael Bendis, Mark Millar, and Adam Kubert. In the film, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are life-long friends with varying interest in scientific pursuits. Reed eventually attracts the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who recruits the young genius to join his efforts to explore another dimension. In short order he's joined by Dr. Storm's daughter Sue (Kate Mara), rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and because he needs him for some reason that's only somewhat explained, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).

For its first 45 minutes or so, Trank's instincts prove fairly intuitive. While the characters aren't really defined well (or at all), there's at least an energy there that feels like he may just pull it off. In the opening act, Trank and team pay homage to the FF as "challengers of the unknown" (pun intended), centering their goal as being the first people to step foot in this new dimension. The air of dread is pretty palpable, and when the worst happens, Trank frames what is probably my favorite scene of the film, with Reed looking over the fruits of his hubris, his new friends irrevocably changed. It's effective enough, provided you go in with an open mind in regard to significant canon changes, and the point gets across, even if it's perhaps slightly rocky (pun NOT intended) getting there.

Then the rest of the film happens.

I'm not sure the extent to which rewrites occurred on the set, though I understand a number of screenwriters were involved, and Fox itself has always been known as most "hands-on" studio, to put it kindly. It's at this point, that basically all pretense of Trank's take is tossed aside for a much more generic superhero origin story. You see, Fantastic Four is fairly dark in terms of palette already, but for the earlier instances of the film, that works. When it leaves the "experiment gone wrong" elements behind and skips a year ahead, you're just left with a dark, and strangely claustrophobic movie about the Government wanting to turn the team into their tools for combat. In my recollection, there may have only been two scenes that don't take place on a sound-stage. If you aim to make a superhero adventure, showcasing your heroes flying around a bit and/or interacting with the larger world around them is probably advisable. In truth, I saw this film a week ago, and I can barely remember what happens between our heroes receiving their powers and a painfully arbitrary third act scuffle. Between Dr. Storm's hammering exposition about how the four should be a team-unit, and terrifically dull search for a missing teammate, my mind was beginning to race towards other subjects.

To speak of the third act specifically, this is where Fantastic Four is at its most hampered, hobbled by the demands of producers who surely have certain expectations for how these types of films should end. Yes, there is a third act macguffin, and yes, the central villain opts to threaten the world, this time for reasons more nebulous than usual, and yes, this is where poor Dr. Storm's lessons are supposed to pay off and the team has to come together. But, this big world-changing moment ends before it even begins. I sat in disbelief at how tossed aside the final conflict was, which may have lasted about 10 minutes in duration. And while Dr. Doom earlier in the film is passable, if a little anonymous (and no, he's not a hacker), by this point he becomes a walking death machine devoid of any defining characteristics at all. Unless you consider a power-set akin to Electro-Man from Ernest Goes To Jail as a worthwhile development for the iconic villain.

In truth, the movie you probably want to see gets started just before the credits roll while the movie the filmmaker set out to make lasts a little longer than that, but everything in between is something no one is going to want. Sadly, that much more repelling portion makes up the majority of what's on screen. There had to be a better way to bridge the two, and perhaps if a more forceful personality was behind the camera, that may have happened in a more satisfying fashion. As it stands, Fantastic Four, the reboot, is a bit of course correction taken wholly in the wrong direction. But, it might at least be the best Fantastic Four movie yet, as sad as that is to say.

Oh and before I forget, as good as Miles Teller is as introvert Reed Richards, he is undeniably awful as superhero Reed. I don't think I'd follow that guy to a bar, much less across a poorly rendered CGI battlefield.

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