Opportunity Lost In "Fantastic Four" Reboot

Somewhere entombed within Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four” are the remains of an interesting comic book movie.

The film wasn’t even an hour into its North American release when the director took to Twitter with the following missive: “A year ago I had a fantastic version of this. And it would’ve received great reviews. You’ll probably never see it. That’s reality though.”

Media reports of the “Chronicle” filmmaker’s erratic behavior during production remain ambiguous. The implications of his tweet aren’t: Fox torpedoed his movie, whether in the scripting stage or in the editing room. The phase doesn’t much matter. The end result is a tattered, terribly paced comic book flick that struggles to best even Fox’s previous ventures into the fantastic (Tim Story’s awful 2005 film and its slightly less awful sequel).

But there’s just enough good in it to substantiate Trank’s frustration.

Miles Teller (“Whiplash”) stars as Reed Richards, prodigious young scientist who’s finally cracked the code he spent his whole childhood deciphering – a portal to another dimension. Why he and best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell, “King Kong”) are still rounding the grade school science fair circuit in their late teens is a mystery, but it lands them a mentor in Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey, Netflix’s “House Of Cards”).

Storm’s two children – Sue (Kata Mara, “House Of Cards”) and Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, “Chronicle”) – are just as gifted, rounding out the titular fearsome foursome. The quartet links up at government research facility to fine-tune Reed’s portal, formally known as a Quantum Gate.

They find a reluctant last minute addition to the team in the form of sour, entitled wunderkind Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell, “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes”). As the author of an idea similar to Reed’s, Victor’s expertise proves useful as the team works towards a successful test.

A little booze unconvincingly turns Reed from genius to idiot. He and his male co-conspirators suit up for an unsanctioned trial run of their machine. It’s no spoiler that things go badly, with physical repercussions manifesting themselves in violent ways.

This is what “Fantastic Four” does well, tweaking its historically silly source material into something surprisingly gripping. And it works, at least for a little while.

Johnny is now The Human Torch, master of self-immolation (minus the death part), Ben has transformed into a giant rock monster colloquially known as The Thing, Sue is The Invisible Woman, and Reed is Mr. Fantastic, capable of stretching his limbs beyond comprehension.

Their post-transformation scenes are moody and kind of horrifying, suggesting a psychological depth no one would ever associate with The Fantastic Four, and all seems ripe for a journey into biological horror – a woefully underexplored subgenre, especially in superhero films.

Jamie Bell’s The Thing is particularly intriguing, in part because he’s so much of a mystery. Infinitely more captivating that Michael Chiklis’s unfortunate man-in-suit portrayal, Bell’s brooding take on the character screams out for more screen time (the film’s trailers suggest that many of his scenes were cut and it’s a shame). The body horror scenes in the pic’s middle third are its most exciting, all pointing solidly to Trank and his team.

But as quickly as it became interesting, “Fantastic Four” becomes a bland, toothless action movie with no stakes and a non-conclusion that comes off like an impression of a comic book movie. It seems possible (if not outright likely) that Trank had a much smoother transition in mind to a studio-mandated finale that comes 30 minutes earlier than it should.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling of a better movie being trapped inside a bad movie’s body.

Even though the characters frequently speak in clichés and the inconsequential story fails them time and again, the movie feels more truncated than overlong. Pockets of necessary character development are obviously missing. The only question is whether or not they were filmed at all.

The totality of “Fantastic Four” is a far cry from disaster, unworthy of the critical dogpile it’s brought on. But it’s not very good either, a classically mediocre superhero pic that apparently never stood much of a chance. If Josh Trank was indeed a victim of extreme studio interference, everyone is worse off for it.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 7, 2015
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Josh Trank
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank
Starring: Miles Teller, Kata Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Reg E. Cathey, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sci-fi action violence, and language)