Fantastic Four (Josh Trank, 2015)
Where to begin? Perhaps with the question, not unique to this particular movie, of why. In a world where The Amazing Spider-Man comes out just ten years after the critically and commercially successful – and therefore not in apparent need of an immediate reimagining – Spider-Man (and only five years after the third film in that Tobey Maguire series), it should no longer surprise us that stories are recycled and rebooted with increasing frequency. Ten years is the 21st-century Hollywood standard for ancient. For the record, I actually liked The Amazing Spider-Man (more, even, than Spider-Man), yet I still don’t understand its raison d’être (beyond the mercenary).
Now comes Fantastic Four, just – again – ten years after the 2005 film of the exact same tile. Unlike its web-slinger counterpart, that original film took a serious critical drubbing upon its release (though it did turn a profit, leading to its 2007 sequel, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer). Despite the stupidity, I enjoyed it, finding it content to be the silly superhero film that it was, and populated by actors who didn’t take themselves too seriously. Chris Evans was especially fine as Johnny Storm (aka “The Human Torch”) back then, and has since gone on to better movies, including Captain America: The First Avenger and its sequel, in which he plays the titular role. Still, dumb fun though it may have been, the original Fantastic Four was not a good movie. I could see how some smart writer/director might envision a more interesting way to approach the story. Josh Trank, who wrote and directed the intriguing found-footage sci-fi thriller Chronicle, seemed like a good choice to take on the reboot (if reboot were needed).
And for the first ten (maybe twenty) minutes of Trank’s film, I was rooting for him. I loved his approach. We meet two of the main characters – Reed Richards (later to become Mr. Fantastic) and Ben Grimm (later to become The Thing) – as children, and watch their friendship grow over a shared sense of being outcasts. No one understands them but them. Richards is the scientific wunderkind; Grimm, the devoted sidekick. Richards, all of 10 years old, has developed a matter transporter (laughed at by his teachers). Grimm’s family owns a scrapyard, and so Richards, through his friend, has an unlimited supply of materials for his experiments. Flash forward 7 years (the movie begins in 2007), and Richards – now played by Miles Teller (Whiplash) – and Grimm – now played by Jamie Bell (Snowpiercer) – are discovered at a high-school science fair by Dr. Franklin Storm – played by Reg E. Cathey (Freddy on “House of Cards“) – and his adopted daughter, Sue – played by Kate Mara (Zoe Barnes on, yet again, “House of Cards“) – who will soon enough become the Invisible Girl. It turns out that Storm runs a special magnet school for geniuses, and wants Richards as a student. He particularly wants Richards’ transportation device, which, it turns out, actually works, sending matter (so far, inorganic only) back and forth between our world and another dimension. If they can but build a larger, human-sized unit, perhaps they can travel to this new world and find renewable sources of energy to save the Earth.
So far, so good. But once we’re in the school and the device-building begins, the movie goes south. Deep South. The script takes a turn for the terminally stupid and, even worse, for self-seriousness. Musical montages replace character development. Good actors – we also get the usually wonderful Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) as the new Johnny Storm (Dr. Storm’s biological child) – turn in terrible performances, but who could possibly do much of anything with the inane dialogue with which they are saddled? Equally disturbing – for a sci-fi superhero film – the special effects and world design look cheap (amazingly, Johnny Storm’s flying stunts looked better in 2005). Plot spoiler: there’s a villain (telegraphed from the first time we meet him), and our four protagonists – now physically transformed because of an accident involving radiation from that other dimension – must learn to work as a team to destroy him. The real villain, however, is the script, itself, and if we can all work together as our own team and prevent people from seeing this movie, perhaps there will never be a sequel. More likely, of course, is that there will be a reboot next year.