In 2012, Josh Trank directed the remarkable, small-budget ($12 million, we’re talking Hollywood dollars here) indie superhero flick Chronicle, about a group of kids who develop superpowers, and the complicated emotions and events that sets into motion. It’s terrific mix of nuance and pathos, of fear and paranoia but also gleeful energy made for one of the best superhero movies to-date, even more impressive considering it wasn’t based on a licensed property. Its actors were mostly unknowns — Michael B. Jordan only had a handful of roles under his belt by then — but that didn’t matter; the film was terrific.
With The Fantastic Four, Trank was given a very similar blueprint to work with, albeit one that already had its own rich history. Whereas his first film was written by Max Landis, this was by the committee of Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Trank himself, and Trank’s enthusiasm for the project is apparent right from its opening frames. The film begins with young genius Reed Richards, who has developed a garage-built teleportation device that unknowingly is actually the key to inter-dimensional travel. As he grows older, he continues to hone his invention, until he (now played by Miles Teller) catches the eye of scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his daughter Sue. Richards is brought to their science playground where he is tasked — along with Storm’s headstrong son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and the dour, embittered Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel) — to perfect the machine and create the greatest invention since space travel.
And of course, they do. And equally obviously, nothing goes as planned. The group, along with Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are all afflicted by an alien energy from the other dimension, and develop superpowers which I don’t need to describe to you, because you’ve seen the trailers and should know this part pretty well by now. Yet what was remarkable about The Fantastic Four is that all of this, taking place in the opening 30 or so minutes, contains an intriguing, engaging amount of storytelling, particularly for a superhero origin story — origins are often hurried, soulless affairs as films rush to get to the good stuff. Yet The Fantastic Four takes a teensy bit more time, allows for a tiny bit more interaction and personality, and it works. The cast, aside from the terribly written Sue Storm and an utterly empty performance by Kate Mara, is fun and energetic and their interactions are clever and interesting. There’s a sense of purpose and adventure to their mission.
Then, they get their powers, and the entire film promptly vomits up any semblance of coherence or intelligence, chokes, and fucking dies on the screen. I’ve never seen anything like it. The Fantastic Four is 100 minutes long, and for 30 minutes, it’s quite good. And then for 70 minutes, it’s an utter disaster without any redeeming quality whatsoever. It becomes a slow, painful chore to sit through. Any semblance of joy or humor is sucked out of the film. Instead of going with the comic book route, where the group becomes renowned and celebrated for their powers, becoming one of the first “public” superhero groups (no secret identities, instead they’re almost rock stars with superpowers), they’re relegated to an underground bunker where they’re compelled to carry out missions for the government. The film is dark, brooding, and filmed almost entirely in grays, browns and blacks — with a bit of dark blue in there to spice things up. There’s barely any lighting, and everyone appears sallow and dejected, as if drained of life and energy.
The story itself is a road to nowhere. They grunt and brood and are bitter, until the return of the previously missing Von Doom, who has changed from a bitter, narcissistic jerk to a megalomaniacal lunatic determined to literally destroy the planet so that he can live — by himself — in the other dimension. There is little to no rationale to this, other than he was a pissy dickhead to start with, but somehow his transformation (and, admittedly, time spent trapped in the other dimension) compels him to destroy the world. The rest of it is banally predictable — they go back to the scary dimension, there’s a surprisingly rushed final battle that never for a second feels real, they beat the bad guy, and all is well.
But there’s nothing there. It’s a facade, a paper-thin shell of a movie wrapped around a wet, sloppy snotball of a story. They never leave the government compound, so without meeting anyone other than the doctors and soldiers, there’s never any real sense of stakes — for all intents and purposes, they’re fighting to save a concrete bunker in the middle of nowhere. The performances become listless and lifeless, with Jordan doing his best to inject some kind of energy into the affair, but never really succeeding. Everyone is suddenly and inexplicably angry with each other, pointing fingers and blaming each other for their predicament, ignoring the fact that they all collectively volunteered for the project. In fact, the one who should be upset is Sue, since she tried to stop them from going but ended up suffering for it. Unfortunately, Mara is given little to do other than be haughty and purse her lips. Teller is barely conscious for the second half of the film, after doing a fine job of being a curious, hyper-intelligent lead in the beginning. Bell, after turning into the Thing, just sits in a dark room and complains, and then goes out and throws tanks around for the government.
I can’t tell what made the wheels come off this crap-train. Was it Trank’s ego? Studio meddling? Script rewrites? Reshoots? I have no idea. Trank claimed that he had a vision for an amazing film, one that we’ll never see. The studio says he was impossible to work with. Whatever the reason, we have one of the most bipolar films I’ve ever seen — it starts out as one thing and becomes something so different, so awful, so trite and predictable and boring, that much like The Fantastic Four themselves, I felt like I’d been teleported into another theater. The Fantastic Four is garbage. It’s radically different from that wretched 2005 version, and I really thought we had nowhere to go but up after that mess. I was wrong. This is worse. At least that version had Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis bringing some semblance of fun to it, even if from the very beginning you knew it had zero potential. This one is worse because it feels like you’re on a date with someone with a great deal of promise. They’re good-looking, funny, and engaging. Then, right after the appetizer arrives, they puke into your lap, rip off their clothes, and lumber into the street until they get creamed by a bus. All you’re left with is anger, confusion, and the frustrated realization that you paid for this mess.
TK is super proud of himself for not titling this review Fantastic Snore. Find him on Twitter.