Movie Review: Fantastic Four
By Ben Gruchow
August 13, 2015

Critics did in fact nuke it from orbit. Just to be sure.

For a good hour or so into Fantastic Four, I was honestly wondering how the movie was pulling such an absurdly low critical reaction. Even the best moments of Fox and Marvel’s second reboot of the franchise never really arrive at a point where you’d call them “good”, but you can’t call them bad, either. It beats the stuffing out of Tim Story’s insipid 2005 take on the series, for one thing, and there were enough of these perilously-close-to-good moments for me to consider the beginning of the movie fairly strong.

Then, it begins to fall apart - slowly at first, and then with startling velocity. Its greatest mercy is that it’s fairly slight at 100 minutes including credits; the asterisk there is that the really bad stuff lands with the force of a bomb at the end, and the resulting shockwave reaches all the way back through the film and demolishes the entire thing.

The movie’s problems turn up pretty early in those 100 minutes, but they’re mostly problems that I did my best to inoculate myself against going in. This is a movie about superpowers, obtained from extra-dimensional planets made of green energy; science has already taken a header out of a high window. You pretty much spot the movie its premise, and hope that the story and characters are engaging enough to suppress the eye-rolling reflex at plot machinations. On this front, Fantastic Four gives off the appearance of delivering.

Its first act is mostly about introductions, chemistry, camaraderie. Miles Teller’s Reed is acquired out of high school by the Baxter Foundation, owing to his successful teleportation of matter using a homemade device. Aided by fellow Baxter scientists Sue Storm (Kate Mara), her brother Johnny (Michael B. Jordan, underused), childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) and a sort of kindred spirit in Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), he is tasked with building a human-sized version of the device, hoping to transport people to a strange planet known as "Zero" that contains enough energy to potentially meet our own planet’s needs.

The visit to Zero doesn’t go well, for either the story or the movie: a character makes a mistake, the energy that’s been detected displays some sort of sentience, and everything begins to go awry. One of the team members is lost, while the others are bombarded with varying types and degrees of the energy covering the planet. What happens after this is interesting. Remember the dippy introduction to the Four’s powers from the 2005 film, how it was played for light comedy? Not so here. The fallout from the accident is here played for traumatic value, with the characters involved in either a comatose or half-aware state, unknowing and not in control of what’s happening to them. The reveal of Reed’s limb-stretching capability, in particular, is a nicely unsettling bit of body horror that made me blink and sit upright; it’s the first of two incidences of the movie exhibiting a significant tonal shift that points in a vastly different storytelling direction.

It’s rumored that Fox brought in Matthew Vaughn - he of 2011’s X-Men: First Class - to do hefty reshoots, owing to creative differences between the studio and the director, Josh Trank. In doing so, the movie ends up splitting the difference between Trank’s movie and Vaughn’s; one of these is incomparably weaker than the other, and this is where Fantastic Four’s inexorable downhill slide begins in earnest. We skip ahead a year (neatly avoiding any pathos or development), to where the Four are in control of their abilities and using them for different reasons, and the movie becomes a flat little series of power-play skirmishes with the military that feel like companion pieces to First Class. It’s proficient, but perfunctory.

The other movie bubbling underneath this one is a more downbeat story about the Four being uncertain of what they are, and aware they’re being used. It’s more intriguing, and it’s got more teeth than the origin-story half, but it’s unearned; the origin story skipped out on the character development, so we have nothing invested beyond clinical attachment.

Both of these very tonally different stories slam into each other at about the 80-minute mark, when a principal character makes his very sudden reappearance and goes from “neutral” to “principal antagonist” in the space of a single violently jarring and bloody sequence, one that is effective mainly for how quickly it comes out of nowhere. I mean, the movie has thus far lacked a bad guy, and we knew one had to make an entrance sooner or later - but there’s entrance through the door and there’s knocking the door down, and this is the latter. It’s the movie’s one true moment of alien, unpredictable terror, and it sets the stage for a gonzo final act.

Unfortunately, we’re already halfway through the final act when this happens, and the following series of plot developments drive Fantastic Four right off a cliff: the movie’s pace goes from slow to overdrive, plot developments and complications and actions and reactions all pile on top of each other so quickly that they pretty much cancel each other out, character motivations are randomly assigned and/or tossed to the winds, and the film closes with the worst two scenes of the entire thing. This all happens so ridiculously quickly that one suspects the filmmakers were held to the 100-minute runtime at knifepoint, and it singlehandedly eradicates any rhythm, consistency, or tension that might have been building.

It’s strange, as the lights go up and the credits roll, how much the catastrophic ending cheapens and nullifies both the mild positives the movie had going for it, and the existing negatives (the effects being wildly inconsistent between the two ends of the scale: Planet Zero looks great, the Human Torch effects feel weightier and much more present than in the 2005 film, and then you have limb-stretching effects with the plastic sheen of an early-2000s video game, and a short scene with von Doom and a CGI chimpanzee reminds us of how much more convincing Kebbell’s Koba was in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes last summer).

This ends in a dead zone of entertainment, misjudged and so significantly unbalanced that the mind rejects the idea that it was put together this way with the intent of being good, and it’s much more likely that nobody knew exactly what they had until it was too late. Or maybe it was deliberate sabotage. In a strange way, I’m glad I saw it: at a time when franchise movies (and comic-book movies in particular) achieve a certain level of banal competence and structure even at their most mundane, seeing one go so spectacularly wrong gives me a renewed respect for even those slight measures of discipline.