Preparation is everything. From his childhood, Reed Richards knew what he wanted to do with his life: “I want to be the first person in human history to teleport himself,” he told his classmates, opening him to the mockery of his teacher, a hostility which continued through the years to the high school science fair where fate brought Reed and his invention to the attention of Professor Franklin Storm, director of the Baxter Foundation, an encounter which was to change their lives and those of everyone around them.
Preparation is everything. Following two modestly successful but poorly received feature film outings, 2005’s Fantastic Four and 2007’s Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, like their Marvellous mutated fellows the X-Men, the rights to Mr Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing resided with 20th Century Fox rather than the blockbusting Disney distributed films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A new vision was needed, and Fox handed the reins to Josh Trank, director of the found footage and firmly grounded superhero film Chronicle.
From a script co-written by The Lazarus Effect‘s Jeremy Slater and This Means War‘s Simon Kinberg alongside Trank, that stylistic ethic has been carried forward: from the openly abusive family of Ben Grimm to the run down environment of the Baxter Building where Professor Storm is embroiled in boardroom disputes over budgets and the nihilistic worldview of unkempt basement-dweller Victor von Doom, this is the Fantastic Four brought from the four colour frame to the harsh honesty of the real world. The floundering mess which is the result could not be more of a disappointment.
The early scenes reminding strongly of Joe Dante‘s Explorers, a group of ambitious and talented children who have an affinity for technology, the crucial levity which powered that is absent, yet any attempt at a serious approach is fundamentally undermined by the fact that this is a film full of kids, none of whom are particularly enjoyable company, who perform science experiments which none of them seem to be particularly excited about and who accidentally develop superpowers which are fundamentally silly.
While the first tests of Reed’s inter-dimensional teleportation device which links Earth to “Planet Zero” do not crash and burn so spectacularly as those of Seth Brundle in The Fly (would that anything in this film warranted the term “spectacular”), Victor is left behind on the unstable surface and the three returnees inevitably begin exhibiting the powers for which they are so well known, Sue who remained behind to perform the manual recall being hit by the backwash.
It is not the fault of Trank’s cast, who fulfil their unflattering obligations: Project X‘s Miles Teller a Reed Richards who stumbles forwards with no idea of where he is going, The Eagle‘s Jamie Bell a Ben Grimm who grumpy presence in the film is seemingly obliged only out of established continuity, Chronicle‘s Michael B Jordan a selfish and self-destructive Johnny Storm while Transcendence‘s Kate Mara is surly as Sue Storm and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes‘ Toby Kebbell downright sulks as Victor von Doom even before his transmogrification.
None of the cast display the charisma of Chris Evans or Michael Chiklis who played Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm in the previous films, yet the structure of the plot is all too similar. “The failures of my generation are the opportunities of yours,” Professor Storm cautions before advising the team to “put aside your petty squabbles,” but that is exactly the trap they fall into. Where once there were five friends split asunder, so now again there are four friends and the one with whom they have fallen out and whose resentment spills over to endanger the world.
An origin story of tedious predictability, this is not a threat which requires superheroes, it is a tiff which requires a good long talk over tea and biscuits, and nothing in the film raises it above that pedestrian level of interest. The intent to militarise the Quantum Gate project presented by gum-chewing faceless suits as devoid as personality as the leads, while Planet Zero may be infused with energy the film is bereft, the crucial year of the mediocre four honing their powers compressed into a thankless montage.
The one thing a superhero movie should never be is dull, yet driven by exploding green goo, bickering, irresponsible decisions, drinking, a lack of concern for safety protocols and mediocre special effects that is exactly what has been achieved, focusing on those over any actual story or excitement, though it has been indicated by Trank himself that the final cut bears brutally little resemblance to his own vision.
Following the predictable inspirational speeches, the less-than-grand finale attains the level of “because it’s so” nonsense of a fifties B-movie made by the scientifically illiterate, and, like the final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin in Sam Raimi’s first superhero venture, comes down to a lifeless face-off between digitally masked figures, and the only blessing of the whole endeavour is that at one hundred minutes it’s a full half hour shorter than the average superhero movie.