by Todd McCarthy
Fantastic Four feels like a 100-minute trailer for a movie that never happens. At this point in the ever-expanding cinematic superhero game, it behooves any filmmakers who get involved to have at least a mildly fresh take on their characters and material, but this third attempt to create a worthy cinematic franchise from the first of Stan Lee’s and Jack Kirby’s iconic comic book creations, which can genuinely claim to have launched the Age of Marvel, proves maddeningly lame and unimaginative. Die-hard fans will undoubtedly show up but box-office results for this Fox release will fall far short of what Marvel achieves with its own in-house productions.
The stakes are rather higher now than when other hands grappled with these characters in the past. A 1994 feature produced by Bernd Eichinger and Roger Corman and directed by Oley Sassone was so cheesy that it never officially saw the light of day, while the two films directed by Tim Story in 2005 and 2007 did well enough but are remembered, if at all, for Jessica Alba.
This time, the reins have been handed to director and co-writer Josh Trank, whose one previous feature was the 2012 “found-footage” thriller Chronicle. Unfortunately, there is no youthful enthusiasm or sense of reinvention evident in this outing, the timing of which comes so soon after the most recent attempts; the new film’s prologue is actually set in the year the most recent Story film came out.
Nothing that Trank and his co-writers Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg have come up with do anything to alleviate the feeling that the titular quartet simply don’t constitute very interesting superheroes. Oyster Bay schoolkid Reed Richards is introduced as a nerdy genius who has essentially built a teleporter in his home out of common equipment, a “bio-matter shuttle” that can transport matter through space. Helping him procure parts is tough guy neighbor Ben Grimm.
His science teacher never appreciates him, but seven years later Reed (Miles Teller, slumming for the first time in his sterling young career) receives foundation backing to perfect his creation. One waits patiently as more exposition is laid out and further characters are shuffled in; there’s deep-voiced project overseer Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), his hot car-happy son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who looks like he’d be happier in a Fast and Furious installment; Storm’s adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), a master technician who spends most of her time in front of a screen; grown-up Ben (Jamie Bell), moody malcontent science genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) and agency boss Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), who backs the construction of a machine designed to zap them all to another dimension and allows a multi-manned mission after just one test run involving a chimpanze.
The chimp, in fact, comes back in fine shape, but such is not the luck for the human zone-challenging pioneers, who make it to a barren, rocky land of unknown location or identity, plant the U.S. flag and then proceed to be engulfed by a green energy field that gives them all strange powers, or at least distinct new characteristics: Reed develops elastic, ever-stretchable limbs and Johnny can turn into a flaming meteor, so count them lucky compared to Ben, whose new rocky body mass makes him a cousin of The Hulk with a more mottled complexion. And then there’s Victor Von Doom, who must live up to his name by going over to the dark side. Sue is forced to stay home and must ultimately move among the other characters in a large transparent bubble out of The Wizard of Oz.
All of this takes at least an hour and it’s build-up to…nothing at all. A sense of heaviness, gloom and complete disappointment settles in during the second half, as the mundane set-up results in no dramatic or sensory dividends whatsoever. Even if lip-service is paid to some great threat to life on Earth as we know it, the filmmakers bring nothing new to the formula, resulting in a film that’s all wind-up and no delivery. If the writers couldn’t think of anything interesting to do with these characters in this first series reboot, they do nothing to inspire the viewer to expect they could do something exciting with a sequel.
Beginning with Teller and Jordan, who have done such promising early work, the cast is utterly wasted here with mostly rote explanatory dialogue and little conflict or nuance to work on a dramatic level. And the visual style is in a dark, unattractive gloomy mode that infects every aspect of the film.
Near the end, Teller’s Reed comments on the status of the group’s actions by proclaiming, “We opened this door, we’re gonna close it.” The sooner the better.