Fantastic Four (2015)

The pretty awful movie I kinda liked
Josh Trank
Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell
The Setup: 
Another reboot of the ill-starred superhero franchise misses again.

So everyone says that they’re tired of the common superhero formula, but usually, when someone tries to do something different, like Ang Lee’s Hulk, people usually hate it. This movie is decidedly not great, but it ended up [whether intentionally is still up for conjecture] having an interesting shape and, you know, I kind of liked it. It certainly has more interesting ideas than Ant-Man or Iron Man 12 or whatever.

This is directed and co-written by Josh Trank, of interesting found-footage superhero origin film Chronicle, making his big-budget debut. However, not long into shooting, signs of problems began to appear. Trank was often missing and indecisive [according to rumor] and apparently his dogs caused thousands of dollars in damage to a hotel room. He had a directing gig on a standalone Star Wars film from the forthcoming glut, but that was soon pulled. Then the studio brought in others to finish this film, and finally, here it is. It amassed mediocre-to-poor reviews [which only enflamed my interest!] and everyone seems to hate it. Trank Tweeted that “A year ago I had a fantastic version, that would have gotten great reviews,” but that soon vanished. The other thing to know is that the main reason this film exists is that, if Fox didn’t make a film every few years, rights for the property would revert back to Marvel.

Now, do you know that right now Hollywood is hoovering up new directors for their never-ending slate of franchise films? Trank had only made one small film, the director of Jurassic World had only made a small indie film, same thing with the director of Godzilla, and there are numerous others. It’s fascinating, and I suspect it’s because these directors will jump at a chance to make a big film, even though it might not be why they started making films in the first place, and also will more than likely submit to being absolute pawns to the studio and delivering anything they say. Still, I can’t imagine a worse situation than going for months making a film with everyone knowing it’s in trouble, enduring months of dread until it comes out, then finally sitting there as all the awful reviews pile up, then sitting through the weekend waiting for the awful gross… and all the time knowing that the years you spent were wasted and it’ll probably be that much harder to make another film. Ugh! Poor Josh.

So can we start talking about the movie yet? Sorry, no. Because beforehand, they showed this ad with all these inspirational images of happy children around the globe, and how they’re going to grow up in a world that’s so much better than ours… and use the Internet is such a more intuitive, rewarding way… and have devices that “listen to them, and talk, and sing…” and why? Why will the next generation’s lives be SO much better than ours in EVERY WAY? Are you ready? “Because these kids… will grow up with Windows 10!” This got the biggest laugh of perhaps the MONTH from me. My God, Microsoft will just NEVER get it, right? They just NEVER, EVER get it! Still, so, so precious.

Okay, so the movie! We open with ten-or-so Reed Richards in class, where he gives a presentation on the teleportation device he’s working on, to the snide derision of his teacher. We see that young Ben Grimm is also in that class, and later, at home, Ben is abused by his older brother, who dives into his beating with the phrase “It’s clobberin’ time!” They try to teleport a toy car, causing a huge blackout that darkens Manhattan. Then they’re at a high school science fair [neither look remotely high school age] where their teleportation machine now works… but still, it is dismissed by the teacher, who says that the fair is “About SCIENCE! Not MAGIC!” Can you imagine anyone interested in science NOT considering a teleportation machine science? It rings so false… but we’re supposed to be caught up in the Hollywood shorthand cliche of the prodigy of inherent genius who is misunderstood by those nasty, short-sighted adults. Also… what is the basis of his friendship with the non-genius Ben Grimm? Not like we’ll get any insight. Anyway, he gets invited to go live and study at the Baxter institute, where he can work on their big teleportation machine, just like he’s building. Obviously Ben is left in the dust right fast, and completely drops out of the movie for quite some time.

We also meet Kate Mara as Sue Storm, daughter of the guy in charge, who goes to visit Victor Von Doom, who is another grumpy teen genius. Also around is Johnny, Sue’s adopted brother [and also genius!] who is into hot rodding, and whose car “flames out.” He also is given a welding mask with flames when he comes to work in the lab. So then they work on the machine for a while while ostensibly bonding as a team [only the writers can’t manage character development], until it’s ready, at which point they learn that they will not get to use the machine, but instead a team of astronauts will go through. So they get drunk [on the contents of one tiny flask?] and decide to go themselves. Reed calls Ben—who we have so forgotten about that his reappearance is a shock—and they teleport themselves, leaving Sue at home.

They emerge on a strange planet with a strange green glowing energy that soon overwhelms them. Victor falls in and is presumed dead, Ben’s chamber gets filled with rocks, Johnny’s with flame, no explanation for Reed, and Sue is hit by an explosion when they get back. This is where things get somewhat interesting [note qualifier “somewhat”], for the movie goes into a bit of a body horror direction, as Reed is stretched across an exam room, Sue is phasing in and out of visibility, Johnny is unconscious and burning, and Ben is horrified at what he has become. Reed goes to see Ben, promises he’ll help him, and escapes. Then—a year later! By the way, this is one hour in, leaving forty minutes for the post-powers section of the story.

Ben has now been completely weaponized by the military, and sent off on various missions to destroy America’s foes. The military, represented by Tim Blake Nelson, wants to weaponize the other kids. Sue is reluctant, but Johnny wants to embrace his powers, and is all too eager [in a way that is dropped in, but not explored] to become a killing machine for the military. They find and capture Reed, who has lived for a year in a cabin in the woods, and Ben pretty much hates him: “I’m not your friend. You turned me into something else.” Then the military send another team to the other planet, where they find Victor, changed into this metallic thing, and bring him back.

Well, we have fifteen minutes left, how about a sudden climax? Victor, now fully Dr. Doom [“There is no Victor… only DOOM!”], decides immediately that all humanity must be killed. It’s kind of one of those snap decisions. He has pretty much unlimited [and ill-defined] powers, and goes around exploding people’s heads, but in a PG-13 way. I did like, however, that he’s actually quite scary. Anyway, he hot-foots it back to the other planet, our team of four follow him, and somehow Doom sets up a giant beam going up into the sky [oh dear, ANOTHER giant beam going up into the sky, ho-hum…] that is somehow sucking Earth up onto the other planet. This is despite the fact that Victor seemed quite happy on his other planet, and doesn’t want any Earth there, but whatever. The four decide that they have to work together as a team, and in two shakes of a lamb’s tail Doom is defeated, and the whole thing is ending. The team get their own facility and the military promises to leave them alone, and that’s the end!

So it sucked, basically. No getting around that. The characters don’t gel together, and although the writers can include numerous scenes of them together, they can’t create any interesting relationships. The scenes of Reed and Ben as children add nothing in the long run, and those two end up having NO relationship, despite us being told repeatedly that they’re best friends. A romantic rivalry between Reed and Victor over Sue goes nowhere. Then it’s just too long for the team to get their powers, which would be fine if what happened beforehand was interesting. There’s a short period of dealing with what has happened to them—interesting, but too short—and them Doom appears, arbitrary plan to destroy humanity, arbitrary climax, and it’s all ending just as it seems like it’s getting started. Other reviews describe the whole film as one long “pre-credits sequence.”

Nevertheless, I enjoyed sitting through it, and there are things to like about it—although how intentional they are remains open to question. First, I can appreciate that the film is one long rising arc of action. I don’t mind that it takes so long to set up the relationships, if only they were more interesting and the time paid off in some way. I really liked the body horror aspects, and the film wanted to explore that gaining powers might be horrific, rather than exciting. I liked that Ben was really bitter at Reed, and really horrified at himself. I liked that Ben’s bitterness led to him being turned into a military weapon. I liked the complexity that Johnny has no moral compunction about being turned into a military weapon, he doesn’t care as long as he has some purpose [and gets some attention]… although all of this is summarily dropped. Finally, I liked that Doom is actually scary, and I liked the crazy otherworldly visuals that populate the climax, although Doom is defeated quite easily and one barely gets a sense of the team harnessing their powers before it’s all over.

Still, we’ll never know what the original vision was, and how much survived. If you’ve seen the film, go back and watch the trailer and notice just HOW much stuff in the trailer is not in the final film. The day after seeing this, I watched the 2005 version with Jessica Alba, and within the first ten minutes was like “This is SO MUCH better!” Because, tepid as that film may have been, it focuses on the characters and their relationships, makes room for a lot of bitterness from Ben, and has an actual climax in which the team comes together and uses their powers in complimentary ways.

Anyway… there you go: a poor movie with a few interesting aspects. Absolutely no reason to see it, but if you do, some slight bits of interest to hold onto. Kind of like life, that way.

Should you watch it: 

Nah, but it wouldn’t kill you.