13 September 2015

The Fantastic Four: A Brunch Review.

What it should have looked like.

Directed by Josh Trank
Starring: Who cares

Here watch the deceptive trailer:

Like most Marvel fans, I keep waiting for a good Fantastic Four movie. At this point, I'd settle for merely okay. The requirements to be good, or even great relative to other action films, are actually not many, nor are they out of reach of most competent directors.

1.     The adaptation! There must be a commitment to hew at least to the spirit of the characters and adapt them as faithfully is possible in film. Any added characters must serve the basic vision of the source material.

2.     There must be some plausible or at least interesting science in the film. Reed, Sue and Doom are some of the most brilliant people on the planet, and are always getting up to science-y hijinks. They can go cosmic, or sub-atomic.

3.     Compelling Action. Ben Grimm is easily one of the most capable Marvel heroes in a scrap. Dooms, Reed, Sue and Johnny aren’t slouches either, nor are their various enemies. Give them some interesting, intelligent action to engage in.

4.     And most importantly sound filmmaking. This is basic but….

Examining the Adaptation.
Going into Trank’s Fantastic Four the previews led me to believe the direction would be the more low key, pseudo-realism of Bryan Singer’s X-Men franchise, and less the comic book glory of the Marvel Cinematic Universe produced by Marvel/Disney. In that spirit I expected the character essences and traits and somewhat powered down versions of the characters. I love most of Singer’s X-Men movies so I would have been cool with such a direction in Fantastic Four. Was this Josh Trank’s template?

Alas, no.
Trank essentially dismisses almost every part of the 54 year history of the Fantastic Four, (involving comic book, prose novel, film and cartoon) with the exception of the powers of the four and the number 4 itself. Seriously, that is about all he chose to draw on. Well, that, and maybe some of the hot-headedness of Johnny Storm/the Human Torch, but even that misses the mark, and by a wide margin.

The Title that essentially birthed the Marvel Universe.

For the past 54 years of story, the Fantastic Four has had roster changes, and gone through many ups and downs, but it is essentially the story of a highly intelligent family that doesn’t always know how to interact with one another because of their diverse and not always complimentary personality traits. Their cutting edge work also puts them in danger. Reed Richards is clearly brilliant, but also on the Autism Spectrum, and often preoccupied. Sue, is his brilliant wife, the not always happy with Reed and his obssessions, but also an independent woman with her own interests. There is Johnny Storm, not a man rebelling against his own brilliance wanting get our from under the shadow of his father (the Josh Trank vision and a tired cliché). He is a gifted athlete, with something of an inferiority complex that causes him to show off, consistently trying to demonstrate his usefulness, importance and general coolness all of which are, he thinks, huge assets to the team. Ben Grimm, Reed’s best friend had a different experience of life than Reed, Sue or Johnny. As a kid he was street thug, gang member. Athletics took him out of that life and to college and then the military, becoming a skilled test pilot. Not nearly as brilliant as Reed or Sue, Ben is nevertheless a sharp guy. Anyway, the core of the FF, is the Richards family, Grimm included and the way the deal with Reed’s brilliance as it takes them all through the galaxy and often into adventure or trouble, which can amount to the same thing. Firing on all cylinders the FF should read like some mad combination of Star Trek, and Dr. Who.

Trank opted to make Victor Von Doom, the film’s main villain. And, like the previous two attempts to bring the FF to the big screen, he also managed to fail in adapting the character. Doom has no powers in the source material. He is simply brilliant and being a bit of a despot, in a rich and prosperous, natural resource rich country, has no trouble funding his pet projects. Trank, essentially recapitulates the origin story of the 2005 film, arguably another nod to the past 54 years of source material, but instead of taking all five leads into space and exposing them to cosmic rays, he takes them to another dimension (via a scenario that could only work in a comedy) and exposes them to, uh, well, who knows? More importantly who cares?

Anyway, Trank gave Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the fans the finger along the adaptation axis. His fantastic foursome is fresh out of high school. Doom is a 30 something obsessed with Sue (apparently has been for years—make of that what you will), and is some kind of wealthy guy. Whatever. Doom and Reed are brilliant sure, but catastrophically arrogant, and cavalier with the technology they have invented, and after one trial of their tech decide to take the whole team to a different dimension. They even take Ben, not part of the project at all in this film but a high school grad with no aspirations beyond his parents’ junkyard.
Fucking ridiculous. One wonders if the arrogance of its protagonists wasn't mirroring that of the director.

The Science-y bits. 

Crossing dimensions in any other film might be interesting. Not. Fucking. Here. Its one badly lit and deeply, perilously uninteresting set, mostly CGI over and over again.

This is sad too, because the idea was really rich with potential mystery and possibility. Where does their dimension-hopping machine take them? Why not discuss the very real Multiverse hypothesis, currently a hot topic in cosmology? Why is travelling to the parallel dimensions useful? What is the project? Have they really made a device that can travel to parallel dimensions or have they created something more surprising? Maybe the desolation they see isn’t some place else, but their very own Earth in the future? Whoa? Right? Rich possibilities. But nope, desolate rock world with green lava, with absolutely nothing inhabiting it. YET! Yet, Doom will be trapped there for a year -subsisting on what you ask? Who cares? Not Josh Trank- and late in the third act will return to our world, viewing earth and its people as a threat to his adopted world. Why would he think this? It doesn’t matter, and in any event Doom never really articulates a sound rationale for deciding to annihilate Earth, which is very, very un-canon Doom behavior. Doom wants to rule earth, because he thinks he can do it better than anyone else. I mean the trains do run on time in Latveria after all. All we know is Doom is very worried about his barren, green lava infused world.

Is there any exploration of the FF’s powers? Any fun attempts to explain what has happened to our heroes. Nah. Move along. There are just more Trank middle fingers here.

Compelling Action…
Obviously no. Play fighting super-heroes with my three-year-old son is vastly more compelling than anything Trank offers us in Fantastic Four. Well, there is one notable exception. There is an awesome sequence in which Doom walks through the halls of a military base, popping peoples heads like balloons filled red syrup with his telekinetic powers (which he has never ever had in the comic book) that is totally badass and would have been a very compelling scene in almost any other movie. In this movie though the scene just makes you wonder why he doesn’t pop the heads of the Fantastic Four when they have their final dust up. Instead he exchanges punches and kicks with them until they beat him, after the startling realization that Doom, “is stronger than each one of us individually, but together…”
Why does Doom want to live in green lava world again….?

My goodness this movie sucks.

But Max, what about the filmmaking itself?

Maybe, just maybe, when the adaption goes to shit it is possible, you might suggest, that viewed as a just a low-key super hero movie it could work. Pretend not to be a fan Max. Pretend you don’t know anything about the Sue, Reed, Johnny, Ben or Doctor Doom, as a film, is it okay?

No. As a film it functions not at all. It is, in point of very serious fact, absolutely terrible as a standard action fiction film. Most of the films of Jean Claude Van Damme are more finely crafted than Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four. The infamous Roger Corman version is vastly more worthy of fan love than this film, and that movie probably had a tenth the budget of this one if not less. It did have a script written by someone who had at least read a ten issue run of FF though.

There is a romantic dialogue between Reed and Sue seems as if George Lucas wrote it after he had watched season one of Bones. Why is it, Constant Reader, that when a screenwriter is developing a brilliant woman, they try to turn them into Spock. Love is alien to them and they delight in describing the evolutionary biology and chemistry of the emotions –which, I admit could be interesting- but seem to be committed to more shallow couplings. This pops up so often now as to have become a trope. It pops up in the aforementioned Bones, it was in the equally bad, G.I. Joe where Scarlet is brilliant, cold and only interested in sex as a mode of entertainment. We see the trope at work in all the flashy crime shows too, notably NCIS, but also a bit in CSI (pick the city). It fucking abounds.

My problem isn’t with the idea that a brilliant female scientist would excise emotions and be interested only in the sex as a thing to do for one’s own gratification. My problem is with the laziness of screenwriters and the inaccuracy of the trope. I actually do know a lot of female scientists, some really brilliant, and they behave a lot more like humans than the nerdy sex bots that seem to fever the imaginations of bad science fiction writers.

Anyway, this trope is out in full force in the character of Sue Storm. It goes without saying that it isn’t even done very well in this film, which gives us one scene of “flirtation” between Reed and Sue. They have one scene of terrible dialogue, so bad in fact I actually tuned it out, which is supposed to demonstrate their extreme chemistry and hint at their romantic destiny. It fails. Sue seems to be channeling Ally Sheedy’s shy awkward heroine from The Breakfast Club. And Reed can barely bring himself to look interested. These are two actors reciting lines hoping a single film can’t sink careers.
And cue the librarian with the clichéd “Shhhhh.”

In addition to terrible dialogue writing, the script betrays the confusion of its writers in that it can’t figure out what its through-lines are. The writer(s) have given us a script that indicates they had absolutely no idea what to do with these characters. It has no sense of place, the script doesn’t understand young people, it doesn’t understand adults.

At least a year of time passes from the moment the characters get their powers and the film’s denouement and the script engages with the character arcs of the protagonists in no meaningful way whatsoever. Ben Grimm, the enormously powerful Thing, has become a hammer used by the US military to solve tough issues of “diplomacy.” Could be interesting, but we see this only in the form of newscasts and shaky cam footage. There is no reflection, no exploration. Reed escapes from the lab and spends the year working on a way to help fix his “friends.” That is to say, he spent a year of story time on the run from several government agencies. Potentially interesting, correct? Well, not to whoever wrote this movie. Sue is in a coma for much of the film and exists sort of to recap a few plot elements with Johnny who gets about as much character development as Ben. Dr. Doom as I mentioned is just gone, assumed dead by the characters, if by no one else watching.

They are supposed to be a bit of a team, and friends. None of that gets developed.

Obviously there is a government bureaucrat so venal, greedy and self-absorbed in the film. And in a good, if forumlaic film, would use McGreedy to seriously upset the goals of a film’s protagonists. In this instantiation of the Fantastic Four he exists to eat up screen time, and to get his comeuppance in a grisly way.

I could continue to list things that are wrong with the film but there would be no point. Go see it if you feel like you must bear witness to a train wreck. But it won’t be fun.
My advice would be to see nearly anything else. Seriously a Fantastic Four porn parody, which I am sure has to exist, would be a marked improvement.
That can't be unseen.

-10/10 stars.

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