Given the level of talent involved both in front of and behind the camera, nobody should feel much joy — no anti-tentpole schadenfreude or blockbuster-busting righteousness — to discover that the latest Fantastic Four film is a catastrophe. True, a pall of corporate despair does hang over the enterprise. The film was allegedly rushed into production by Fox to keep the property’s rights from reverting back to Marvel, and the finished product bears all the hallmarks of hasty meddling and reshoots — complete with slapdash effects, structural problems, an early trailer filled with shots no longer in the movie, and even hair-continuity issues. But plenty of better movies have been made for dumber reasons, and studios futz all the time with these things. (Remember World War Z?) This thing, one suspects, went off the rails early, and hard.
The film starts in 2007, with our introduction to nerdy, introverted Oyster Bay kid Reed Richards and his tough pal Ben Grimm, as they spend their nights working on Reed’s “biomatter shuttle,” which will allow for human teleportation, using old video games and scrap metal from Ben’s family’s junkyard. It then moves forward to the present-day, as Reed (now played by Miles Teller) is spotted at a science fair and enlisted to join the Baxter Institute, a scientific think-tank run by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey). There, he meets Storm’s kids, hyperintelligent computer whiz Sue (Kate Mara) and drag-racing free-spirit Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), as well the professor’s former protégé Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). The idea is to use Reed’s know-how and the Baxter Institute’s resources to build a bigger, professional-grade version of the biomatter shuttle and teleport to a planet in another dimension — a “place that could explain the origin of our species … and answer questions we don’t know how to ask yet.”
But when the kids take the biomatter shuttle out for a test-run, things don’t quite turn out as expected. The unstable Planet Zero (which, with its awkward, fake sets, wouldn’t look out of place on an old Flash Gordon serial) isn’t exactly inviting. Victor is stranded back in the other dimension, presumed dead, while Reed, Johnny, and Ben (whom Reed had enlisted at the last minute to join them, for old times’ sake) escape just in the nick of time and are affected in different, horrifying ways. Ben has been turned into a sentient pile of rocks; Johnny is an eternal flame; Sue (who had stayed behind but was injured in an explosion when the others teleported back) is mostly invisible, hovering between being and nothingness. Compared to the others, Reed has gotten off easy: His body has gained the consistency and flexibility of rubber.
Here, you can catch fleeting glimpses of the film that Fantastic Four probably wanted to be. Most superhero stories acknowledge in passing that having superpowers can actually at first be scary, weird, and alienating. Director Josh Trank’s one previous feature credit was 2012’s low-budget hit Chronicle, a grim, tonally deft found-footage movie that offered a refreshingly disturbing take on what a trio of teenage boys might really do if suddenly given superpowers. At first, it seems as if we might see something similar here. So, we dwell for a while on the horror of what’s happening to these kids, as well as the recrimination involved. The creepiest image in the film is that of Reed lying on an examining table, his extremities stretched out in unreal, disturbing fashion; the most moving moment involves Ben’s anger at Reed for effectively turning him into the Thing.
Unfortunately, the film winds up doing nothing with these ideas. Instead, it flashes forward a year, and we see, briefly, that Sue, Ben, and Johnny have been taught to harness their powers for military purposes, while Reed appears to have vanished off the face of the Earth. Even that idea doesn’t last too long, as the quartet is soon reunited for one last slapdash, climactic battle. (One guess as to whom it’s against.)
There’s a fundamental tonal dissonance at the heart of Fantastic Four. The awkward staging, cut-rate effects, and stilted dialogue might have worked alongside a fun, ridiculous story. (The recent Ant-Man, though more polished, has a bit of that B-movie spirit going for it.) Instead, we have a film that, at least at first, tends toward darkness, grief, regret, and stoic glares. The disconnect between cheesy surface and grim subtext is excruciating and often embarrassing.
But it’s not like the film seems to have any idea what to do with those dark ideas either. What happened to Teller and Jordan’s charisma? At least the latter has an excuse: Once he becomes the Human Torch, he feels like he’s barely there as an actor, with a cheap flame effect doing much of the heavy lifting, and the actor reduced to a few reaction shots and an occasional dialogue exchange. Teller, meanwhile, seems like he’s being used in exactly the wrong way: as a humorless, tormented, stoic nerd, deprived of his irreverence and unpredictability. Mara radiates intelligence, as usual, but gets virtually nothing to do, with much of her non-superhero time spent staring at a computer and yelling out technobabble. Jamie Bell, who plays Ben Grimm/the Thing, barely gets any screen time. (Is that even his voice?)
Without the stylistic conceit of Chronicle’s found footage to mask limitations and let the viewer’s imagination to do some of the heavy lifting, Trank is unable to put together any convincing action scenes; it’s like somebody turned the lights on and revealed all the smoke and mirrors involved in the making of such films. One doesn’t want to lay the blame entirely on the director, however, especially if the reports of extended reshoots and last-minute recutting are to be believed. Who knows how much of the film is actually “his” at this point? But it’s hard to see how anything effective might have emerged out of this disaster at any point. The rot runs deep, and nobody is immune.