(SPOILERS) The hatchets seemed to be out for the Fantastic Four reboot from the get-go, with antagonistic mumblings about the liberties director Josh Trank was taking with the source material, then the welter of rumours over a troubled production leading to widespread prophecies of (doctor) doom and a salivation over the property’s potential return to the Marvel fold if the box office went tits-up. So the post mortem on why this is a disaster was pretty much written even before its release. Which is a shame, as it isn’t really that bad and even has quite a bit going for it.
Even for being an (not again) origins tale and a dour and po-faced one at that (see also X-Men), Fantastic Four feels tonally quite fresh. Trank has taken a different tack to the bright and breezy Marvel tradition (of which Fantastic Four is generally seen as the exemplar, reflected in the previous big screen iteration, although the recent Ant-Man is the absolute definition of a lightweight superhero movie) and I can see that if you’re a dedicated follower of the foursome you may well take serious issue with the seriousness of his picture. Trank’s coming from a different place to the self-important grimness of the DC movies; he doesn’t really even have the conviction to honour the Fantastic Four as superheroes per se (which is why the ending, where these traits are enforced, is a really awkward gear change).
His tack (the screenplay is courtesy of Trank, Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg) derives from the same “What would the effects be of such powers?” two-edged sword starting point he previously explored in his really very good Chronicle, infusing the picture with foreboding at not just their potential for misuse but aslo the side effects of the powers themselves. And he wasn’t kidding with his invocation of Cronenberg.
The opening sequence (taking place all the way back in 2007!) could be Dante’s Explorers played straight (one thing Trank doesn’t exhibit, perhaps surprisingly for someone allegedly partial to Mary Jane, is a capacity for a good giggle) as young Reed Richards develops a teleportation device. Flashing forward, he’s transformed into Miles Teller and is talent spotted by Reg E Cathy’s Dr Franklin Storm, who sets him to work with his daughter Sue (Kate Mara), son Johnny (Michael B Richards) and wayward prodigy Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). When their experiment is a success, transporting life to and from a parallel dimension (the imaginatively named Planet Zero) and it looks as if it will be taken out of their hands and sold to NASA (goddam NASA!), Reed, Johnny, Victor and Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) take a jaunt to the planet and, of course, physiognomy-changing events ensue.
I rather liked that the picture takes its time to establish its scenario and characters, although it seems many have found this rather boring. Trank is intent on establishing a certain rigour and verisimilitude to his storytelling, however at odds that may be with the source material. That’s not to say there aren’t some serious problems; the dialogue is frequently clumsy and obvious, and the character beats can be crude or clichéd (Johnny’s a hot-headed Fast & Furious fan, Victor has dropped out and lives in a garage, unable to locate a razor amidst his technological wizardry).
But there’s an admirable sense of aiming for something tonally different. Sure, we follow their preparations through customary montage, and there’s never any real finesse, but the trappings of science fiction/exploration do give the picture something of an Altered States meets The Andromeda Strain by way of Spielberg vibe. And the actual trip is good stuff, in an early ‘80s alien-planet-on-an-obvious-sound-stage kind of way.
The strongest aspect comes when they return and all hell breaks loose in their upset bodies. This kind of 12A body horror may not be in keeping with the upbeat bent of the comics, but it handles such themes much more astutely than, say, the recent Robocop remake (which boxed itself into an existential corner it then couldn’t get out of). Sure, it drops the ball in having Ben (apparently) sweepingly come to terms with his craggy form by the end credits, but there’s a palpable sense of loss and mutilation perpetrating his unwieldy form, one that welds itself to other objects and even himself. We never do find out if the Thing has a rock winky (one assumes not or he’d wear briefs, so that’s another thing for Ben to be down about). Reed’s distended limbs could easily have looked ridiculous and goofy, but his first realisation in particular takes on the kind of queasy terror of coming to realise one has been in a terrible accident and life will never be the same again.
It’s a nice touch too that Reed, the nominal leader, turns tail and flees (one expects him to have come up with some plan to save his friends, but it seems he’s merely mired himself in guilt and self-loathing during the subsequent the year gap). Ben’s dalliance with the military carries an agreeably cynical vibe (and an Ang Lee’s Hulk moment with a tank), while Johnny’s fierce defence of the value of his skills provides an effective counterpoint. Sue’s rather one note in all this (she doesn’t even get to go to Planet Zero); she barely uses her invisibility and mostly just flies about in an energised hamster ball.
Bell and Jordan are fine (there were concerns about the former’s vocal performance as the Thing, but as a non-purist I had no issue with it), Mara rather forgettable (which is better than being annoying, my usual response to her performances). It’s only Teller who really makes a strong impression, particularly in embracing across Reed’s more Aspergic literalness.
As for Victor, Kebell is always good value, but he’s unable to extract much nuance from Victor’s student activist rants (I did like his line about their experimenting be used for waterboarding in the fourth dimension). He goes from someone protesting the debasement and destruction of the world to one who wants to destroy it, presumably for the sake of a de rigueur CGI whirlwind finale.
The Thing’s design is pretty good, but the same can’t be said of mutated Doom. The concept is suitably icky (his survival suit has fused to his body), but he more accurately resembles someone in a Marilyn Manson Halloween mask. His return, head-splattery rampage and subsequent portal gubbins attempt to suck the Earth dry translates as the desperate manoeuvring of a studio distrusting what they had and attempting to sexy (or pixelate) it up. It’s rushed, messy, semi-incoherent, and what is coherent is cheesy in the extreme. Reed gives his guys a pep talk along the well-worn lines of, Victor’s “stronger than any of us. He’s not stronger than all of us”.
The ending is also rather abrupt in establishing the team in their new base with a clumsily brandished announcement of their super-brand. It made me conscious that such clenched-teeth cheerfulness is probably a Fantastic Four movie I don’t want to see. I lay most of the blame for the pervasive mediocrity of the previous Fox Fantastic Fours at the door of Tim Story (Chris Evans was far more appropriately cast there than as Captain Bland), but there’s also something rather banal about their primary coloured family values (particularly so when you have a character trapped inside a grotesque shell but in entirely the wrong group and tonal environment to really express his pain).
Tim Blake Nelson is very watchable as lizard-eyed Dr Allen; any chance he’ll reprise his role as Samuel Sterns from The Incredible Hulk some day? I also liked the Marco Beltrami/Philip Glass score (I’m thinking that’s more the Glass side of the equation than the Beltrami), which lends the proceedings a suitably tantalising, disturbing new-horizons quality.
I’m not sure Josh Trank really needed to follow Chronicle with something that charted a similar course of the dark side of being superheroically endowed, particularly when the result offer diminished returns (not to mention the unfortunate fall-out with regard to his Star Wars duties). But his directorial chops are still much in evidence. This is visually a much more interestingly composed superhero movie than… well, most of them aren’t all that (I guess Man of Steel, even if it kind of overdoes its handheld look). Hopefully he won’t be consigned to permanent director jail as a result, as the biggest failings of Fantastic Four are the eschewing of its more grounded and interior canvas for the CGI blur of the final 20 minutes (likely studio mandated; Trank tweeted the possibly optimistic self-appraisal, “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though”).
If we’re to assume Fantastic Four doesn’t make the readies to warrant a sequel, it will be interesting to see how Fox attempts to integrate them into the X-franchise (one well overdue a makeover; First Class was a first class false dawn but alas we’re back to Bryan Singer’s late-‘90s leather fetish); it would be more desirable for Trank’s aesthetic to seep into the X-Men than vice versa.