Let’s get this out of the way right now: there is probably no easy way to turn the Fantastic Four into sexy, exciting cinema. Marvel’s first super-team is from a pre-angst, pre-irony era; a time when comics came with big smiles and exclamation points, with Kirby dots everywhere. That kind of uncomplicated, four-color aesthetic doesn't always translate well to cinema, especially not in the era of brooding antiheroes and self-aware vigilantes. The infamous 1994 vaporware film version of the team played the tone completely straight, winning points for dedication to the original material but losing points for literally everything else. The 2005 film tried to marry the comic’s whiz-bang vibe to the language of modern summer blockbusters to mixed results.
Which brings us to 2015 and to Josh Trank’s lifeless, schizoid attempt to make people care about the Fantastic Four, a film that would be almost completely forgettable if it didn’t come off as so maddeningly incomplete.
Based more on the relatively more grounded Ultimate Marvel version of the team, we still have four people (five if you count the villain) getting unexplained super powers from an unexplained source of magical/scientific whatsahoozit. Here, it’s exposure to the energy of an alternate dimension during a quantum science experiment instead of bombardment by cosmic rays during a space mission, but the result is the same. (I said it was relatively more grounded.)
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) gains the ability to stretch his body, Sue Storm (Kate Mara) can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) can turn into living flame, and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) turns into a walking-and-talking giant rock. Also along for the ride is Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who gains the ability to do anything the script wants him to do. Conflict ensues. The end.
What? There’s more?
Not really. There is very little drama or tension to be had for huge portions of the film, either on a grand scale or a personal one. In fact, the whole thing plays like the opening act of a much larger story, but not in the way that implies careful planning and plotting as much as it does an editor whose every decision was overruled by studio accountants. All of the interesting or exciting moments from the trailer are nowhere to be seen, and it feels simultaneously truncated and extended. The Four don’t even get their powers until the end of Act II, at which point the narrative suddenly jumps ahead 1 year. 100 minutes has never gone by so slowly.
Actual film content may vary. Film shipped by weight, not by volume.
What’s truly frustrating about the film is that the seed of a great film is there. Trank’s previous feature was the found-footage superhero origin story Chronicle, which worked well beyond what its own byline would have suggested. The inventiveness Trank displayed on that film only comes in short, seemingly random bursts here, such as a decidedly Cronenberg-esque moment of body horror when Reed wakes up from the accident to find himself tied down to an exam table in a government lab, his limbs stretched out to over twice their normal length.
In fact, nearly everything about the film feels completely generic and common. The film had the same production budget as the 2005 version when adjusted for inflation, but aside from the marginally improved special effects, it looks several magnitudes cheaper. There’s virtually no personality to anything, from the boilerplate score to the background details like the classical music Doom listens to during his first scene. I mean, Vivaldi? Really? Doom would listen to something as…common as Vivaldi?
That extends to the cast as well, all of whom have done better work than this but seem to all be sleeping through their line readings. And never mind that all of them are too old to believably play characters just out of high school. Kate Mara reads every line like she can’t wait to be done with this shit, Jamie Bell knows he’s being wasted (although he does great motion capture work), and even Toby Kebbell’s insufferable sidekick from Wrath Of The Titans was more amusing than his decidedly somnambulist take on one of Marvel Comics’ all-time greatest villains. Only Michael B. Jordan shows a hint of personality, but even he’s clearly being told to downplay everything. It’s like the only stage direction in the script was “DULL SURPRISE.” Then again, the simplistic, declarative screenplay by Trank, Jeremy Slater, and Simon Kinberg (who has also done better work) deserves part of the blame for that, as well.
That's DOCTOR Dull Surprise to you.
The film starts to come to life just as it’s wrapping up, sadly enough. When the powers finally start flying during the film’s climactic (and only) action sequence, we get a little bit of an idea of the film Trank was trying to make, and the characters finally start showing some depth, but even that is marred by haphazard editing and mediocre fight choreography. There’s a heavy air of obligation hanging over the entire piece, as if this film only exists because it needs to. Although who exactly was clamoring for a Fantastic Four reboot this dreary, leaden, and uneven is anybody’s guess. Maybe in 10 years we’ll get yet another reboot and find out that a Doombot was responsible for this one.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C- (but only by the barest of margins)