Misunderstood boy genius Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has spent a lifetime trying to perfect his remarkable teleportation machine. At a science fair Reed and his stalwart buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) field test the imperfect device with mixed results. However, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) is impressed enough to offer Reed a chance to work on a top-secret government project alongside his similarly gifted adopted daughter Susan (Kate Mara), impulsive son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and unstable genius Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Together they build a machine able to enter another dimension. When the government try to take charge of the project and leave the researchers out in the cold, Reed recklessly brings Ben along on an inter-dimensional jaunt with dire consequences. Transformed through cosmic energy, Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben return with fantastic powers, poised for incredible adventures. Until, er, Reed runs away, stuff blows up, there is a lot of pointless fighting, everyone on the internet gets mad and Star Wars: Episode Nine goes with another director...
It really should not be this hard to make a decent Fantastic Four movie yet for more than two decades filmmakers have struggled to do just that. Leaving aside Roger Corman's farcical low-budget attempt in 1994 that was not even intended for release, the two colourful comic book romps bankrolled by Twentieth Century Fox in 2005 and 2007, with a pre-Captain AmericaChris Evans as Johnny 'Human Torch' Storm, were strictly blockbusters-by-numbers. While modestly lucrative they won few fans. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer even managed to botch the Galactus saga, the greatest Fantastic Four story of them all, partly as result of the then-head of Twentieth Century Fox's refusal to make a movie with giant alien robots. A decision that proved especially stupid in the year audiences flocked to Transformers. In the wake of Marvel Studios' rise as a movie force to be reckoned with Fox sagely figured it was the right time for a reboot. Enter indie darling Josh Trank. Still basking in the glory of Chronicle (2012), Trank pitched a unique slant on the F.F. more akin to a David Cronenberg-style 'body horror' story where scientists meddle with dark forces best left alone. It is an intriguing idea albeit perhaps ill-suited to the F.F. As things turned out studio interference, hostile fans, allegedly uncooperative actors, extensive re-shoots and the director's own alleged manhandling of one cast-member, very public meltdown and misguided Twitter message all combined to sink an already shaky ship.
While there is no denying Fantastic Four was the most reviled film of 2015 it certainly was not the year's worst. Pixels and Terminator: Genisys have a lot less going for them. There are good things here. It is just few have anything to do with the F.F. Trank's films starts wonderfully with the child genius Reed Richards bonding with plucky junkyard kid Ben Grimm. Yet once the grownup stars appear on screen the problems become obvious. Marvel's original F.F. are a supposed to be a family. Here we get no sense these characters even like each other let alone seem capable of forming a family. Sue is unimpressed with Reed, Johnny resents Sue, Reed abandons Ben who throughout the course of the plot never truly comes to terms with that betrayal. This film fails not as result of any cosmetic alteration to the characters or origin story but because the relationships do not reflect the comic. The F.F. are a product of their time. They embody the can-do all-American optimism of an early Sixties attitude to science, progress and exploration. Popular consensus would have it such attitudes are hopelessly uncool in this day and age. So the reboot reflects what Trank seemingly perceives as our modern conception of science heroes: awkward, uncomfortable, spiky and uncertain. Reed, Sue and Johnny are drawn as surly, introverted and dour, personality traits that seep into the film as a whole and prove weirdly indistinguishable from those of Victor Von Doom.
Early on we have a scene where a little boy calls Reed Richards a dick, a characterization the film inexplicably extends throughout the story. The original F.F. were space explorers. Here Reed leads his gang into another dimension on a drunken dare so no NASA astronaut can rob them of a chance to be famous. The plot is also strangely small in scale with low stakes. The action unfolds in just two major locations: the claustrophobic lab inside the Baxter building and the Negative Zone which proves less epic than one might imagine. Where Trank and his vision for the new F.F. really shines is in the aftermath of the disastrous journey. He does a fine job handling scenes with Reed trapped in the lab, terrified by both his own grotesque deformities and the hideous monsters his friends have become. Like Chronicle, certain scenes in Fantastic Four reveal a strong Akira (1988) influence as characters react to the horrific mutations wrought on their bodies and Doctor Doom makes a splatter-filled exit from the lab, Tetsuo-style.
However at the fifty minute mark Fantastic Four abruptly jumps ahead an entire year. It then suddenly becomes a radically different studio movie. Presumably studio-mandated changes are reflected in the change of score, Kate Mara's new-found 'glamorous' blonde hairdo, amped up (if still uninvolving) action and a plot that grows more nonsensical. As bracing as a shot of traditional superhero action might be it sits uneasily with the preceding dour, doom-laden fifty minutes. Even more problematic it is hard to accept Reed Richards, of all people, would abandon his friends for a whole year for no clear reason beyond escaping his failure. As such it becomes impossible to believe this Reed could ever lead this team. Science and family are meant to be the blocks that build a bridge between these disparate, damaged characters but Trank and co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Jeremy Slater give no sense of that. At the end of the day it might be time to accept that we already had the definitive Fantastic Four movie, only it was called The Incredibles (2004).