Fantastic Four

FANTASTIC FOUR. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell. Directed by Josh Trank. 100 minutes. M (Fantasy themes and violence).

For 20th Century Fox, rebooting their second tier Marvel franchise (sitting below the ‘X-Men’ films in both quality and financial returns) seemed like a no-brainer and a potential home run. They bought up-and-coming director Josh Trank on board, fresh off his success on ‘Chronicle’ in 2012, and signed some of the best young actors working today to star. However, unlike the titular quartet, this effort never coalesces to form a satisfying whole, and when comic book adaptations are generally becoming better in quality, this stings all the more keenly.

We meet science prodigy Reed Richards at a young age, yet still capable of building a teleportation device in his garage with the help of his friend Ben Grimm. An intertitle delivers us 7 years down the track, and Richards (Miles Teller) has improved his device. Noticed at his school science fair by talent incubator and scientist Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), he is given a full scholarship to study at the Baxter Institute, where a full-scale prototype of his ‘Quantum Gate’ is being built from the plans of computer whiz Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). He is told that transported objects are in fact travelling to another dimension. With the help of Franklin’s two children – pattern analyst Sue (Kate Mara) and car mechanic and racer Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) – Richards and von Doom finish the device, and complete a successful bio-matter test.

Offended by suggestions that they hand their research over to NASA, Richards, von Doom and Johnny resolve to travel to the other dimension with Ben (Jamie Bell). When their journey goes horribly wrong, von Doom is presumed dead, and the others return with terrifying physical capabilities which also affect Sue, who was at the device’s controls. The military intervene, housing the foursome while they recover, with ulterior motives to harness their powers for domestic security. Richards struggles to cure his friends, but they may have bigger problems when von Doom returns from the other dimension with dangerous abilities.

Underscoring the story are several worthwhile messages about the might of unity and diversity. What’s more, if you can forgive the zany science, this attempt to adapt Marvel’s oldest comic team offers a more grounded portrayal than Tim Story’s 2005 effort and its 2007 sequel. Taking cues from body-horror maestro David Cronenberg, Trank briefly yet effectively explores the fear and agony of the interdimensional travellers upon their return, and the sub-plot concerning government coercion (or employment, if you’re less concerned about civil liberties) feels likely.

Unfortunately, this is almost the only facet of the movie which works – the introduction to the characters (pre-powers) takes almost half the running time, yet none of their relationships add up to anything compelling. The villain of the piece only appears with around 30 minutes to spare, and is dealt with so easily it feels like footnote to the team’s origin story. It delivers few of the escapist thrills that comic books are traditionally associated with, and the few action beats display a real lack of originality. None of the cast stand out in a positive light, which suggests some sub-par instruction from director Trank on set. Finally, the team behind the camera appear to be doing their utmost not to redeem this picture – the cinematography is flat, and almost exclusively shot with stark, boring compositions, and the score from Phillip Glass and Marco Beltrami (two terrific composers in their own right) is entirely forgettable.

Is there a chance that I am being unduly harsh on the film? Of course, but when a premise displays this much promise yet falls so flat, it is unforgivable. Forgive me for plucking the obvious pun, but this reboot is anything but fantastic.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out August 6.

20th Century Fox.

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