Friday, 7 August 2015

Josh Trank's Fantastic Four: Review (SPOILERS)


Since Fox's most recent Fantastic Four movie was announced the knives have been out. It feels like all over the internet fans have been desperate for this movie to fail. In some cases this desire has been motivated by racism. In other cases it's because idiots think that if this film flops then the movie rights to the characters will return to Marvel.  Every report of behind-the-scenes drama has been used to confirm this negativity. As a result of all this I went into this film willing it to be great. I love these characters and I loved director Josh Trank's last film, Chronicle, so I wanted this film to succeed.

So, does it?

No. Not quite.

That's not to say that this film is the disaster that many are painting it to be, there's lots to love about it. But it's also a very flawed film, and to my eyes it seems that much of the blame for these flaws can be pinned not on Trank, but on interference from the studio. This seems especially likely if the aforementioned rumours of reshoots and behind-the-scenes strife are true.

The first two-thirds of this film are brilliant. It's very much Reed Richards' story, which works well for me, since he's my favourite character out of the four. We see Reed grow up as an unappreciated boy genius, with only his best friend Ben Grimm to believe in him. Both characters are established as products of dysfunctional households who's only real family is each other. Their friendship is established so well by Miles Teller (Reed) and Jamie Bell (Ben), and the child actors who play their younger counterparts, that it almost seems a shame when Reed is whisked off to the Baxter Foundation to work on their interdimensional teleportation project.

At the Baxter Foundation, Reed finds a surrogate family in Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), their dad, Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), and arrogant computer genius, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Their family bond is established in some lovely flirty-nerd scenes between Teller and Mara, and some great father-son conflict between Cathey and Jordan. There's also a fun 'working-on-the-project' montage. The film got me invested in the characters quite nicely and made me anticipate/dread the impending disaster all the more.

The cast really are excellent. Teller plays Reed Richards very well, with a nerdy, vulnerable charm, and Jordan's charisma prevents Johnny from coming across as too much of a brat. Bell is solid, stoic and loyal and Kebbell is beautifully arrogant. Mara comes across well with what little she has to work with, and that brings us to one of the film's major flaws.

In the comic Sue Storm, and her (perhaps misplaced) faith in Reed is one of the main reasons that the quartet steal their rocket and head off to the stars to get transformed by cosmic rays. She motivates the cautious Ben Grimm into accompanying them by accusing him of cowardice. The decision to face the journey and it's inherent risks is very much hers. In the movie she is robbed of this choice, as she is absent when the other four (including Doom) drunkenly decide to go on an unauthorised trip to the newly discovered dimension. Reed calls on his old pal Ben, who is not a member of the project, to accompany them, but none of them think to call Sue. She only appears after their journey has been made, and gains her powers in the explosion that ensues when she helps to retrieve them from the other dimension. It might be quite in character for these young, macho, and rash men to neglect to call Sue, but the slight is never addressed in the film.

It seems to me that it would have made far more sense in the context of the film for Sue to accompany them and Ben to be left behind to retrieve them, since he was not involved in the project but was familiar with Reed's early work. Ben's later resentment of Reed would have made a lot more sense if he had not actually agreed to accompany them on their mission. Sue is shown to view their powers not as a gift but as "aggressive abnormal physical conditions" so why doesn't she resent Reed more for what he did to her?

Sadly this is typical of how the film treats Sue. Her description of her pattern recognition abilities and their relation to music is pretty much the only good character moment she has. Her other character moments are all about how she relates to Reed and Johnny, and after she gets her powers the film seems to lose interest in her completely and she ends up being nothing more than the provider of a big, bubble-shaped taxi for Reed and Ben. A waste of Kate Mara and a waste of Sue Storm.

After the quartet gain their powers (Doom is abandoned, presumed dead, in the other dimension) the film turns into a pretty decent body-horror movie, made all the more effective by all the work the film has done in it's first half to invest us in the characters. Trank has said that he was inspired by the work of David Cronenberg. This is particularly evident in our first experience of Reed's stretchy powers. Reed seems to be in some pain and his naked limbs seem almost slimy. This emphasis on the creepier aspects of their powers is completely in keeping with the spirit of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's early Fantastic Four comics, where even Sue's relatively harmless power is shown to freak people out.

The film skips forward a year and Reed has run away to work alone on a way to get back to the other dimension (or Planet Zero, as it is now named) and find a cure. Ben has been used as a lethal weapon by the American government, with "43 confirmed kills". This may seem controversial to some, but I think it serves to add to the horror of Ben's situation. Johnny is revelling in his powers and is eager to join Ben on his missions. Sue and Franklin understand the nature of these missions a bit better and clash with Johnny as they attempt to dissuade him from going. The family that we grew to love in the first half of the film is in disarray. If the remainder of the film was the story of how this family found their way back to each other, overcoming their difficulties together, and finding the meaning to their failed project in each other, then we would have had ourselves a pretty decent film.

Sadly, somebody, I suspect Fox, had other ideas, and the remainder of the film ends up being a rushed, cack-handed attempt at a traditional super-hero movie.

A bunch of different scientists are sent back to Planet Zero to find a cure. Instead they find Doom. Doom has had his spacesuit molded to his body. He's also found a cape on this uninhabited, previously undiscovered planet. He's brought back to our world, where he suddenly decides that he's had a guts-full of humanity and that he's going to destroy our Universe and go and live on Planet Zero. Doom has a little speech at the start of the film about how he has no faith in humanity, but no further motive is given for his decision to destroy us other than he's mental and he fancies Sue. He's nothing more than a rampaging monster, and this seems like, once again, a waste of a good actor's talents and the waste of a good character.

The Four go to Planet Zero to fight him. They inexplicably don't need space suits any more. They have a bog standard super-hero battle, kill Doom, and then return to our world where they stand heroically over a giant crater, like it wasn't all their fault in the first place. The American government then decide for some crazy reason that the kids who unleashed all this horror on the world by getting pissed and stealing an interdimensional teleporter are actually superheroes and give them a big superhero headquarters. The Four share a cheesy joke in their new digs and the film ends. It really is that stupid. From the moment Doom was retrieved I felt like I was watching a completely different film. Other than my problems with how the film handled Sue I was thoroughly enjoying it and then suddenly this clever, well crafted film with an excellent cast has a complete lobotomy.

The problems with Fantastic Four can mostly be summed up in a sentence: it's a decent film about scientific exploration, family, & body horror that suddenly panics at the end & tries unsuccessfully to be The Avengers. It's not the travesty that many are making it out to be, and it deserves better than the hate it's received since day one. But it's very flawed and it's pretty heartbreaking to think that studio interference might be responsible for these flaws. Obviously I don't know the full story of what happened behind the scenes but I would be very interested in one day seeing a Special Edition/Director's Cut of this film. Maybe then we'll get the truly fantastic film I was hoping for.

1 comment:

  1. I decided months ago that I wouldn't go see FF, since I didn't agree with the unnecessary changes made in this new version. But I thought most movie-goers wouldn't have a problem with this reboot. Anyway, I wrote about FF (the comic) in my blog (wich I encourage you to visit):

    Please feel free to leave me a comment over there or add yourself as a follower (or both), and I promise I'll reciprocate.