I’m honestly not sure what to say about this one. Despite the fact that I hear a lot of background information on a vast majority of the bigger films that come our way, particularly superhero/comic book movies, I do my best to wipe all of that from my mind when I finally sit down in a theater to watch said film. I do my best to judge the film as is, based solely on the merits of what is on screen. Most of the time, it’s an easy goal to accomplish, but not here. Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is almost impossible to judge based only on what is playing in front of audiences this weekend because we are all aware of the fact that what we are seeing has been compromised.
Most have read or at least heard the horror stories about the film’s production. Most are aware of the massive reshoots that occurred earlier this year. To be fair, things like this happen more often than you would think in Hollywood, but it is generally because everyone involved has decided that the film needs work. In this case, however, we have a director who has slowly disowned his film more and more with each subsequent interview, a cast that is mostly remaining silent, and a studio (Fox) that seemingly gave up on the final product months ago. Simply put, the whole situation is one giant mess and so is the film itself.
The biggest problem facing the film is that none of its three acts feel like they belong to the same film. They all feel like they come from different version of the same project and have been Frankenstein’d together by a studio who no longer cares and just wants to be done with it all. The first act is actually engaging for the most part and the characters work well, aside from Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), who is oddly absent for the majority of it. The second act takes an odd turn and not for the better, as we skip ahead in time a year on from the accident and take a look at how each affected lead is coping. The third takes yet another disappointing left turn and plunges full-on into standard superhero mediocrity.
Binding these three acts are the film’s two most memorable sequences. The first, our segue between Acts 1 and 2, involves the aftermath of a failed experimental human trip into an alternate dimension. Scientific team member Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) has seemingly perished in an awful manner in said dimension and what happens to the other four is equally horrifying. Sue Storm (Kate Mara) lies unconscious on the lab floor, appearing to phase in and out of existence. We know that she is now The Invisible Woman, of course, but this entire sequence is played out like something from a sci-fi horror film.
We move to Reed Richards (Miles Teller), whose legs are trapped beneath some debris. He attempts to crawl to his friend Ben, who is seemingly buried under a pile of rubble. He is now The Thing, but Reed doesn’t know that. He thinks his best friend is being crushed to death and the scene plays out as such. As he slithers across the floor, he sees what appears to be the burning corpse of Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) lying slightly higher atop a piece of equipment. To us, Johnny is now The Human Torch, but to Reed, his friend is dead and cooking like a roasted pig on a spit.
Reed eventually realizes that while he has been moving across the floor, his legs have remained trapped under the debris. Our Mister Fantastic is stretching across the destroyed lab floor and after coming to this terrifying realization, he passes out. What follows now are a series of disturbing hospital-esque lab sequences as scientists study and test our fantastic foursome. It’s darkly clinical and altogether grim.
Matching this sequence is the segue between Acts 2 and 3. The government authorizes another trip to this “Planet Zero” for further testing, with the hopes of harnessing its otherworldly energies for military weaponry. Naturally, they discover that Victor is alive and they bring him back. Big mistake.
Doom has gone mad with power during the year he has spent in isolation on Planet Zero and has returned with the purpose of destroying our world so that he might fashion Planet Zero into a new Earth in his own image. What follows is an almost Scanners-esque horrific slaughter as Doom struts about the complex murdering everyone in sight, before returning to Planet Zero and targeting its destructive powers at our own planet.
These two wonderful sequences show this writer that Josh Trank has a wonderful Cronenbergian sci-fi horror film within him still waiting to be unleashed. I truly hope that he gets the chance to do so someday and that it makes it to screens unfiltered. I am not convinced that Trank’s initial, unaltered cut of this film is some unseen gem, but I am entirely convinced that both Trank and audiences would have been far better off had he gone and made something original using the same themes he toys with here. If only that had happened.
As is, we are left with some weird melding of Trank’s sci-fi horror sensibilities with a property they do not belong in. This is both a science fiction thriller and a superhero movie, and at the same time it is also neither of those things. Both elements are at war with each other and ultimately neither wins. Worse yet, it is once again another hatchet job of the “Fantastic Four” characters. Miles Teller does a pretty good job as our lead named Reed Richards, but he is not the Reed Richards from the comics.
Jamie Bell is given short shrift, despite his best efforts, as Ben Grimm, but it matters not, because he is not THE Ben Grimm. Victor, Sue, and Johnny are closer to their counterparts, but they really aren’t given much time to grow as characters that we can relate to. They just are. This is a grim, dark science fiction thriller for the majority of its running time and while it bears the name Fantastic Four, it really isn’t a Fantastic Four movie.
It’s clear that Trank tried his best to bring something new to the table, even if it ultimately proved to not be what the studio wanted. It’s clear that the cast all put their best foot forward to make it work, from the original production up through the large chunk of reshoots. It’s also clear that Fox really had no idea what they wanted from this film and by the time they figured it out, it was way too late in the game to really do anything about it, reshoots be damned.
More than anything, however, it’s clear that no one involved truly understood the property. Fox wanted to reignite the other potential Marvel superhero series that they owned and to get it going quickly so that they would not lose the rights, as had happened with Daredevil. Trank clearly wanted the opportunity to play in a much larger science fiction sandbox. Much like what happened with Marvel and Edgar Wright on Ant-Man, what resulted was a partnership that just didn’t pan out. The only difference here is that instead of jumping ship when the hurricane winds arrived, Trank stuck it out and hoped for the best. What resulted was a film that has two great scenes surrounded by a whole lot of sanitized mediocrity.
There are three films that have received a full wide release this weekend: Blumhouse’s thriller The Gift, Aardman’s animated comedy Shaun the Sheep, and Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. I’m here to tell you that you are much better off spending your hard-earned money on The Gift or Shaun the Sheep.
Save your curiosity on this one for home video or VOD. And before you ask, yes, I had more fun creating the pun-filled title of this review than I did actually watching the film. I wanted to like it when I sat down to watch it. Things just didn’t work out that way.