Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Critic
For some reason or another, Marvel simply can not turn their FANTASTIC FOUR franchise into the same cinematic greatness the brand has found with its other titles. Previous iterations have proven shaky at best; 2005’s FANTASTIC FOUR and its subsequent sequel in 2007, FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER, didn’t deliver on their promises to fickle fans but managed to squeak by at the box office, earning back production costs. Overloaded with snark and garish product placement, those films are viewed by many as a blight. Not even iconic schlockmaster Roger Corman could make the property function back in 1994. Now comes co-writer/ director Josh Trank’s FANT4STIC re-boot, adopting an extremely different tone than its predecessors – a stark seriousness so dry it hurts the lungs. As you may have guessed, this approach still doesn’t work. Is there really no middle ground for this superhero team?!
Characters are introduced in this slow-moving, plodding origin story by what they do, not who they are – the script never allows us the chance to connect with these people in any other way. Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is an idealist inventor from a young age out to make teleportation a reality. Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is his supportive sidekick. Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) is a rogue loner genius, sitting in his darkened lair in front of a multitude of computer screens, reading code and listening to Vivaldi. Sue Storm (Kate Mara) listens to Portishead and decodes patterns in her beautiful mind. Her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) has a need for fast and furious speed and a drive to rebel against daddy Franklin (Reg E. Cathey, who never speaks faster than slow and deliberate), founder of the Baxter Institute – a school for gifted minds. Franklin’s fairly altruistic scheme is that if he brings this gang (minus Ben for unknown/ unexplained reasons) together, they can figure out teleportation and discover a new, incorruptible planet. And they do, only there are dire consequences as this new, magical dimension bestows great power upon all the pioneers. It’s then that a slimey Baxter Institute board member with ties to NASA, Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), takes over and things really go pear-shaped.
About twenty minutes in, astute audiences will be able to see there’s virtually no passion behind any of Trank, Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater’s script decisions or Trank’s direction. No one can be bothered to care, behind the camera or in front. Perhaps only the film’s costume designer, George L. Little, actually brings his A-game. Dialogue – best exemplified by Mara – is delivered in a monotone, boredom-stricken manner. Johnny stating his signature line “Flame on” is equally lackluster. Out of the blue Ben pulls out and nails his “It’s clobberin’ time” catchphrase. However, it feels like such a goofy thing to interject in a “serious” movie. Characters feel adrift and disconnected from one another when in the same room. Their social awkwardness with each other translates to awkward scenes. It would seem a competitive love triangle between Reed, Sue and Victor is going to form, but never materializes. There’s no sense of a group dynamic until the finale. Even then it’s barely evident and not enough.
Another overwhelming problem is we get no sense of what this film is about thematically. Franklin gives a pep talk about working together that Reed non-sarcastically calls a “good speech” (a.k.a. where the writer pats himself on the back using one of his characters to do so) and later tries to regurgitate, but their meaningless platitudes fail to engage us. There’s nothing tethering us to the picture.
Character motivations become cloudy around the midway point. It’s more than ridiculous that Sue, Johnny and Ben harbor animosity towards Reed for escaping; Ben’s being used as a weapon of war, Johnny is being groomed to be the next, and Sue is raging against what’s happening but goes along with it anyway. Why isn’t she working on a cure?! It’s also not clear why Franklin is helping the government’s nefarious plans, as he was dead set against their meddling before. It’s no wonder Reed escaped! We also root for Von Doom when he makes his return – a return with a newly adopted accent like he’s Madonna in England. But even that gets muddled. If you were to ask me how the four defeat Von Doom, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Because teamwork? The entire final act takes place in a no-stakes CGI generic environment, probably for budget purposes. CG looks horrendous – especially The Human Torch’s flame form and Reed’s stretchy body. It looks bad as in “someone should get fired and experience a career shift” bad. The scale of The Thing is constantly evolving; he’s big for the scenes they need him to look imposing and smaller when they need him to fit in a room or their hero shot. Listen, Trank grants us with shirtless Teller for one sequence – so at least we’ve got that, ladies (with age-inappropriate crushes).
When all is said and done, the filmmakers should have been able to strike some kind of middle ground when it comes to this franchise. As it stands, Trank’s film only makes you appreciate what Tim Story tried to do.
FANTASTIC FOUR opens tonight in participating theaters, and nationwide tomorrow.