September 25, 2016

Fantastic Four (2015)

A group of smart young scientists collaborate to build an inter-dimensional transport that links the Earth to a mysterious alien planet bubbling with green energy. When they travel across to explore this strange world, an unexpected and terrible disaster transforms them all, giving each of them super-human powers. For Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) it means turning into an enormous rock monster. For Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) it means the ability to fly and burst into flames. For his sister Sue Storm (Kate Mara) it means turning invisible and generating force fields. For young scientist Reed Richards (Miles Teller) it means the ability to stretch his limbs to ridiculous lengths - and a world of guilt.

I'm of the pretty firm opinion that the Fantastic Four are, as a pop culture property, pretty much unsuitable for live action cinema. Hollywood has tried four times now, and on a creative level at least pretty much all four attempts have been unmitigated failures. With the clock ticking down for 20th Century Fox to further exercise their options on the characters, we are facing a pretty much inevitable case of either yet another franchise reboot at Fox or the introduction of the Fantastic Four to the Marvel Cinematic Universe over at Disney. Both options are, to me, fairly bad ideas.

A lot of my problems with the characters stems from their cozy family set-up, and specifically from team leader Reed Richards. His superpower is to stretch and contort his limbs, which is something that seems relatively goofy and fun in a comic book or a cartoon but simply fails to work in a live-action context. Even ignoring the original abortive Fantastic Four movie from 1994, there have been three big-budget studio productions with a lot of money thrown at them, and not once has Reed's weird stretchy powers worked in visual or dramatic terms. A guy who can fly and set himself on fire is visually interesting. A woman who can turn invisible has dramatic potential. An Incredible Hulk analogue made from rocks is pretty entertaining. A stretchy scientist is comparatively weak, but because he's the cornerstone of the whole team he is pretty much required for any adaptation.

To the extent that the Fantastic Four do work on paper and in animation, it's as a sort of 1960s pop art throwback: big cosmic ideas and enemies, weird-as-hell storylines and nonsensical science fiction mayhem are the order of the day. Hollywood is simply too risk-averse to present that sort of set-up onscreen. Take Galactus, a giant purple man in a silly hat that eats planets. On paper he's brilliant entertainment. Onscreen, as he appeared in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, he's a giant sparkling cloud of energy. Fox was simply too nervous a studio to directly adapt such a wonderfully silly character. Now it's possible some future filmmaker or studio - perhaps Marvel themselves - will take the risk one day of representing that sort of villain accurately to his comic book origins, but the sort of visual weirdness the Fantastic Four demand is the exact sort of weirdness from which Hollywood typically runs a mile.

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four certainly runs a mile. It spends so long aggressively pursuing a Christopher Nolan-esque semi-realist take on the characters that it forgets to spare time for a story. The film is quite literally 70 minutes of set-up, 20 minutes of climax, and 10 minutes of credits. To its credit, the first 20 minutes or so are actually rather good. We are introduced to Reed Richards, child genius, and his best friend Ben Grimm. It sets up a friendship that should power the rest of the film, but sadly it doesn't ever really gel back together. We cut to Reed as a graduating high school student, where he's picked up to help develop an interdimensional teleporting device with the help of Sue and Johnny Storm. Michael B. Jordan is a great choice for Johnny - aka the Human Torch - because he's an immensely charismatic actor, but the film as presented gives him nothing to do.

I write 'the film as presented' deliberately: Fantastic Four is one of those disastrous Hollywood productions in which the director and studio fought, the shoot was reportedly plagued with problems, and the ending only exists as seen on screen due to an enormous studio-enforced reshoot. This troubled process shows in the finished film, since the narrative is all over the place, the pace is wildly haphazard, and the climax really does not tonally match the rest of the movie. One could blame the studio, or director Josh Trank, or possibly even the writers, but in the end it's irrelevant whose fault it is: all you need to care about as a viewer is whether or not the film is good. It isn't.

The actors are all talented, but they're wasted. The story is mostly very predictable, and takes a very long time for things to happen. Once the heroes build their teleporting machine they try it out, and when disaster strikes on the other side they are all transformed into super-powered people. One member of their team, Victor (), gets left behind. He returns for the truncated climax, calling himself "Doom" and exhibiting deadly telekinetic powers. It is Galactus all over again: the film is so concerned with avoiding the sillier parts of the comic book mythos that it transforms Victor Von Doom into a sulking twentysomething scientist, because a genius Eastern European despot hidden behind a steel mask is apparently too silly for Trank's dark, gritty take on the concept. A comics-accurate Doctor Doom would be as great as a comics-accurate Galactus. It's a shame we haven't had either. Ironically the best screen Doom to date is still the one from the terrible Roger Corman film.

Hollywood has had four attempts to get the Fantastic Four to work. They have failed all four times. Part of it is the cynicism of the studios: the idea of a bright, primary-coloured 1960s-style superhero adventure is anathema to them. Part of it is the medium: Brad Bird's The Incredibles pretty much proved a bright, animated Fantastic Four film could be good. Part of it is the source material: the Fantastic Four are old, and creaky, and - if I'm to be completely honest - never that great to begin with.

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