In 2012, young filmmaker Josh Trank directed the excellent Chronicle, a found-footage tale of three teens who unexpectedly gain superpowers. It’s one of the greatest “off-brand” superhero movies out there, and Trank has continued the theme of his career with Fox’ reboot of the Fantastic Four. But the game is different now – cinematic experimentation must marry with adaptations of Marvel’s First Family. The question of the film’s success in flaunting a stretchy dude, a partially-visible woman with mastery of force fields, a man on fire, and a rock monster with many chips on his shoulder, is polarizing. But in a binary world, sometimes it’s best to inhabit a middle ground.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has a dream: to crack teleportation technology. Supported by his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), his prodigious efforts get the attention of the Baxter Foundation’s Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). Dr. Storm’s adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), his biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, formerly of Chronicle), along with his wayward genius protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), help in the project, and the path to another dimension is opened. A new world, and a new life for all concerned, awaits.
The greatest resource in this science-heavy blockbuster is the super-talented and rising-star cast. Teller (Whiplash) plays both foppish wunderkind and newly-minted authority well, with the best comedic timing of his peers. Mara (House of Cards) and Bell (Snowpiercer) are given the weakest material, but make an impression nevertheless. And Jordan (Fruitvale Station) brings as much energy to the traditionally bombastic Johnny Storm role as he can given the film’s grounded context. Tying everything together is Cathey as Dr. Storm, even as his role as the team’s father figure is all but drilled into our heads. It’s a shame that the team dynamic is overall under-nurtured, as I do believe this cast is capable of much greater and more effervescent things given more screen time to win the audience over.
A film about the Fantastic Four carries some basic connotations to the average moviegoer, who likely expects a fun super heroic adventure. This Fantastic Four goes for a different tack entirely, a David Cronenberg weird-science-body-horror theme. And there are scenes in this film all but stolen from Scanners and The Fly, but still working in this context. So this is fine by me, because I’m a fan of Cronenberg, but if the SF-horror conceit had gone even further the film could have really worked for those looking for a good film in and of itself irrespective of the Fantastic Four.
And even so, this is not Fantastic Four in name only. Dude’s name is Victor von Doom. Dude says, “Flame on” without irony. There’s an undeniable moment of chills when all four zoom into frame with their powers set. However, all these elements are hung on the framework of an origin story, which at times doesn’t feel fresh. It feels like this movie would have played better five or six years ago, which isn’t a strike against the film itself, of course, but our reaction to it. And Fantastic Four more than most comic book movies ends up insecure about our reactions; the corny, chaotic, rushed and admittedly entertaining finale is wedged in seemingly as a sop to certain Avengers fans who might have been bored by all the science-whyency stuff.
Not that the setup is flawless either, though. The lead character being the ridiculously stretchable Reed Richards is appropriate, because the storytelling apparatus of Fantastic Four is pulled in different directions to gymnastic effect. The narrative is made to contort to accommodate a leisurely-then-fast-forwarded origin story, plus complications along the way. At the film’s midpoint there’s an obvious trick to fold the story into a 100-minute runtime, with the consequence of short-circuiting a few character arcs. The mess left by the cutting-room is regrettable.
Fantastic Four is too abstract and colorless for kids, too divergent from super heroics for comic book fans, and too simplistic and rushed for Cronenbergian film aesthetes. It ends up being a film for no one, but that does not mean it’s bad. Parts of it work quite well, particularly the moments where it does lean into body-horror. Indeed, strong genre identity is what’s needed to pre-empt comic book movie fatigue among audiences. And this cast is solid as the superhero team that had formed a bond before their powers lumped them together. It would be a shame if this was all we got of them, since now that everything’s set up, the story could go anywhere. Fantastic Four is not fantastic, but neither is it terrible. And I’m not looking for a different film at the core, but a better version of what we got. A strong 5/10.
P.S.: Remember that scene in CHAPPiE where Hippo steals a bunch of PS4s, and that other scene where Chappie uses a PS4 console to transfer a sentient consciousness? Well, there’s actually a similar moment here where a totem of N54s are used as part of young Reed’s teleportation device. Also, the use of a test chimp for inter-dimensional travel is appropriate given the presence of Toby Kebbell, who played the villainous ape Koba in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Longtime readers will know I’m not a fan of the character, but Kebbell’s performance as Koba is unimpeachable.