With the help of modern film editing software it's easier than ever to cut and paste a movie together. You can layer in visual effects and pro-level film coloring until the mess in front of you at least looks like a big-budget blockbuster. Such is the case with Fantastic Four, a movie that feels like two or three movies stitched together, but visually looks the part of a polished modern superhero epic.
The film is filled with unfinished thoughts, bizarre tonal shifts, and plotting so rushed the final half hour feels like a rapid succession of Things That Have to Happen In A Superhero Movie. All this should come as no surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with the troubled production.
The narrative of an up-and-coming director getting in over his head and losing control of his movie as a fed-up studio steps in to finish the production might or might not be true. But it definitely matches up with the finished product. It's easy to see where 31-year-old director Josh Trank had some cool ideas to bring to the table, like having four super powered individuals who seem ideologically opposed to becoming superheroes. That idea dies after about two scenes so we can hurry things up and get to the boss battle, and it's almost like you're watching Trank and 20th Century Fox fight over the movie as it unfolds in front of you.
Trank's new franchise reboot opens with two of our heroes as children. Reed Richards and Ben Grimm become fast friends, but it isn't until seven years later that they meet Susan and Johnny Storm when Daddy Storm recruits Reed to help his team crack inter-dimensional travel. To accomplish this feat, Reed must work with a sullen young hacker named Dun-Dun-Duuuun! Victor von Doom. Every beat of the plot is about as predictable as it is unlikely. Why would said teens get drunk and travel to another dimension in the middle of the night? Why would a high-powered military industrial outfit recruit teenagers to build an inter-dimensional travel device we're told could potentially destroy all life on Earth in the first place? Because we've gotta turn these kids into superheroes so we can get to the next plot point! Now shut up and keep your disbelief respectably suspended.
When our heroes come back through the inter-dimensional travel thing with super powers, they're promptly locked in a military lab. Reed escapes thanks to his awesome new super stretchiness while the other three are held hostage with the promise that if they help rebuild the inter-dimensional travel thing, then someone will figure out how to turn them back to normal.
Fantastic Four turns out to be a weird little movie with moments that come together like gems that are soon buried under the mounting rubble of an all-out disaster. The Thing's rock body and Reed Richards' super stretchy limbs look great, but then Dr. Doom shows up and he literally looks like he's wrapped in duct tape with green light poking through the cracks. Jamie Bell and Miles Teller give believable weight to the rift between Ben and Reed after their transformations, but those transformations are the stuff of unintentional hilarity. Ben Grimm becomes the Thing because some rocks got stuck in his transportation pod. Johnny Storm becomes human fire becomes his pod started to explode as they traveled back to our dimension.
Despite initial backlash against them, the five principle cast members (Miles Teller as Reed Richards, Kate Mara as Susan Storm, Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm, Jamie Bell as Ben Grimm, and Toby Kebbell as Victor von Doom) are great. I'd watch another Fantastic Four movie with them just out of good will. But after this mess I doubt we'll get a chance.
Strangely enough, the movie is so bad, the studio seems to have put together intentionally misleading trailers. Clips were edited to suggest plot points that aren't in the movie, such as one scene in particular where Reed seems to be overseeing one of The Thing's military infiltration missions while sitting in a command center surrounded by military dudes. That scene never happens. The shot in the trailer where The Thing drops like a rock out of the bay of a bomber isn't even in the movie, and Reed's line about the whole thing only taking a few minutes isn't about The Thing. It's about him reworking a line of computer code.
And what to say about Doom? He's so dark he doesn't make sense in the movie, and so barely fleshed out we get just a rough suggestion of the man under the duct tape and green light. He's ridiculously powerful, capable of making people's heads explode on sight (not kidding) and opening inter-dimensional gateways with his mind. Our bumbling heroes have no business confronting this god-like being whose brief and violent reign of terror is never explained or justified.
Evidence of the movie's many layers of rewrites and plot doctoring exist not only in the press notes, where years don't match up with the ones given in the movie, but in the film itself. At one point we see an official-looking file on Ben Grimm, listing his date of birth in 1986, which would make him 20 or 21 when he's introduced in 2007, attending grade school alongside Reed Richards. Little flubs like that are easy to overlook if the movie's story makes it worth overlooking, but here I think it really is reflective of the rush job that led to this movie's completion.
Josh Trank earned an enthusiastic cult following with 2012's Chronicle. Those followers will catch brief glimpses of the director's innate talent in Fantastic Four, but mostly they'll wonder what will become of him. At one point attached to direct a Star Wars stand-alone movie, Trank is now adrift and surrounded by rumors of incompetence. He says he'll next go back to making small original pictures, and with any luck that'll help him refocus his energy, and in five or so years, we'll all be writing about his comeback. Trank probably does have a solid big budget movie in him, this just isn't it.