Silver Screen: Fantastic Four 1/2*
In Fantastic Four, science whiz Reed Richards (Miles Teller) invents a device that can transfer matter— and eventually his friends— to another dimension.
Apparently this is a dimension where superheroes do not exist, where the protracted comic-book origin story isn’t gratingly familiar, and where the mere glimpse of computer-generated laser-beam fights is cause to forgive all sluggishness that precedes it.
Fantastic Four is a misbegotten, redundant, unsolicited reboot. It’s another heaping helping of something nobody was clamoring for, clumsily retrofitted to be unrecognizable to the handful of fans who might have enjoyed it yet still indistinguishable to those unfamiliar with the characters.
Its terribleness is not in question. The only real quandary is how much to factor in the movie’s troubled production history into the overall equation of failure.
Judging solely from the evidence onscreen, Fantastic Four is a bafflingly chintzy attempt to jumpstart a gloomy, pseudo-serious superhero franchise. The movie runs an agonizing hour before the characters get their powers, and only in the final twenty minutes or so do the four of them spend any time together. (This makes the title something of a misnomer.)
Like a distractible child struggling to relate a minor anecdote, the filmmakers start the story far too early, flashing back to childhood to establish the bond between young Reed (played as preteen by Owen Judge) and his rough-and-tumble pal Ben (Evan Hannemann, who eventually grows into Jamie Bell, who eventually grows into an angry paperweight). Genius Reed enlists his blue-collar buddy to assist in his science experiments, which eventually earn Reed a ticket to a seemingly unaccredited science academy run by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey).
Reed’s algorithm for interdimensional travel cracks the code that has long frustrated Storm’s pupils, including his brilliant adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). That especially rankles prodigal nerd Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell).
In the dumbest of the movie’s many improbable plot machinations, a drunken Reed and Victor decide to personally test out interdimensional travel before the military takes over their project. Loaded, with no support staff or safety precautions, Reed, Victor, and good ol’ Ben, along with Sue’s brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), planet-hop over to Earth Zero, a greenscreened land of blurrily digitized anti-wonderment where some space lava splashes on them, granting them special powers— save for Victor, who is left behind. Through no real logic at all, Sue, who stays behind to operate the equipment, gets powers too.
Post-accident, Reed can stretch his body to impossible lengths, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can fly while emitting flames, and poor Ben is trapped inside a monstrous, hulking body made of rock. Freaked-out Reed flees but must return to help out when Victor, his skin transformed into metal, emerges back through the portal to lay waste to the science lab using broad, undefined powers.
The movie’s bleak tone is utterly dissonant with the kooky comic-book inspiration. How exactly does one makes a solemn action movie about Invisible Girl, Rock Man, Fire Guy, Stretch Armstrong Ph.D., and a bad guy whose last name was Doom before he was even a bad guy? In the grueling hour the movie spends setting up its premise, the characters never evolve beyond a two- or three-word description, the kind of thing that could be established in just a couple of pithy scenes. Perhaps all would be forgiven if the slow burn paid off with a spectacular finale, but even the movie’s underwhelming lone action sequence is unimaginatively rendered on a cramped soundstage.
It’s unfathomable that anyone thought this would make for a good movie, and perhaps they didn’t. Director Josh Trank disowned Fantastic Four on Twitter, claiming it was not what he envisioned. Various reports on the film’s troubled production suggested that Trank, possibly addled by drugs or ego or both, behaved erratically and clashed with producers. Rumors persist that a substitute director oversaw reshoots and a rejiggered finale.
It’s fairly pointless to speculate what went on behind the scenes. How much does anyone but the most dedicated Mighty Marvel True Believer care whether or not Trank is a crank, or that Fox owns the rights to Fantastic Four so long as they make movies with enough frequency, necessitating this kind of uninspired relaunch every few years?
Trank’s low-budget breakout hit Chronicle nicely balanced character drama and superhero setpieces. Clearly he’s capable of making a frugal blockbuster, so the fumbling, undisguised cheapness of Fantastic Four suggests studio interference. Which is not to say that Trank’s unalloyed vision would have been any better than previous incarnations of the faltering franchise, which include a pair of mostly forgotten mid-2000s installments and a notoriously lame 1994 direct-to-video B-movie produced by Roger Corman. All we have to go on is the painful one-hundred minutes of footage that does exist, which might possibly have been good in some alternate dimension.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.