Thanks to Aileen Flanagan for joining me to see this one. She had a lot of cool things to say, some of which have made my way into this review.
If Bryan Singer’s X-Men uses being a mutant as a metaphor for being gay then Josh Trank’s gritty Fantastic Four reboot would seem analogous to being a hormonal teen.
Its central quarter is certainly a moody bunch: dweeby genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller), whose parents don’t understand him; Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), a would-be hard-case from a bad home1; Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan)2, who has daddy issues with Professor Franklin (the usually captivating Reg E. Cathey); and Sue Storm (Kate Mara), who’s good at pattern recognition and likes music3. Oh, and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who’s also a genius and a leather-jacketed bad boy to boot. Not that any of these character traits lead anywhere.
There’s a lot of time spent in the lab to not much effect; a couple of shots at humor, most of which you’ll have seen in the trailer4; and an ill-advised journey to another dimension5. We’re halfway into the film before the subject of “powers” even arises and then it’s less about taking flight and more The Fly-style body horror. Reed becomes a human Stretch Armstrong (complete with freaky muscle definition); Ben finds himself claustrophobically trapped in a pile of rocks6; Sue starts fading in and out like she's got bad reception; and then there's Johnny, the Human Tire Fire. It’s all delivered so stoically and self-seriously it verges on deadpan, even skipping over the team coming to terms with their powers (the best part of Trank’s previous venture into the superhero genre, Chronicle).7
Fantastic Four treats these abilities, which are on the face of it ludicrous, as serious conditions to be grappled with8. The first half of the film feels like it’s building for something that never comes, then speeds towards an unearned climax involving Doom who — complete lack of motivation aside — wants to destroy the world9 and resembles a man who’s had an accident with a microwave, some tinfoil, and a pack of green LEDs.10 Usually a one-star rating feels punitive (“Hey, look at this piece of sh*t”), but here it’s cautionary, even a little sad.11
The script has a of interesting thoughts in it — like the idea that we make celebrities of astronauts but not the people who builds their ships — but somehow the joy and adventure has all been leeched away. Instead of bright blue spandex the film offers us black containment suits and haptic gloves. Even the fan service feels like work. Matthew Jensen’s cinematography brings polish to the grey-hued colour palette but the film’s score, by the renowned composers Marco Beltrani and Phillip Glass, is Hans Zimmer lite. There’s an air of compromise to the whole thing, which might make you wonder if there’s a better version of this film out there in the ether.12
Fantastic Four is the sort of teenager that eats his greens, does his homework, then forgets to go out and play, and what sort of fun is that?
Fantastic Four AKA Fant4stic13 gets a 3.5 out of 10
1 Ben gets his iconic catchphrase, “It’s clobberin’ time!”, from his abusive older brother. Seriously. “Grimm” is about right.
2 Johnny’s black and a mechanical engineer so the film introduces him drag racing, of course.
3 Any music. After the incident Mara gets to wear an awful wig, though, which is something, I guess.
4 Like Reed’s inability to return a fist bump or Johnny’s ill-timed use of a chair pedal.
5 Like going into space only cheaper, one presumes.
6 Twist: he is the rocks. Jamie Bell’s voice, meanwhile, is so digitally altered in order to make it sound gravelly that it might as well not be him.
7 The closest we get is Reed crawling through an air duct a la Eugene Victor Tooms in The X-Files before an inexplicable "One Year Later" time jump.
8 Or else exploited by the presumably evil military industrial complex in the form of a gum-smacking Tim Blake Nelson.
9 Nu-Doom's preferred method of eliminating obstacles is blowing up heads. Because.
10 And where the f*ck did he get that cape?
11 Hence all the footnotes.
12 Like Trank himself has recently suggested. Teller’s wooden expositing in the final confrontation would certainly seem to be indicative of reshoots.
13 Yep, that’s apparently a thing.