Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Fantastic Four

1 Star

Fantastic Four is a bad film. But, credit where it’s due, Fantastic Four is dazzlingly, fascinatingly bad.

The first misstep Fantastic Four makes is in spending most of its running time in the pre-Fantastic Four era of these people’s lives. We are treated to a full three scenes of Reed Richards (later portrayed by Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (later Jamie Bell) as fifth graders. After that, we get a scene set in high school that introduces us to Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter, Susan (Kate Mara). Franklin and Sue recruit Reed to the Baxter institute. There we meet mad genius Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and subsequently Sue’s brother Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan). Together Reed, Victor, Franklin, Susan, and Johnny construct a machine that sends people to another dimension. Once they prove it works, Dr. Harvey Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) attempts to give the machine over to the government. Naturally, Reed, Victor, and Johnny want to go to the other dimension first. So, they get drunk. Call up Ben. Completely ignore their friend, colleague, and sister, Sue. And go to the alternate dimension by themselves. By this point, we have been with these people for an hour and they haven’t even gotten their super powers yet.

Fantastic Four is clearly taking its cues from Batman Begins here. They are establishing all of the ways that their characters become the comic book heroes they ultimately become. Except, that doesn’t really work here. The comparison isn’t really one-to-one. Batman Begins chronicled the way that Bruce Wayne became exposed to the realities of crime and trained himself to fight it. It told the story of how he developed the skills to be Batman. Fantastic Four, by contrast, tells the story of how a group of socially awkward scientists met and constructed a machine that sends people to another dimension. It's not really the same thing.

More importantly, not every story should be told using Batman Begins’ tone. The Fantastic Four are not dark and gritty. They have names like Mr. Fantastic, The Human Torch, The Thing, and The Invisible Woman. They fight Doctor Doom. Seriousness doesn’t suit them. So it really feels weird to have everybody wandering around the bowels of the Baxter Institute brooding about how we need new energy sources and how the world is being destroyed (more on the latter point later).

Moreover, loveable lug Ben Grimm/The Thing has a catch phrase: “It’s Clobberin’ Time.” Only this time, because Fantastic Four is dark and gritty, The Thing’s catchphrase was appropriated from Ben’s older brother – who used to say, “It’s Clobberin’ Time” before beating up Ben when they were kids. So, when The Thing says, “It’s Clobberin’ Time” later in the movie I got the distinct impression that the Fantastic Four had matured into bullies and started rooting for Doctor Doom to kill them. That’s just how movies work. If jerks who beat up little kids say something early in the movie, people who say it later remind me of the jerks who beat up little kids. Congrats, Fox. Your movie is dark and gritty now. Your heroes are morally equivalent to jerks who beat up little kids.

Also, if you’re going to drop the fact that one of your characters was adopted from Kosovo (ostensibly in the 80s), maybe do something with it besides make an accent joke. Is this movie dark and gritty or not?

That’s a nice segue to the other problem with all these early scenes. They are clumsy. They are supposed to establish things about our characters, but they do a terrible job. Reed is supposed to be some kind of child prodigy and mad genius, but he apparently worked on his machine for ten years and never even got the idea that he was sending stuff to another dimension. Also, the characters all seem to think it’s kind of a joke that he nearly destroyed the world at age eleven. That would be fine as a joke. I like jokes. This movie could have used more of them. Except that the motivating purpose of all these brilliant scientists was to prevent the world’s destruction (from global warming? I think). So, jokes about destroying the world felt oddly out of place. Johnny is introduced in some deleted scenes from a lesser Fast and Furious sequel (indicating that he is a fearless hot head). So, of course, Fantastic Four forgets this feature of Johnny’s character later in the movie where it reveals that Johnny is the most risk averse of the team sent to the alternate dimension.

Maybe even all this clumsy writing would have been fine, except that Fantastic Four doesn’t seem to have been very interested in letting its characters get to know each other. There are only the vaguest hints of the budding romance between Reed and Sue. I think Fantastic Four might have intimated that Sue and Victor used to be a thing, but I can’t be sure. There are some vague references to difficulties in Sue’s relationship with her brother. Johnny doesn’t like Victor. Victor doesn’t like the government or really any humans except Sue, but we never learn why.

The trip to the alternate dimension is also problematic. The boys go to the alternate universe without even telling Sue. That's messed up. The trip goes wrong. Victor gets marooned. Reed, Johnny, and Ben come home after being doused with various noxious other dimension stuff, and Sue, who tries to save them, gets hit with radiation. This scene is a disaster. First, leaving Sue behind is messed up. Second, this scene is so dark (literally there is not enough light) and confusing that I couldn’t tell if some or all of the guys made it back to our dimension or got stuck behind. Third, this is the first scene that really seemed to have fallen victim to the lengthy re-shoots Fantastic Four went through. Kate Mara, who changed her hair after principle photography, reenters the movie after not being invited to the other dimension wearing the worst wig I’ve ever seen. Also, some of the male characters begin to intermittently sport facial hair.

After the accident in the alternate dimension, everyone wakes up and goes through body horror at what the other dimension has done to them. Reed’s arms and legs have been stretched. Sue is “phasing in and out of the visible spectrum.” Johnny is a human torch. Ben has been transformed into a digital rock monster. Fantastic Four is onto something here. Body horror. The idea that these abilities manifest as mutilations. It all kinda works. Except that movie turns on the lights and reveals that its CGI is terrible. Literally some of the worst CGI I have ever seen. I’m serious. The CGI is Star Wars Prequel bad.

The movie then can’t decide how its characters powers work. At first, it hints that Reed is not in control of his stretched out limbs unless he is wearing arm and leg bands. Then, he immediately runs away butt naked. The movie definitely tells us that Sue has to hold her breath to use her powers. Then lets her have conversations while using her powers. Hot headed Johnny can’t wait to become a government agent. Ben Grimm/The Thing can’t move, and then suddenly starts moving with incredible agility.

As an afterthought Fantastic Four has a "climactic showdown." The team builds another dimension hopping machine and goes back to the other dimension (finally giving it a name “Planet Zero”). There they find Victor von Doom. He is now a CGI metal man who looks less realistic than the T-1000 looked twenty-five years ago. He has decided to destroy the world because humanity was already destroying the world. I guess it makes sense if you don’t think about it. They have an impressively uninteresting fight.

The team returns home victorious, having just inflicted the worst comic book movie since Green Lantern on the audience. And they are still getting a sequel.

I don’t know how Fantastic Four got so bad. I don’t know if newly minted director Josh Trank wasn’t up to the challenge or if Fox mucked up the production in re-shoots. Maybe the Fantastic  Four just can’t be adapted (previous versions of this story have been B-movie bad or simply mediocre, but The Incredibles suggests the formula's not broken). I don’t know. What I do know is that Fantastic Four is a very bad movie. It’s not quite as bad as some of the storied superhero flops (Green Lantern, Catwoman, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace), but it comes close.

From Out in the Void


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