Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)

I guess I've been spoiled by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but I'm so used to seeing Marvel Comics movies that you absolutely have to go see or you'll be missing out on something fun. They're so good that sometimes I actually forget that there's the occasional misstep with the movies based on Marvel's properties. Every so often we get a Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, or an X-Men Origins: Wolverine, or a Spider-Man 3. But the characters that I think have suffered the most are the Fantastic Four. Of the three times in the past that the Fantastic Four have been adapted into cinematic form, one was never released, and the two that actually were disappointed critics and were only modest successes at the box office.

It's been nearly a decade since they last appeared on the big screen. And say what you will about Roger Corman's movie, the 2005 one, or Rise of the Silver Surfer, but they're all far, far better than the newly-released reboot of the franchise. That nine-year wait was not worth it at all, as this attempt to revitalize the franchise is off to a terrible, terrible start.

Ever since childhood, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been attempting to build a machine capable of teleporting matter from one point to another. And while the prototype he and best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have developed isn't perfect, it draws the attention of renowned scientist Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Caffrey), who invites Reed to join his team of scientists in building a similar, more advanced version. Also brought onto the project are Storm's children Sue (Kate Mara) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), along with Franklin's brilliant yet cocky former protégé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Their initial experiments upon finishing the teleporter's construction is successful, as they're able to transport a chimpanzee into an alternate dimension, a strange wasteland they've dubbed "Planet Zero," before bringing it back.

The bad news, however, is that their higher-ups want to take the project from them and give it to NASA for further development. A drunken Reed decides that they should be the first ones to travel to Planet Zero instead of a bunch of astronauts. Convincing Ben that he should tag along, they, Johnny, and Victor remotely activate the device and make the trip to this strange new world. But their trip proves to be a huge mistake, as the green lava-like energy that covers much of the area's surface begins to erupt. Victor is swallowed up by the collapsing ground, and an explosion destroys the device just as Sue arrives and pulls the other three and their shuttle back to Earth.

Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue (who herself was caught up in the aftermath of that little misadventure) are whisked away to a secret military base, where they find that the energy from the explosion has altered them significantly. Reed can stretch his limbs, Ben has been transformed into a giant rock creature, Johnny turns himself into a flying human fireball at will, and Sue is able to render herself invisible and create force fields. Reed quickly realizes that the government has no intention of curing them, choosing rather to study the use of their powers as it pertains to military application. He escapes and becomes an international fugitive as he tries to find a way to reverse the process that gave them these abilities.

Reed is recaptured in Central America a year later, asked to rejoin the teleportation project as the scientists who overtook it plan to return to Planet Zero. The explorers discover that not only has its entire landscape changed, but that Victor is still alive. Having fused with his environmental protection suit, Victor has himself developed a multitude of superpowers with which he intends to wipe out humanity and rebuild Earth in the image of Planet Zero. And while they have never quite been on the same page, Reed, Ben, Johnny, and Sue must come together and use their own abilities to save the world.

I went back and read my reviews of the previous three Fantastic Four movies before seeing this new one. And while I may not have been particularly kind to them (especially the Corman one), I would gladly watch any of them before going back and watching this new one again. Everything about it is cold, ugly, unappealing. Its depressingly bleak tone undercuts any sort of adventure or heroics the titular quartet may engage in onscreen. I'm not opposed to the idea of dark superhero movies, but unless you're going for parody, it only really works for dark characters like Batman or the Punisher. But the Fantastic Four? Really?

The movie is the second directorial effort from Josh Trank, who'd previously helmed the found footage movie Chronicle in 2012. But while Chronicle was a solid, entertaining movie, Fantastic Four makes his successful debut look like a total fluke. Trank's direction here is subpar to say the least. The pacing is all over the place, the CGI is overdone and barely adequate at best (The Thing looks particularly weak), and it feels like the movie was edited with a chainsaw. The cinematography just plain sucks, with the only decent bit of it ― a tracking shot near the end of the movie that follows behind Doctor Doom as he marches down a hallway, effortlessly murdering everyone in his path ― being better suited for a horror movie than a superhero flick.

I read somewhere that Trank was inspired by the week of David Cronenberg when prepping production, and I believe him because the movie isn't exactly subtle about it. Elements of Scanners and The Fly are blatantly apparent, which only adds to the movie's bleak tone. The idea of a Cronenberg-style superhero movie does sound intriguing. But not only does Trank approach it weakly, it doesn't feel like this is the proper opportunity to do it either. Had Trank been making a movie based on Warren Ellis's Ruins, I could understand it. But doing dark versions of characters just because you can, being edgy for the sake of it, seems silly to me.

I'm not saying that comic book adaptations can't be dark and have to be completely, 100% accurate to the source material. Tim Burton's Batman killed people and those movies were really good. But sometimes you'll end up on the opposite end of that spectrum with movies like Man of Steel or Fantastic Four. But at least Man of Steel is a well-made movie, which is a hell of a lot more than I can say for Fantastic Four.

That's partly due not only to Trank's lousy direction, but the script as well. Credited to Trank, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Kinberg, the script just how little anyone cared about making a Fantastic Four movie that was worth a damn. There's no real loyalty to the source material in any serious effort, especially when it comes to the characterization of Doctor Doom. The three core parts of Doom's personality have always been his insufferably enormous ego, his irrational hatred of Reed Richards, and his genuine belief that the world would be a better place if he were its supreme ruler. We do see evidence of the first two when, in the character's first scene, Doom immediately accuses Reed of stealing his work despite the two having never even heard of one another previously and acting independently to develop their systems. The catch here, though, is that this version of Doom does not want to conquer the world, but destroy it. Doom is an incredibly complex character when handled well, but the movie depicts him as a stereotypical omnicidal villain with no depth or any sort of motivation. He actually even completely disappears from the movie for the entire second act and is barely mentioned subsequently, only reappearing with his new superpowers to raise hell during the last twenty minutes of the movie. It's an absolutely pathetic waste of a great villain, one that makes the rather lackluster depiction of him played by Julian McMahon in 2005 and 2007 look a lot better in retrospect.

The other characters don't fare much better, as they're chock full of an almost unbearable amount of angst because of their superpowers. I get that might happen, and it's expected in regards to Ben Grimm, but it's almost too much angst. I don't want to watch a superhero movie where the heroes are self-loathing sad sacks that are resentful of each other.

But the script has more problems than just that. Judging by how the movie plays out, the story must have been put together at random because it feels disjointed and haphazardly put together. I don't know if that's how it was written or if there was a lot of executive meddling (judging by the producers ordering rewrites, the studio doing reshoots behind Trank's back months after production ended, the terrible editing, and Trank's since-deleted tweets, I'm guessing the latter more so than the former), but the narrative skips and stutters like there was some heavy duty editing going on with no consideration of how the final product would flow. The movie never feels like it's going anywhere because as soon as it starts building some momentum, it comes to a screeching halt to go in a completely different direction.

I also got the impression that the cast would have preferred being anywhere else on the face of the planet than on the set. They came across like they're putting forth the absolute bare minimum amount of effort, but then again, they could have hired Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep and it still would have ended up being rough to watch.

Miles Teller and Jamie Bell aren't totally awful, I'll give them that, but Tony Kebbell is given practically nothing to do, which makes me wonder why they even bothered including Doctor Doom in the movie at all. Kate Mara seemed like she was phoning it in (assuming said phone was a tin can on a string), but factoring in the rumors that Trank supposedly treated her poorly due to his anger with Fox ordering him to hire her, I can't admit to being all that surprised.

The only real standout among the entire cast is Michael B. Jordan, who was a controversial choice to play Johnny Storm simply because of his race. Much like Michael Clarke Duncan playing Kingpin in Daredevil, hiring a black actor to play a character that has traditionally been depicted as white rubbed a lot of the hardcore comic book nerds the wrong way. But Jordan isn't bad at all as Johnny. He's not the first person I'd have thought of when casting the role, but he's charismatic enough that he becomes the one bright spot in the darkness that is the movie.

Based on the word of mouth, I entered Fantastic Four expecting the worst. It's not as aggressively terrible as I'd anticipated, but the movie was still a waste of my time and money. The only worthwhile part of the whole thing was seeing the green-band trailer for Deadpool before it started. Fantastic Four is proof of how much a lack of respect for the source material and a director and studio that have no clue what they're doing can hurt a movie. I just hope that the rights will revert back to Marvel sooner rather than later, because if they could redeem Howard the Duck with one ten-second cameo, they can redeem these characters too. The Fantastic Four deserve so much better than this.

Final Rating: