Friday, October 30, 2015

"FANTASTIC FOUR" (2015) Review




"FANTASTIC FOUR" (2015) Review

Rebooting a superhero movie franchise is nothing new in Hollywood. Warner Brothers has released two different series featuring the D.C. Comics character, Batman. That particular studio has also released one series of films about Superman, and has made two attempts to reboot a new series - first in 2006 and recently, in 2013. As far as I know, Marvel has only done this twice. Marvel Studios, along with Columbia Pictures, have released two series featuring the Spider-Man character and is the process of releasing a third series. And recently, Twentieth-Century Fox has released its second film series featuring the characters, the Fantastic Four. 

This new version of "FANTASTIC FOUR", which was directed by Josh Trank, began with the first meeting of two friends, Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, as young teenagers. Reed managed to recruit Ben into his new project - the creation of, the director of a government-sponsored research institute for young prodigies called the Baxter Foundation. Reed is recruited to jaid Storm's children, scientist Sue Storm (who is adopted) and the somewhat reckless engineering prodigy Johnny Storm, into completing a "Quantum Gate", which was originally designed by Storm's wayward former protégé, Victor von Doom. Professor Storm managed to lure Victor back to the project, due to the latter's unrequited feelings for Sue.

The "Quantum Gate" project proves to be a success. But the Storms, Reed and Victor are disappointed to learn that the Foundation's government supervisor, Dr. Harvey Allen, plans to send a group from NASA to teleport to a parallel dimension known as "Planet Zero". In a defiant movie, Reed, Johnny and Victor decide to test the "Quantum Gate" first. Reed also invites Ben, whom he had not seen in a while, to join them. The quartet makes it to Planet Zero successfully. But when Victor attempts to touch the planet's ground, it starts to erupt, causing the four men to return to the teleporting shuttle, just as Sue begins to bring them back to Earth. Unfortunately, Victor is unable to return to the surface. And when the teleporter explodes upon the other three's return, it alters Reed, Johnny, Ben and Sue on a molecular level, giving them super-human abilities. The new quartet find themselves struggling with their new physical state and at the same time, in conflict with Dr. Allen and the government, who wants to exploit their abilities for military purposes.

I am going to put my cards on the table. "FANTASTIC FOUR" is not a great film. Then again, I have noticed over the years that most movies released in the month of August are usually not that hot . . . with some exceptions. I feel that this new"FANTASTIC FOUR" reboot proved to be no better or worse than the 2005 film . . . but for different reasons. This new film could have better. I cannot deny this. But it was sabotaged by certain factors.

One; the screenplay written by Trank, Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg made the mistake of allowing the five major characters to be younger than usual - with the exception of the Johnny Storm character, who was always younger than his colleagues. I could have accepted this change in age. But it had a negative effect on one of the characters - namely Ben Grimes aka the Thing. Due to his lack of scientific skills and the fact that space flight was not involved, Ben was not really needed in this story. Trank and the other screenwriters could have given him scientific skills, as they did with the Johnny Storm aka Human Torch character. But for some reason, he was simply an old school friend of Reed Richards aka Mr. Fantastic, This made his trip to "Planet Zero" with Reed, Johnny and Victor seem like a flimsy afterthought. Another character that suffered from the screenwriters' changes was Victor von Doom. Instead of the brilliant inventor/leader from Latveria, Victor is a brilliant anti-social computer programmer from the same country, who has lived in the United States since a young child. I had no problem with these changes, but I did have problems with how the screenwriters handled his character in the movie's second half. He was missing from "FANTASTIC FOUR" for quite a while, between the incident on "Planet Zero" and his return to Earth. And upon his return, the narrative rushed through Victor's encounters with the U.S. government and Franklin Storm, before he made his attempt to destroy Earth to keep "Planet Zero" safe from humanity.

The screenwriters' handling of Victor von Doom in the movie's last half hour illuminated one last problem with the film. Not only was Victor's character arc rushed in the end, so was the entire movie. And I found this rather unsatisfying. Despite my hangups over the Ben Grimes character, I had no problems with most of the film's narrative. But once the NASA men brought Victor back to Earth, it seemed as if Trank and the screenwriters were hellbent upon completing the film as quickly as possible. Or perhaps I should blame the movie's producers or the 20th Century Fox bigwigs. I learned that right before its release, someone had ordered three action sequences cut from the film. Why they did it . . . I do not have the foggiest idea. Did it improved the film? Again, I do not know. But I cannot help but wonder if those cut scenes would have prevented the film from rushing to its conclusion.

Does this mean I regard "FANTASTIC FOUR" as the worst movie from the summer of 2015? No. No, I do not. The movie possessed virtues that made it more than watchable for me. Unlike the 2005 movie, this latest reboot took its time in setting up both the characters and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Fantastic Four. Unlike today's film critics and fans, I do not believe in rushing the narrative in order to wallow in the action scenes. Action scenes should not be the backbone of a film. Thankfully, Trank and the other screenwriters seemed to fill the same. They took their time in setting up the characters' meeting via Reed Richards' point-of-view. They took their time in portraying the creation of the "Quantum Gate", allowing the narrative to strengthen the characters' interactions - especially the relationship between Reed and Sue Storm. The screenwriters also took their time in portraying the characters' difficulties with adjusting to their powers and their dealings with the U.S. military. Only in the last half hour, did they screw up.

Another improvement over the earlier film proved to be the portrayal of Johnny Storm. The 2005 film more or less used Johnny as comic relief. And while I found his antics amusing, I also found them rather shallow and a little annoying at times. In this new film, Johnny is still a hot-headed action junkie. But thankfully, the screenwriters and actor Michael B. Jordan prevented him from being a shallow source of comedy. And with the addition of the Franklin Storm character, the movie allowed some angst-filled family moments between father, son and adopted daughter Sue. More importantly, the screenplay gave Johnny a plausible reason to be involved in the "Quantum Gate" and journey to "Planet Zero". In the original comics from the early 1960s, Johnny was a sixteen year-old who had accompanied his sister, Reed Richards and astronaut/pilot Ben Grimes on the space journey that eventually gave them powers. The 2005 movie portrayed Johnny as a pilot and former astronaut, which I found incredibly implausible. No space agency or private corporation would be dumb enough to hire or recruit a young pilot in his early 20s to co-pilot a journey to space. I find it also implausible that Johnny was a former astronaut in this film, in the first place. It seems ironic that a movie torn to pieces by critics and film goers alike, failed to realize that its portrayal of how Johnny had acquired his abilities seemed ten times more plausible than the original comics or the 2005 film.

One last aspect of "FANTASTIC FOUR" that struck me as very plausible proved to be the team's interactions with the U.S. government. Trank and the other screenwriters allowed the "Quantum Gate" project to be sponsored by the Feds, allowing the relationship between the government and the Fantastic Four, Professor Storm and Victor von Doom fraught with tensions - before and after the initial journey to "Planet Zero". While watching this film, I found myself wondering why this did not happen to the main characters in the original comics from the 1960s or in the 2005 film. I never understood why this tenuous relationship was never explored before this movie. Even if the "Quantum Gate" project had not been sponsored by the U.S. government, the latter would have eventually learned about it and the team's new abilities. Trank and the other writers seemed to realize this. No one else did - including Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and the screenwriters for the 2005 film.

If anyone had any complaints about the performances in the movie . . . well, I would be surprised. Personally, I thought"FANTASTIC FOUR" featured some very competent performances. Miles Teller did a stellar job of combining Reed Richards' nebbish personality, enthusiasm and energy. At the same time, Teller skillfully allowed his character to mature and learn to accept responsibility by the end of the film. Many Marvel fans raised a fuss over the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, due to him being African-American. Considering that Marvel has changed the ethnic background of a few characters in the past, I never understood the fuss. Not only that . . . Jordan gave an intense, yet skillful performance as the volatile Johnny, who learns to overcome his resentment toward his father's efforts to dictate his future. I have always considered the character of Sue Storm rather difficult for any actress to tackle, considering there is nothing theatrical about her. But Kate Mara did a very solid job of conveying Sue's quiet, yet no-nonsense persona. Jamie Bell really did not have much to do in the film's first half, due to his lack of presence. But once his character, Ben Grimes became the Thing, Bell did an excellent job of portraying the character's intense, yet quiet anger over what happened to him.

The last time I saw Toby Kebbell in a movie, he was chewing the scenery as John Wilkes Booth in the 2010 film, "THE CONSPIRATOR". Thankfully, he maintained full control of his portrayal of computer geek loner, Victor von Doom and instead, gave a surprisingly intense, yet subtle performance. "FANTASTIC FOUR" proved to be Tim Blake Nelson's second Marvel film in which he portrayed a scientist. But in this film, Nelson proved to be more interesting and complex as the insidious Dr. Harvey Allen, who used a fake jovial attitude to intimidate the Fantastic Four (or most of them) into cooperating with the government. But my favorite performance came from Reg E. Cathey, who portrayed Professor Franklin Storm. If one looked at Cathey's warm, emotional and forceful performance, his Professor Storm seemed to be the movie's heart and soul. More importantly, I walked away feeling that his Storm was the true creator of the Fantastic Four.

I am not going to pretend that "FANTASTIC FOUR" was a great film. Then again, neither was the 2005 movie. I had a few problems with the Ben Grimes and Victor von Doom characters. And I found the ending rushed. But the movie did featured some very skillful performances and a great one by Reg E. Cathey. And despite the flawed ending, I had no problems with most of the film's narrative and thought it featured some improvements on both the 2005 film and even the original 1961 comics. Because of this, I have great difficulty in accepting the prevailing view of it being the summer's worst film. In fact, I do not accept this view at all.

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