Fantastic Four – good potential ruined by in-fighting and bad press

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Fox’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot turned out to be better than expected when I watched it earlier this week. It had received horrible reviews (Metacritic score of only 27) and has made less at the US box office in 42 days of release than the first Fantastic Four made in its opening weekend in 2005! Even worse, its release was preceded by rumors of in-fighting between young director Josh Trank and Fox studio execs, culminating in Trank dissing his own movie on social media just before the release.

It is believed that Trank turned in a dark, character-driven film, while the studio was looking for a special effects summer blockbuster, which would kick-start a new franchise. Why this was not sorted out at the script and design stage is anyone’s guess. The studio then stepped in and reshot the 3rd act to introduce some action spectacle into the film. The last time a studio reshot a 3rd act, it was for World War Z; Paramount replaced a conventional action climax with a tense, creepy, claustrophobic ‘heist-type’ sequence – it transformed the film and they had a blockbuster on their hands. Pity Fox went the other way.

I had already decided to hate the film because of the casting. I couldn’t accept that the forty-something scientist Dr. Reed Richards was being played by 28-year-old baby-faced Miles Teller who had been playing teenagers and young adults for the past two years. I couldn’t understand why the brother-sister duo of Johnny and Sue Storm were now not biologically related, with Johnny Storm being played by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan. Both Teller and Jordan are immensely talented actors, but why bring a beloved decades-old established property to the big screen and then change everything that is familiar and beloved about it?

When I started watching the film, the opening act only served to confirm my misgivings. It is very difficult to believe that a kid (young Reed Richards), no matter how brilliant, can build a prototype teleporter in his garage, with materials scrounged from a junk yard. This opening act was cute in a Steven Spielberg coming-of-age movie type of way, but just didn’t feel technologically plausible. And real-world plausibility has always been the bedrock of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In any case, at the end of the first act, a teenage Richards is ‘discovered’ at a high school science fair by Professor Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to join the secretive government-funded Baxter Foundation for young scientific prodigies. Professor Storm is supervising is a teleportation project and he realizes that Richards has figured out the missing link in the technology to make it work. Prof. Storm convinces the brilliant but brooding originator of the project, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel), to rejoin the team now that they are on the path to success.

We now enter the 2nd act of the film and this is where I feel everything clicks into place, playing out like a realistic science fiction thriller. The first unmanned test of the teleporter is successful as it beams back images from a world in another dimension, named ‘Planet Zero’. The young team’s celebrations turn to disappointment when they hear that the government will run the manned mission with trained NASA astronauts (and rightly so!).

In short order, the youngsters have defied orders and have launched themselves on an unauthorized teleportation trip to Planet Zero, which needless to say ends with unexpected consequences. In the entire 106 minute runtime of the movie, these are the moments that filled me with real dread and terror. For these people to return to consciousness and find themselves strapped down in a dark room, to discover what has happened to their bodies, the sense of confusion, fear and helplessness – all of it comes through the sounds and images on the screen. None more so than poor Ben Grimm; dragged along at the last minute by his childhood friend Reed Richards on this wild ride, he wakes up unable to understand what has happened to him. His pitiful and unending cries for help wake up Richards in the next room and he sees his own elongated limbs strapped down under restraints; he realizes he can stretch his way out his bonds and then drags himself through the air-conditioner grating to the source of Ben’s cries; all of this experienced by the viewer in real-time. The dark corridors and containment facilities really add to the sense of Poe-esque horror.

Now, we enter the 3rd act and this is where it kind of falls apart. The youngsters are at the mercy of the government, who want to use them as military assets, while offering them the carrot of continued funding and research to reverse their ‘maladies’. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm agree willingly and Sue Storm less so; Reed escapes and is in hiding. But because no superhero film is complete without a showdown of heroes vs. arch villain, the script conspires to create a battle between a transformed and deranged Victor von Doom and the Fantastic Four on Planet Zero. Von Doom has created something similar to the World Engine from Man of Steel, which threatens to destroy Earth. The Four have to stop him. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with the generic CGI action in the last 15 minutes and quickly fast-forwarded my VLC player.

At the end, I was left wondering what the movie would have looked like had Josh Trank had been allowed to bring his vision to the screen, unaltered. I have read stories of his strange behavior on-set and no doubt that a more socially skilled director might have convinced the powers-that-be to believe in him. After the campy versions produced by Fox in 2005, I couldn’t have imagined that someone could tell the same story so differently. But at the end of the day, the movie had a split personality and it seemed to come from two different directors. The airbrushed posters were another travesty and completely out of sync with the tone of the movie.

I imagine that the chances of a sequel are virtually nil and I am not sure where the studio will go from here, because in order to retain the rights to the characters, they have to make another movie by 2017, I think. That is unlikely. I don’t think another reboot will work, as paying audiences may not have the patience to watch a third origin story for the quartet. The other option is to go the Sony/ Spider-Man route and collaborate with Marvel to co-produce the next movie and build in a cross-over appearance with other Marvel movies; that would require Fox to swallow some humble pie, which doesn’t go down very well in Hollywood, as we know.

Safe to say that Trank will be persona-non-grata in Hollywood for a while; he has already lost his directing gig on a future Star Wars movie with Disney (the owner of Marvel). All one is left thinking at the end of the movie is of what might have been.

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