Thursday, August 18, 2016

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2015)


By the time I saw Josh Trank's Fantastic Four I had long since had an earful of the bad press--and as is so often the case on those occasions, I found myself wondering if it was not overly criticized. At least in the more important ways the film did not strike me as conspicuously lazy and sloppy in the manner of, for example, Iron Man 2. It managed to avoid the triteness so often part of the Marvel crowd-pleasers--particularly tiresome in, for instance, the middle third of the first Thor movie. And in fact, more than many of these movies (the celebrated first Avengers movie among them), it is not a collection of action scenes strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot (or more precisely, masses of bits of action strung together by the thinnest semblance of being action scenes, in their turn strung together by the thinnest semblance of a plot), but offers an actual story with actual characters.

As it happens, there is a lot of Trank's prior film Chronicle, in it--bleak suburbs, gray skies, alienated kids with bad attitudes from crummy homes who mess around with powers beyond their understanding and have to deal with the consequences, all depicted in a rather grounded, low-key, small-scale way. (Reed Richards is turned from a grown-up and well-recognized scientist to a geeky high school science fair entrant, with the rest of the Four changed commensurately; while the central event in the origin story is not a space flight, but interdimensional transport to a primitive landscape, generally seen at night.) There is a bit of Watchmen, too (another film criticized far out of proportion to any actual weaknesses it had) in the conception of the heroes as damaged people exploited by the System, and specifically the military-industrial complex, covert-ops side of it, the badness of which seems to go far beyond a few "bad apples."1

As all this suggests, rather than a movie for purists, or simply a less faithful movie still attempting to be a colorful, lightweight crowd-pleaser in the familiar Marvel mold (which the previous film version of this story fit to a tee), Trank's Fantastic Four gives the impression of a movie attempting to subvert its source material, and the form more broadly--and in its earlier portions shows some promise on that level. However in the last act the movie turns much more conventional as the heroes brush aside their previously deeply felt differences to come together and battle a vengeful supervillain posing a cosmic, physics-based threat to the entire world, the day is narrowly saved, and even if we had doubts (more than doubts) about the functionaries in the dress uniforms and three-piece suits, everyone puts that behind them, while our heroes get a sweet new deal in the form of lavish facilities in Central City, and speak bad one-liners intended to get a final laugh before we cut to credits.

Alas, the final display of action and effects falls far short of what was needed to save the movie from that perspective, not helped by the fact that the scenes are so ill-lit one can barely make out much of what is going on, and that the low-key approach endures. Perhaps more importantly, the sharp turn in the narrative, expected as it may be, rings false after what came before.

Consequently the film alienates those who like the more conventional take by being so low-key and measured and dark, who felt uncompensated by the finale; while at the same time in the film's turning much more conventional in the final act, it alienates those who had been intrigued by its doing something different and more subversive. In that I am reminded of something I thought about when watching Chronicle: the tension between the big-budget, crowd-pleasing form and the narrative aspirations of necessarily smaller-scale indie filmmaking. For better or worse Chronicle just about managed to cohere in spite of them, but it also did not have the expectations aroused by its connection with the Fantastic Four, or the obligation to turn a profit on a $120 million production budget adequate to launch a whole franchise of summer tentpoles.

1. One of the more striking aspects of this is the depiction of the changed bodies of the principals, not just the Thing, but Reed, whose stretching appears grotesque rather than zanily cartoonish.

Reconsidering Fantastic Four (2005)
My Posts on Superhero Movies
Reconsidering Watchmen
Just Out: After the New Wave: Science Fiction Today
Preview Cyberpunk, Steampunk and Wizardry
Thoughts on Chronicle

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