This is the story of how 20th Century Fox has yet again failed to adapt The Fantastic Four to the big screen.
Fantastic Four is one of the biggest flops of the year. Critics hated it, audiences (wisely) didn’t bother, and so, this became one of the rare big studio superhero movies that didn’t debut at number one. Is the movie as bad as critics are making it sound? Yes, but the details and history of its awfulness are far more complex than usual, and might make for an interesting book or documentary in a couple years, that is if the people involved are willing to open up about what exactly caused this train-wreck.
The Fantastic Four have proven themselves a notoriously difficult property to adapt to the big screen. All four attempts (three of them by 20th Century Fox) have resulted in horrible movies. It’s a perhaps ironic history, considering it was the success of the Fantastic Four comic-book that kick-started the rise of Marvel comics in the sixties, and propelled the creation of Iron-Man, Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, and all the other superheroes whose cinematic adventures have turned Marvel into one of the strongest media brands in the world.
I personally resist the idea that a Fantastic Four couldn’t be good. I can easily imagine a successful adaptation that is funny, adventurous, colorful, set in the sixties during the space race just as the original comics were, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is, of course, just speculation. I might very well be the only person interested in such an adaptation, and one must also take into account that the sixties-set X-Men: First Class wasn’t a very good movie. On the other hand, though, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles owes a lot to the Fantastic Four, and it might very well be the best superhero movie ever made.
I’m not here, however, to day-dream about the movie I wish had been made, but to talk about the one that was. The best possible version of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four was never going to be the movie I described above. Quite the opposite, in fact, it was sold as a darker, more “Cronenbergian”, version of the material, where the physical changes experienced by our four heroes would be presented in the style of the director’s body-horror movies. That might not have been my ideal interpretation of the material, but it sounded idiosyncratic enough to make me interested in watching the movie.
At this point you probably know that the version in theaters is not the one Trank had in mind. Trank, like many American indie directors these days, was recruited to direct this movie after the success of the small-budget Chronicle. For a while, things seemed to be going well. While Fantastic Four was in production, Trank was offered to direct a Star Wars movie for Disney. Then, reports started coming out that Trank was a “difficult” director. Not long after that, Trank was fired form his future Disney job, while Fantastic Four started re-shoots and an extensive re-editing process.
The movie that we got, although credited to Trank, is probably a long way from what the director had in mind. It’s easy to tell just based on the fact that the movie’s first trailer is full of scenes and dialogue that are nowhere to be found in the finished film. And the finished film is beyond incompetent. Fox has a notorious history of messing around with directorial visions and subsequently releasing mediocre movies (Alien3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are the clearest examples). Let’s just say Fantastic Four is an embarrassment even by those standards.
It is clear that the most changes were made to the second half of the movie, once the main team has gained their powers, and especially during the final action sequence, which sees the Fantastic Four fighting together for the first time in in an alternate dimension. This is one of the worst climactic sequences I have ever seen, which includes an unnecessary and stupid re-design of Doctor Doom’s costume, as well as an incomprehensible understanding of his powers, or how exactly such a powerful character could be defeated by the comparatively mundane powers of our heroes. Not only because of the intense mediocrity of its screenplay (which would be disappointing even in a saturday morning cartoon), but because of the craftsmanship at hand. The green-screen work results in some of the worst-looking images ever captured on screen, while characters rarely share the screen in what is clearly a sequence manufactured out of chopped bits and pieces.
In its current form, Fantastic Four is barely a movie in the sense that it features virtually no character arc or developing plot-line whatsoever. It is so incompetent the only way I could review it is just to list all the things that don’t work, which would be a long and boring analysis. It is unlikely that Trank’s vision of the movie would have been worse than what we got, but I can’t help but wonder if it had actually been good. You see, it is unanimously agreed upon that the third act of Fantastic Four is a disaster, but there are many critics who will defend the first half as the set-up for a pretty good, intimate, science-fiction movie.
This first act focuses on Reed Richards (Miles Teller), a young genius who has cracked the code to teleportation into other dimensions. We spend most of the time with Reed, as he becomes part of a task force dedicated to build the machine he has been dreaming about since he was a kid. He is joined by smart and mature Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her hot-head brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and foreign prodigy Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell). Reed also has a childhood friend called Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who will later become The Thing.
Most of this first half of the movie is spent with these young people as they work together on this project and discover exactly in what way the technology they are researching works. I will agree with some critics that this sounds like the set-up for a science-fiction movie, but will disagree that it resembles a good way in any way, shape, or form. There is the matter that the characters show no determining personality, or any meaningful relationship with each other. Reed flirts with Sue a little bit, but that’s basically it. As proof, take the relationship between Sue and Johnny, a brother and sister who act as if they had met two days ago
The chief reason this first act doesn’t work, though, it’s that -thanks to the lack of interest in character- it builds itself around the technology being developed by Reed and friends, which isn’t in any way based on science that works in a way that is unrelated to our understanding of real science. Consider a movie like Interstellar, which for all its flaws, spends a lot of time not only relating its science to real physics, but explaining it in fun ways that can be easily related to more commonly understood aspects of science. The machine Reed is building, and the world he encounters on the other side of his teleportation device, are pure fantasy. It is not fun to see characters try to understand something that we know is little more than cheap mumbo-jumbo.
Sadly, that is not the full extend to which Fantastic Four doesn’t work. I return to what I said earlier about Fantastic Four barely being a movie. There is something off about the whole thing, from the beginning to the end, and it’s that it feels like an alien creature’s understanding of how a human movie works. It features moments that you see in other movies, but doesn’t understand what makes them work. My main example is how we are treated to the fact that Sue is integral to this research group because she is an expert at “pattern recognition”. The movie doesn’t really explain how she does it, but we shrug it off as it moves onto the next scene.
Later in the movie, however, once our heroes have already gain their powers, Reed goes on the run. The government agents looking for him approach Sue, who we are led to believe is the only one capable of finding him because of her whole “pattern recognition” thing. She sits at a computer and starts doing her thing. Only, all the most relevant information is already given to her before she starts, we don’t really see what she does to find Reed. This type of payoff of a small off-hand comment is a common trait of movie storytelling, but in this case, we are asked to be amazed by the fact she did something that we actually don’t see her do.
That is what is so painful about watching Fantastic Four, one can transparently see who each moment is supposed to work, and what the movie gets wrong about every single one of them.
Grade: 2 out of 10