Thursday, August 6, 2015

Fantastic Four

Heading into theaters with a target on its back, Fantastic Four has been a whipping boy for fans since it cast a black man as The Human Torch (for some, it committed the unforgivable sin of going against the depiction of the character in the comics) and it's been the subject of tons of rumors about troubled behavior on the set, none of which I'll repeat here because I have no idea if they're valid or not. I went into this movie hoping that all of that negative talk wouldn't actually apply to the movie itself, and frankly, I didn't see any major issues with it from a directing standpoint. The cast does a decent job with what they're given, but as is so often the case, Fantastic Four's biggest problem lies in its script.

Fantastic Four
Director: Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell

Let me be clear: this movie is not deserving of the level of hate it's getting from the online community (especially from people who haven't even seen it yet). It's very slow, there's not much action, and the dialogue is often super cheesy, but it's not an Adam Sandler-level disaster that should be avoided at all costs.

We meet a brilliant young scientist named Reed Richards (Miles Teller), who teams up with fellow student Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) to create a teleportation machine. They send matchbox cars and toy airplanes into another dimension, eventually figuring out a way to bring them back. Reed's parents and teachers don't recognize his genius, but Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) see them at a high school science fair and recruit Reed onto a team that's working on interdimensional travel on a large scale. Franklin wants to travel to the other dimension (nicknamed Planet Zero) and harness its resources to save a dying Earth, and he convinces a loner scientist named Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) to return to the project, certain that Victor and Reed's combined intellect can give them the final push they need.

The team succeeds, in part to the contributions of Franklin's son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a hotshot racer who's only working for his father in order to get his car back. When the project is complete, Victor, Johnny, Reed, and Ben decide to become the first humans to make the jump, so they inexplicably leave Sue behind (yes, I'm serious) and travel to Planet Zero themselves. Remember in Prometheus how those idiot scientists behave like no actual scientist would ever behave when they come across an alien life form? Something similar happens here, and Victor is left behind while the others are hit with cosmic rays just as they're returning to the lab, where Sue is also blasted with leftover rays as the teleportation device crashes back into our reality.

If that sounds like a lot of set-up, that's because this entire movie is basically set-up. There are very few action set pieces, even after the group gains their powers, and when they finally come along, they don't have any life to them like they should. Bryan Singer has mastered the ability to choreograph super-powered fight sequences in the X-Men franchise, and this film could have used his touch because we never get that visceral sense of "whoa, that's awesome!" when the heroes use their powers. They just sort of...use them. This may be the most mundane depiction of superpowers ever to hit the big screen.

Some of the visual effects look pretty slick (The Human Torch effects really worked for me), but the film doesn't do anything new with them. All of the action beats feel like retreading ground that's been covered extensively already, and by the time Von Doom — imbued with indefinable powers thanks to his year spent isolated on Planet Zero — unleashed a giant blue beam blasting into the sky that threatened the entire world, I had completely lost interest.

A lot of this could have been fixed if I enjoyed the relationship between the core members of the team. If I actually liked spending time with these characters, it would have made up for some of the movie's other shortcomings. But we never get a sense of who they are as people (Sue, for example, is good at recognizing patterns and...listening to music? That's about it), and when Reed bails from the movie for a year in the middle of the story, there's absolutely no attempt made to show what the interactions are like between Ben, Sue, and Johnny. How do they communicate with each other now that Reed is gone? What's their dynamic like? Where's the sense of teamwork, of camaraderie, of heart? I think Johnny says literally one thing to Ben the entire film, and it's one of the last lines spoken. The actors seem capable and talented, but they can only do so much with this script.

If this movie had come out in, say, 2003, early in the new wave of modern superhero movies, it'd be a lot easier to defend. But at this point, we've been inundated with comic book movies for the past fifteen years, and there's no excuse for writers not to have learned the lessons of what does and doesn't work in a comic book film. There's a hint of a good movie in here somewhere, and it feels like the film walks right up to the edge of being interesting a number of times before immediately taking a turn toward the familiar. Is Fantastic Four deserving of the vitriol it's received online? No. There's no sign of behind-the-scenes trouble when you're watching it. But is it a good movie on its own terms? Not even close.

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