Sunday, August 16, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)--A Review SPOILERS

You know the drill--SPOILERS ahoy.

Not that anything in this movie can be any more spoiled than the pile of decaying organic matter that it really is. But still, have you not seen Fantastic Four yet, and not wish to have any suprises ruined, then go, and come back another day,

SPOILERS commence after the 4 pictures of The Four:

The first thing we have to deal with in reviewing this film is the sheer amount of schadenfreude and ass-covering that is going on right now, as director Josh Trank's camp and the suits at Fox desperately try to blame each other for this bomb.

Let's be clear: I. Don't. Care. I can only judge by what's on the screen. I don't have any insider sources, and too much of the anonymous sludge that's being put out by both sides is compromised by naked self-interest for us to ever judge what is true. Let's wait for the tell-all book in 5 years.

But more importantly, it doesn't matter. Allow me to present the opening paragraph from Roger Ebert's review of the French film Little Indian, Big City:
“Little Indian, Big City” is one of the worst movies ever made. I detested every moronic minute of it. Through a stroke of good luck, the entire third reel of the film was missing the day I saw it. I went back to the screening room two days later, to view the missing reel. It was as bad as the rest, but nothing could have saved this film. As my colleague Gene Siskel observed, “If the third reel had been the missing footage from Orson Welles' 'The Magnificent Ambersons,' this movie still would have sucked.” I could not have put it better myself.
Thank you, Roger and Gene. We miss you.

I don't care what might have been in the film, or what was cut, or what was reshot, or whose vision was compromised, or any of that. The simple fact is this: There's no way that anything added back into Fantastic Four could have made it into a good movie. You could throw all in the Battle of Manhattan from The Avengers, and this movie would have still sucked.

Fantastic Four is not the worst film ever made. But even that redounds against it. It's not as bad as Plan 9 or Manos or pick your poison. But neither is it as interesting to watch. It's not "so bad you can laugh at it;" it's neither that bad, and it never has enough of a pulse to draw that reaction. There's no passion, no energy to engage us. It just lies there flat, with barely a pulse at the best of times. It never convinces us that it cares, which even "worst" movies do, no matter how incompetently made.

There is a basic laziness and disinterest in this movie that drags the entire production down, from lack of follow-up on ideas to disastrous choices to a boredom an ennui that keep the audience from being engaged.

One example. In the movies third scene, 11 year old Ben Grimm is helping 11 year old Reed Richards build his prototype teleporter. Reed is trying to tighten a screw, and Ben lends him his Swiss Army knife. Two scenes (and seven years) later, as Reed is going off to genius school, Ben gives him a present--a Swiss army knife of his own. We even get a loving close-up of the knife.

Now, if you've ever seen any motion pictures in your life, you know--with a metaphysical certainty--that the knife is going to play a crucial part later in the film, right? That's why you introduce it, and repeat it so obviously later--you're setting up the Rule Of Three, you're making it Chekhov's gun on the mantelpiece.  That's one of the tricks that movies use to engage the audience...repeating a thing a couple of times, so when it shows up in the climax the viewer remembers, and feels clever for spotting what the movie had been setting up. So we KNOW the tool will come back. It will be pulled out to remind Reed and Ben of their friendship. It will be used to fix (or wreck) something in the climax. You don't set up something like that so prominently without the intention of using it prominently in the finale, right?

The knife is never seen or mentioned again.

This happens a lot in the film. Sue tells us that she's an expert in pattern recognition; she uses that skill to find a hiding Reed (not really, but shhh!); so it's going to be used in the climax, right? Nope. Johnny builds cars from the ground up; he helps Reed and company build the transporter...and that character trait just vanishes, never to be mentioned again. Ditto with his obsession with speed.

The movie is filled with ideas and motifs that are never followed up on, never repeated, forgotten. On the cutting room floor, or just incompetence? It doesn't matter--whatever the reason, it makes the movie feel flailing and forgetful.

The art direction in this film is another indication of what was wrong in this film, and it's hard to blame that one on cuts and reshoots, as the sets were built before the "studio interference." Let's be honest--the sets are BORING. This is the Fantastic Freaking Four, yet there is not a single indication that anyone involved ever looked at one of the comic books. There is not a single interesting room in the Baxter Institute, not one! Top-secret Army base Area 57? Nothing...the best set is a mostly-empty room with 5 cargo containers in it. There are corridors, sure, and tables with people strapped to them, and air vents to crawl through. And that's it!

Where's the Kirby?!? Where's the Perez?!? Where's the Byrne?!?! Everything is flat and lifeless, and as un-Fantastic as possible, without any evidence of creativity or interest. Even "Planet Zero," which was all CGI so they could do anything they wanted, is, well, boring as all hell. And don't even get me started on the exo-suits they wear on Planet X--everyone's face is covered except for their eyes--why?!? You can't tell who is who, and the terrible sound editing makes it tell aurally. Why do that??

And most of the character choices the movie does make are, well, terrible. Terrible beyond redemption. This is a film whose opening scenes tell us that teachers are the enemies of genius. Let that sink in for a moment--public school teachers are there to quash creativity, to discourage imagination, and to obstruct progress. That's what this movie says. (Never mind the fact that obviously anti-science teachers are judging a science fair, and that said science fair has high school seniors competing against elementary students).

This movie is, believe it or not, anti-NASA. When the initial test of our dimensional teleporter is complete, the big financier steps in, and says that now it's time to "co-ordinate with NASA." And Victor and Reed and Sue and Johnny (not Ben--he was left out of this half-hour section of the film...) act like it's armageddon. Maybe they thought Harvey said NSA?!?

Nope, they're seriously aghast about NASA. Victor goes on to give a (drunken) monologue about how NASA robs the glory from the true heroes (the scientists) and gives it to mere astronauts--and he disses Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, for heaven's sake! (As if Armstrong and Aldrin, along with many of the other astronauts, weren't also engineers and dreamers in their own right).

This is a film that decided to make "It's Clobberin' Time!" the phrase Ben's (much) older brother used when he beat on him. This is a script that decided the to make the origin of the Fantastic Four be a trip by a bunch of drunk college-aged idiots trying to prove how macho they are. This is a movie that thought that sending the Thing on "covert missions" (yes, a 9-foot tall orange rock monster is sent on covert missions) and racking up 43 "confirmed kills" was a good use of the character.

And, as many have noted, Sue is left off of the mission. She's grinding away on work while the inebriated boys go exploring another dimension, and she only gets her powers because the craft explodes when it gets back and she gets bathed in the backwash. Hang around drunken frat boys, lady scientists, and you might get hand-me-down powers if you're lucky--but don't go exploring!! We'll have Victor Von Doom take your seat in the ship!! (Let's not forget that Sue also designed the exo-suits...which completely failed at protecting the boys...)


Developing ideas is something the movie is also terrible at. The script constantly drops one sentence ideas, and expects that to suffice as a full-fledged concept. Victor is, vaguely, anti-government, and anti-capitalist, kinda sorta. Given that this is Victor's entire motivation for trying to destroy the entire world, you would think we want something more than "I don't trust them" as a motivation. Anything more. One specific complaint. Nope, this movie ain't giving you nothing. The same thing for Victor being jealous of Reed flirting with Sue--brought up once, then forgotten. Not a scintilla of reminder later in the movie that he pined for her.

Ditto for Sue and Franklin being upset about Ben ad Johnny being used for military missions. Now, I'll grant you that I don't like to see my super-heroes used for going around and killing people. Still, I am most decidedly not reflexively anti-military. So if we're going to have (multiple!) scenes telling us that this would be a bad thing, I would like at least some discussion of WHY it's a bad thing, either for these characters, or just in general. But of course the movie doesn't care enough to go beyond one-sentence motivations, so we get zero--literally zero--discussion of the issues. We just strident Sue and Franklin insisting that sending Johnny after terrorists is bad. Oh, wait, this is one thing--they keep saying, "Look what it's done to Ben." When they don't show us what it's done to Ben. At all. Because that would take storytelling skills this film doesn't have.

And that, at last, might be the biggest core problem of the movie. The Fantastic Four is, no matter what else, about family. And the movie does whatever it can to fight against the concept. Let's have Ben be away from everyone for 20 minutes. Let's have Reed flee, and leaves the others to themselves for an entire year!! And let's have as little interaction between the characters as possible. The Four are not even on the screen together--not even once--until the final battle with Doom begins. Just think about that!

And don't get me started on Doom. Seriously. Let me just point out that this movie actually has Victor Von Doom flip someone off. Victor Von Doom, giving someone the bird. Behind their back. Good gravy...
And, finally, let's talk about the direction. Josh Trank is most famous for his only other motion-picture direction job, Chronicle. Let me go on record as saying I thought that film was waaay overrated. But even if you feel that Chronicle was the best thing since sliced bread, this must be acknowledged--the "found-footage" motif can cover up an awful lot of incompetence and sins. Hey, that shot looks amateurish? It's supposed to, it's found footage, get it?!? Hey, this scene isn't lit well,or edited well? Haha, it's supposed to look that way!! Hey, this scene couldn't possibly have been done with found footage!! [Silence].

So, because of the motif, there was really little in Chronicle to suggest whether or not Josh Trank would be a good director for a conventional super-hero film. Well, Fantastic Four tells us there probably isn't greatness in his future.

Think what you will of Zack Snyder's desaturated color palettes, his movies always LOOK good. You can follow the action scenes. You may not like his aesthetic choices, but he clearly knows how to use them.

But when Josh Trank uses the same overwhelmingly bleak color scheme, it doesn't work. There isn't a single shot in the film that strikes me as more than pedestrian, and nothing in the film where the motif seems to mean anything except, "Well, this is how other movies do it." You can argue whether or not the "realistic" darker world is appropriate for the Fantastic Four. But appropriate or not, this film doesn't do anything with it, further removing the audience from the story instead of bringing them in.

If you look at the things that we are pretty sure are Josh Trank's, I don't think you've got any reason to believe that had his "vision" been allowed unmolested, the movie would have been any better. As Siskel said, it sill would have sucked.


Mista Whiskas said...

Somehow even though I think all your points are spot on (your points about all the scenes which occur twice, like Johnny's need for speed, Ben's knife, etc., just occurring and then being left on the table and the lack of specific motivations for anyone are ones that I didn't consciously pick up on but you insightfully nailed), I still didn't think the film was so awful. I guess I bought that they were starting with Millar's take on the Ultimate FF, and I thought they were somewhat faithful to that. Reed leaving the rest for a year is bad, but he's supposed to be a kid in this version and they show that he's working on their problem the entire time. Making Ben a sudden, murderous weapon of war seems pretty awful I admit, but he's also supposed to be a traumatized kid being manipulated in his time of trauma. I can see why the situation with Sue being left out is bound to rightfully irritate people, but I think they were trying to go with the idea that Sue was the most responsible one, while the guys were drunkenly irresponsible. I like adaptations, 'reboots' of iconic stories and characters, so I'm a bit more forgiving of a FF take that treats them as traumatized kids, taken advantage of by a vast military industrial complex, and lacking any impressive agency throughout most of it. Don't get me wrong though, given that very few adaptations of any iconic comic character get a big screen chance this adaptation seems an incredibly odd and frankly bad one to run with for the FF. The appeal to non-comic fans seems low and very few FF fans are going to think of Millar's brief Ultimate run as anything close to defining what's great about the FF...

That said, the movie does mess up so much. I'm beginning to wonder if Doom can be done right in a film: his origin story is such a separate thing from the FF that it must be hard to fit it in alongside a movie that has the FF's origin in it too, so they tend to mix Doom's origin with the FF and that undercuts a lot of what's awesome about Doom-that he doesn't have powers but instead becomes a challenge through sheer genius and hateful determination. This Doom was, though, pretty spectacularly unimpressive throughout the film.

Also, what was up with them, apart from Ben, having to wear suits rather than having them learning to control their powers? Again, it's like they really wanted to depict the main characters not as heroes but as weak victims.

Lastly, the film seemed embarrassed it was dealing with figures that came from Marvel comics. There was no attempt to do little things like have an X-man mention or a Stan Lee cameo to delight the Marvel fans in the audience. Given Marvel's crazy popularity why they made that choice, among so many other bad ones, is flabbergasting.

SF said...

MW, seems to me that the right answer to Doom is not to show his origin at all. I don't understand why movie makers seem to have a fetish for origin stories. Think of The Incredibles. There's no origin at all for any of the older characters; the kids get literally the simplest origins possible. It just jumps right in with the superheroes at the peak of their careers. Has anybody really ever said, "You know, the Incredibles would have been a lot better if they'd taken half the movie to explain how Elastigirl got her powers?"

Why not do the same thing with the FF and Doom? Don't tell us how they got started; just start us at near-peak awesome and grow from there. The movie-going world is primed for superheroes now. They don't need their hands held. If you're worried about that, you could easily explain everything needed in a one minute title sequence.

Madman said...

Thanks for the review. This was probably the most indepth review I have read of this apparently awful movie.

Mista Whiskas said...

SF-good point, that certainly seemed to work with the Incredibles, but the backstory of that film was that a world with heroes in it was the normal, I can't immediately recall many live action films that try that.

Comicsfan said...

I'm constantly gratified by the fact that the most well-written and frank film reviews are often found on blogs. You've given a really enjoyable rundown of this flick, and made some excellent points.

Brian said...

I still think the problems of the film can be be explained in the classic FANTASTIC FOUR #9: