Review: Fantastic Four

The latest Unlimited-only screening at Cineword, Fantastic Four was actually screened to Unlimited card holders a day before film critics were to be shown the movie – and a day before the actors saw the film at the premiere! All told, this made the experience exciting – and despite much talk about the film’s production (director Josh Trank was said to be hard to manage/disruptive, others may have finished the film and kicked him off the set), it isn’t a disaster. What it is is a movie that feels cut and pasted, with pieces missing, and one that could have done with more time across the board – because as hard as it tries, Fantastic Four is far from achieving nominative determinism.

Based on Marvel characters (but not part of the Marvel film universe), the film sees supergeeks Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), and Sue Storm work on a trans-dimensional transportation device, which Reed has been working on since childhood. Reed’s bruiser of a school buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and Sue’s badly-behaved brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) tag along while mentor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathy) and suspicious government bloke Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson) watch on. A decision to travel to the other dimension goes wrong, and some reluctant superheroes (and a villain) are created.

This film is like a stuttery old car – sometimes it surges on and starts to feel like it’s going well. Then it stalls, parts don’t work, and you wonder why you’re still trying to drive it. Despite the best intentions of Teller as a driven, guilty Reed Richards, and all the work done by Kebbell/Bell to create a nuanced Doom/Grimm in early scenes, everything feels rushed, and some huge cuts seem to have been made.aiPi7UD Teller, Kebbell – hell, the whole main cast – are interesting actors, and have all been in some brilliant films. Here, it feels like all their performances have been halved – jokes don’t pay off, investments in back stories and motivations end up meaning nothing, and the plot relies on stupid little things to keep going (Johnny’s a boy racer, his dad tells him to get responsibility, and he ends up working on a hugely sophisticated science project with no scientific experience).

Kebbell and Bell in particular are really shortchanged as Doom and Ben Grimm, who could have been a brilliant villain with a great story arc and gentle giant respectively, but who instead bugger off for most of the film and lose the best parts of their character set up along the way, becoming a ruthless despot and tortured grunt/freak despite no further character development. This amazes me considering that Simon Kinberg, who wrote X-Men: Days of Future Past, co-wrote and produced Fantastic Four – a man who manages to adapt two separate film timelines, combine them and succeed in making one of the best superhero films fails to produce a suitable origin and continued arc for some of Marvel’s most famous heroes in two hours.

Cathey gives good Morgan Freeman as the mentor with a speech always up his sleeve, but he is the Basil Exposition of Fantastic Four – everything he says pushes the plot on or explains something about the plot, and this veteran of The Wire ends up somewhat shortchanged. Likewise with Blake Nelson, who once again is cast in a superhero film (he was previously in The Incredible Hulk) and is a rote, stereotypical character. At this point, the director-shaped elephant in the room rears it head/trunk. Josh Trank made Chronicle, a quite brilliant, found-footage film about superpowered teens, but here his interesting angles on the four (their powers are treated like body horror in an effective sequence) aren’t enough when one cut moves the whole film on by A YEAR. So much elapses in that year that you wonder whether the original script gave the characters breathing room and a chance to develop – instead, we’re thrown into the future with no sense of weight behind some of the decisions made.

In some films, this works. Here, we’ve just reached a pivotal point and suddenly everything has changed. And while a lot about this film is trying very hard to be different (a score by Marco Beltrami and Philip Glass – the modernist composer – could have been bizarre and amazing, but ends up being a stereotypical action soundtrack), the ridiculous edits and very fractured nature of the story really take everything good away. Trank proved he has an eye for interesting stories and action in Chronicle, but whether by his own choice or Fox’s, this film is so painfully by-the-numbers that when its final set piece occurs, you’re wishing it was already over. A film under two hours manages to feel much, much longer because we spend so much time with the group before they even enter the other dimension (it could have been 45 minutes but to me it felt like HOURS).

The effects are, in places, quite good, but never more than that. The science is hokum, but treated by the film as gospel and, in time-honoured fashion, not explained, despite the film aiming for “gritty and realistic”. And for a 12-certificate film, there is one decidedly gruesome, out-of-place action scene involving a transformed Doom that amused my gore-loving side, but genuinely made me wonder how it got in the film – and how it got passed as kid-friendly. There was a kid on my row probably under 10, and I could sense his parents were pretty shocked at what they were seeing, with the kid leaving the cinema (quietly) a few minutes later (he did return, but it was clearly a case of a little too much blood). This sort of tone-deaf transition, from superhero film to body horror to gruesome, serial-killer style rampage embodied for me Fantastic Four’s schizophrenic nature – and while it was entertaining and interesting for me in the cinema, this isn’t a good thing when you’re trying to compete with Marvel’s glossy, funny and child-friendly fare.

I think this movie had so much potential (and might have in a director’s cut, who knows), but it just seems like Fox freaked out at any attempt at characterisation, and for whatever behind-the-scenes reason, it’s inert and insubstantial, with action scenes of no discernable consequence or depth. It tries to set up a sequel towards the end in such a way that you hope it doesn’t do well enough to justify one – it’s a missed opportunity, and might end up with Marvel hoovering the characters up as with Daredevil, Ghost Rider and Spider-man.

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