Posted August 7, 2015 by Daniel Hodgson in
There is no reason to cheer the Fantastic Four on or aspire to be like them. It’s a hollow film, devoid of what is essential to it.
Fantastic Four is an epically bad film. Within its brief running time of 100 minutes, it gets so much wrong. Almost everything. Get comfortable, this is going to take a while…
Fantastic Four opens in the year 2007. Reed Richards (Owen Judge) stands before his fifth grade class, explaining what he wants to be when he grows up: the inventor of a teleportation machine, which he is currently working on. His teacher (Dan Castellaneta) fails him, explaining that he was supposed to have aspired towards a real job. However, Reed is undeterred.
Later that night, his classmate Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) discovers him in his family’s wrecking yard, salvaging for parts for his teleporter. Reed promises to show Ben his machine if he doesn’t apprehend him. They return to Reed’s home, where they work on the teleporter together in the garage.
The opening sequence, a prologue to the rest of the film, evokes the sense of wonder of an 80’s family film, such as E.T. or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, films which resonated with the film’s director, Josh Trank, who collaborated with Days of Future Past scribe Simon Kinberg on the screenplay. The films that inspired them were about what might be out there in the distant stars, and there is an attempt here to graft that spirit of curiosity onto a super-hero origin story (but more on this later), but with little success, if any.
Fantastic Four then flashes forward to seven years later, where teenage Reed and Ben, now played by Miles Teller and Jamie Bell, demonstrate their Cymatic Matter Shuttle at the high school science fair. Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) congratulates Reed on his success, and invites him to come work for him at the Baxter Institute, where they will build a much larger version of the machine which will be capable of transporting live subjects.
The teleportation device is a puzzling machine, which sends objects to an unknown destination. Watching the film, I wondered, how is Reed able to teleport objects to and from someplace without knowing where that is?
More inexplicable is how Dr. Storm recruits Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who previously worked on the institute’s own teleportation machine but left the project. It’s an odd hiring decision when 1) Reed’s teleporter works, and Doom’s does not, and 2) apparently, Doom set the lab on fire before he left. Talk about burning your bridges…
That said, there’s no reason for him to be a part of the project and part of this story. However, Doom is an essential part of the Fantastic Four universe as their primary antagonist, and so he is forced onto a narrative to which he does not belong. So far, I’ve made no mention of the elements that typically make up a super-hero movie, derring-do, fighting crime, etc., because thus far, the Fantastic Four has been a science-fiction film about interdimensional travel (more on this shortly), which is interrupted midway through by a standard super-hero origin story. You know how these go. The hero—or in this case, heroes—acquire superpowers in a freak-accident, and then fight a super-powered villain in a climactic battle which will decide the fate of the city, or the planet, or all of creation, as the case may be.
As it turns out, Reed’s machine teleports its subject to a planet in another dimension. It’s the stuff of a Star Trek episode, but without the accompanying explanation as to how this is possible. Drunk from celebrating their completed teleporter, Reed, Doom, Ben, and Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordon), who helped build the machine, decide to use the machine to travel the strange planet.
There, they discover streams of green “living” energy flowing in the veins of the planet. Doom spies a nexus of the energy not far away, and convinces his colleagues to investigate it. However, once there, the energy grabs hold of him and pulls him in. The ground quakes, and Reed and his friends are forced to abandon Doom and teleport back to Earth.
They lose consciousness after their arrival, and wake up in a secret government facility (Area 57 to be precise), strapped to tables. However, they have all changed. Reed discovers, to his horror, that his arms and legs have become elastic, stretching out several feet. Ben has become a rock-monster. Johnny is engulfed in perpetual fire, and his step-sister Susan Storm (Kate Mara), who was present when they arrived, becomes invisible uncontrollably.
It takes quite a while in the running time for them to acquire their powers—too long, really—but once they do, Fantastic Four treats their powers like something out of a horror movie, disfiguring and debilitating. Where is the pay-off in that? Compare this to either of the Spider-Man films, in which Peter Parker enjoys being Spider-Man, climbing up buildings, swinging above the streets, and saving the day. His powers are fun, cool.
Allow me to let my inner-fanboy come out and play for a moment. The point of watching a superhero movie is that you want to be the super-hero, to be Superman, Batman, or Wolverine, and the like, to be able to do the fantastic things that they can do; it’s an empowerment fantasy. But in this movie, their powers are not gifts, but curses, and the goal for the heroes is for them to become ordinary humans again by returning to the extra-dimensional planet to study the mysterious power. The film’s approach to being a super-hero forbids identification with them; they don’t want to be who they are, and so neither do you, which defeats the purpose of the genre.
What’s inspiring about films within this genre is that super-heroes stand for something, and they are willing to risk themselves for that (such as in The Dark Knight). But there is nothing heroic about Reed, Ben, Susan, and Johnny in this iteration of the comic book. They are out for themselves, and only for themselves. They stand for nothing. There is no reason to cheer them on or aspire to be them. It’s a hollow film, devoid of what is essential to it.
Ironically, the only person who stands for anything is the villain, Victor von Doom (who doesn’t appear again until the end of the film, leaving Fantastic Four without an antagonist for 95% of the movie). The energy of the planet has kept him alive, and transformed him into a powerful being. He does not want Reed, his friends, and the government that sponsors them, to ruin his adoptive planet like how humanity has ravaged planet Earth.
In a telling speech, Dr. Storm accepts the blame on behalf of his generation, and tasks Reed and the new generation with solving the environmental woes (economic problems and so forth are also implied) that they’ve inherited. Fantastic Four is about generational conflicts, but its conclusion is simplistic: old people bad, young people good. However, there is no mention in the film about how the foundations for the technological world that they live in were laid by hands much older than theirs.
Going back to the plot, Reed leaves Ben and his friends behind and escapes the government facility in search of his own answers, but does so offscreen. Up until then, Fantastic Four has been about Reed, and his absence leaves the story without a protagonist. Consequently, the story has to refocus on the other three, not-so-fantastic characters, who are underdeveloped. Ben is a blank slate, a mere foil for Reed, and there is little more to Susan Storm than her self-seriousness. The shift to these characters, in their one-dimensionality, occurs after an awkward flash-forward to a year later, which halts the forward momentum of the film.
In terms of the performances, Miles Teller exhibits the intelligence needed for a young prodigy, but he struggles with the physical demands of the role. Scenes of him enduring the agony of a superhero, especially in the use of his powers, do not convince. Kebbell is overshadowed by Julian McMahon’s performance in the 2005 film, who was appropriately menacing, something Kebbell is unable to muster. All around, the thesps struggle in their roles.
I’m not a fan of the comics, so I can’t say if this iteration captures the tone of the source material, but this Fantastic Four goes for the dark, gritty feel of the studio’s X-Men franchise (and the costumes look similar to those of the Bryan Singer films). With the exception of a few welcome moments of levity, this film asks that we take it seriously, despite the fact that it’s about a human rubber-band who fights a guy called “Dr. Doom” on a place called “Planet Zero” (I don’t think a single alter-ego name is used, but we know who these guys are). The story has better sense of direction than the meandering 2005 version, but there was a fun-factor and a lightness of spirit to that film that’s absent here.
Before screening the film, I heard the rumors, but I did my best to put bad advance buzz out of mind. I had no reason to doubt the director, who helmed the ground-breaking Chronicle, which is one of the better super-hero films made, and frankly the studio’s Days of Future Past is as good as the best Marvel film. Not to mention the fact that the cast members, a talented troupe of up-and-comers, have proven themselves in recent projects. So in the end, I’m left with a single question: how did this project, so full of promise, go so very wrong?