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In some ways, this is an 'in defense of.' I liked Fantastic Four. Totally manic and baring the fraudulent hand of studio interference, Fantastic Four should be everything except fantastic. Except that it kind of is. Not all the time and definitely not in the disastrous last twenty minutes, but writer-director Josh Trank’s second movie isn’t the garbage compactor mess many thought it was. I’ll be honest, from the tabloid-friendly production troubles and terrible Rotten Tomatoes rating, terrible dialogue in the trailers, ugly footage in the trailers, and just about anything else a movie can do to make you think it’ll suck, the last thing I expected was to like it. But I did. I was hooked. It was intermittent, admittedly, but for most of the running time I sat in my velvety theater cushion having an absolute blast. It plays closer to an episode of Fox’s Fringe, which I really like, or a classic setup in Doctor Who, which I love, than it does to Iron Man, Batman, or any other superhero-man movie out there. It’s closest cousin might be Guardians of the Galaxy in how purely, unapologetically, even joyously sci-fi this is in concept and in execution. Fans looking for Fantastic Four won’t be disappointed so much as enraged, but an open mind (and a double shot of low expectations) reveals Trank’s movie as the fascinating failure that it is.
Much of what you’ve heard is nevertheless true. The performances are awkward but sort of charming, despite Kate Mara giving a performance so wooden you wouldn’t be faulted to think she’s imitating a park bench, with Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell lacking chemistry that actually compliments the socially awkward nature of their characters. This isn’t a superhero movie in any traditional sense. Within the screenplay of endless platitudes on being the best version of yourself, the focus isn’t hurrying the heroes into gaining their powers to save the day, it’s the adventure of scientific discovery. The botched, rushed edit cuts out vital parts of Trank’s original vision, but the hurried pace actually keeps things rolling along and surprisingly focused. It’s less boom-clash-whack and more science-science-science, with a streamlined plot revolving around the next vital step in scientific discovery. Some critics have said the first hour is exposition. It’s not. This is the story.
Masterful composer Philip Glass was hired for the score, whose music is most recognizable for its inspiration on The Matrix and recently Interstellar, and that choice educates on the intended tone of Fantastic Four. Mysterious, otherworldly, but strangely hopeful.
Instead of a pepper-haired father figure, Teller’s Reed Richards is a boy-genius inventor who wouldn’t be out of place in E.T. or the Spielberg love letter Super 8. Missing social grace but full of wonder and ingenuity, he walks past usual nerd cliches and becomes a sort of everyman despite being a genius. As a boy (young Reed played by Owen Judge), he teams up with the brooding Ben Grimm (Bell as an adult, Evan Hannemann as a kid) to steal car parts to fuel his invention: a teleportation device. Only instead of transporting you from, say, Chicago to Atlanta, it’s Chicago to another freaking dimension. Years later at a gee-whiz science fair, Reeds and Grimm meet the dismissive Sue Storm (Mara) and her encouraging father Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who wants to bring the teleportation project to the big leagues. Also vital to the team is Sue Storm’s brother, Johnny (Jordan). Like everyone else, he’s an underwritten role with only a few character details, but the quickened pace of the story doesn’t need more than that.
From securing funding for the bigger, better version of the teleportation machine (with Reeds and Grimm now college age) to the design of the pods that ultimately transport characters from one dimension to another, Fantastic Four feels like a TV Show Pilot directed by J.J. Abrams but written by David Cronenberg. In fact, Cronenberg’s The Fly is an awesome and unlikely source of inspiration for Trank’s shockingly audacious version of a superhero movie, and like that 1986 classic where a man teleports himself with a fly by accident and slowly turns into a man-sized insect, the tone slips from the exhilarating scientific discovery to the grotestities of body horror. Also as in The Fly, alcohol is the fuel of a premature foolhardy leap into the unknown, as Reed and crew teleport themselves into the other dimension themselves. This first major effects-driven sequence has unfinished CGI (that’s kind of terrible), but the tingling sense of discovering the undiscovered makes the set piece sincerely exciting.
Things, of course, go horribly wrong and they’re each (somehow) tainted by a specific element, their powers being a respective manifestation of rocks, fire, or an energy blast. Post-transformation Grimm suffers immeasurably as a disturbing rock monster, caged in a painful body he didn’t ask for and that he doesn’t understand. Johnny Storm, a flaming man, writhes trapped on a table he involuntarily consumed in fire, screaming as he involuntarily tortures himself by being unable to control his new abilities. Reed stretches, and Sue Storm can cast energy fields and turns invisible. But Sue doesn’t call them abilities. She labels them as the equivalent of disfigurements that need a cure. The characters suffer as much as the main character of The Fly suffered as he slowly morphed into a disgusting fly. My face cringed, and while I didn’t know these characters well—the bad edit and the even worse screenplay saw to that—I truly felt for them.
Fantastic Four’s structure makes a weird amount of sense in retrospect: while the first stretch of the movie was totally zoomed in on the science itself, the second stretch shows the characters becoming the embodiment of a science project gone wrong, creating a thematic continuity that isn’t apparent at first glance. Making superpowers into the gross consequence of a science project is, if nothing else, ballsy. From there, Fantastic Four turns into a lethal spy thriller where the black coats try to exploit the metamorphosized heroes into weapons of mass destruction. How it got greenlit I’ll never know—this was supposed to be a kid’s movie.
The biggest offense, though, isn’t the weird editing or atrocious dialogue. The bogus third act (that's really only 20 minutes long) that’s so bad the United States Government labeled it as radioactive waste. Dr. Doom, a non-character played by Tony Kebbell, gets one good scene as the villain. One, but it’s a doozy. The rest of the ending, a puked-out indecipherable stew of bad CGI, worse dialogue, and offensive action, won’t leave anyone walking out of the theater feeling good about anything. Especially themselves for having spent the money on a ticket. Still, before that turning point manufactured almost entirely by the studio without Trank’s consent, his conception of Fantastic Four was, dare I say it, visionary. Full of flaws nobody could ever ignore, from hammy dialogue to a bizarre editing job that smooshes scenes together, Trank succeeded in crafting an original, atypical work. I can’t hold the movie people wanted against the movie that it is, a flawed but often compelling movie about mad scientists just trying to grow up.
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