The Fantastic Four: It’s Not Getting Better (PG-13)

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When I went to see The Fantastic Four, I was expecting what I usually expect from adaptations of Marvel comics: I didn’t think that it would be particularly memorable, but neither did I expect it to be particularly bad. I was wrong on both accounts: It was memorably bad.

I understand that I was probably not the film’s intended audience. I have nothing against comics, but don’t read them myself, and, as much as negative reviews provide more opportunity for catchy one-liners, I don’t particularly like writing them, let alone watching the movies that serve as their sources. Nonetheless, one mustn’t give credit where it isn’t due. And none is due here.

This is unfortunate, given the talent that director Josh Trank has organized. In the lead role as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic is Miles Teller who most recently did a memorable turn as the talented but insecure protagonist of Whiplash. The same could be said of Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm/Thing, Richards’s working stiff sidekick from Nassau. But, for all of the talent the movie has assembled, it doesn’t seem too interested in using them. This is analogous to buying a Ferrari and then driving it ten miles per hour below the posted speed limit.

The film does have patience which is lacking in most action flicks today, but unlike much better movies that took their time—such as Jurassic Park, more than 20 years ago—there is no payoff to the patience of Fantastic Four. Instead, the audience is treated—or more accurately subjected to—the film’s first act, as it tries to build its pseudo-scientific plot around its five protagonists—Richards (the science geek), Grimm (the jock), Johnny Storm (the daredevil), Susan Storm (the … girl?), and Victor von Doom (the libertarian hacker who probably volunteered for Ron Paul’s campaign—and the group’s eventual nemesis).

The particular invention that propels them into the next act—the act in which they allegedly become fantastic—is a portal to another dimension. In other words, it’s a teleport, but one which cannot bring them to any specific location and which gives New York City more power outages than California in the days when Gray Davis ruled the roost.

Considering that from the very first scene, the characters appear to have the basic physics of teleportation worked out, it takes them a long time before they actually use the device on themselves—approximately a third of the movie. This delay is presumably because they still need to work out the kinks of teleporting live matter. David Cronenberg’s The Fly which, according to Wikipedia, influenced the style of this movie, also wrestled with the problem of teleporting live matter, so, as a side note, someone please explain to me the rational or economic basis for such a delay; wouldn’t it just be nice if the US Mail could institute overnight mail again?

The movie does its best to make the development and adjustments from Point A to Point B believable. Various equations are written out and erased, various metal plates are welded. But this is all unnecessary. The pseudo-science is hokey and, worse for a movie that devotes so much time to the subject, it reveals absolutely nothing about the way that science works. Asking for this might be a bit much for a movie based on comic books, but if the filmmakers had no real interest in discovery itself, why give so much screen time to it? The answer is anyone’s guess.

But, skipping ahead, the movie adheres to the predictable moments of this genre, including the “This is probably not going to end well” moment when the protagonists become “The Fantastic Four”. To do this, they have to follow their portal where it goes. Division of labor, in this case, would make much more sense. After all, who would operate the machinery if they all died? But such reasonable thinking is of little value in a movie like this, especially since their chief concern to avoid becoming “That guy” who sent Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon, but whose name no one remembers. (Yes, I’m sure that you know who Wernher von Braun was, but the protagonists—supposedly the best young minds in physics—do not.)

The portal, as it turns out, does not lead to another part of the planet, but a planet in another dimension, one with some sort of phosphorescent energy source that makes the atmosphere glow like the final days of Studio 54. It also has the singular quality that “energy” usually has in comic books movies, which is to say that it is a universal elixir for giving normal people the ability to do weird things. In this case, after a close call that claims none of them except von Doom, the characters barely make it back to earth with their new, ungoverned abilities—e.g. generating force fields, flying while burning simultaneously, virtual indestructibility and the ability to generate long appendages at will. Given the sort of e-mails that crowd contemporary spamfeeds, I am sure that that last ability would be especially popular.

So what happens, now that our heroes have these newfound abilities? Do they end up torn between the necessity to do the right thing and the instinct of will to power? Do they use their unique characteristics to defeat an even greater, burgeoning evil? No, not really, unless one counts the anticlimactic action sequence toward the end which occupies approximately ten minutes of screen time. And with that, all of the choreography, as the four take on the resurrected Van Doom, is familiar.

It is also dull. Once again, in the comic book universe, action sequences do not have the raw, down-to-earth physicality or realism that makes action enjoyable to watch. Instead, we are stuck rolling with the punches that carry a body fifty meters, after which the receiver doesn’t even have to bother walking it off. I have complained about this before, but filmmakers keep making the same mistake. Sometimes bigger is not better and that is especially true now, when studios are all trying to make the biggest action flick of them all.

Based on box office returns, there is little indication that studios have much incentive to shake things up. But the most striking image that stuck in my mind while attending the Fantastic Four was that of the state troopers patrolling around the theater; this is presumably a new security feature given the times that we live in. Going to the movies can be dangerous business. But going to something like The Fantastic Four—without being paid to do so—is not just dangerous; it is reckless. Wait for Redbox or, better yet, don’t watch at all.

James Banks

James Banks is a recovering writer and academic living in upstate New York. Before a quarter-life crisis drove him to work at a government bureau, he taught (and assistant taught) writing and movie classes at the University of Rochester. He can fake a New York accent when he tries, but he is a West Coaster and graduated from the University of Idaho in 2008.

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