Monday 10 August 2015

Fantastic 4

Doom Watch

Fantastic 4
2015 USA
Directed by Josh Trank
UK cinema release print.

Well this one really surprised me.

I was expecting this movie, from the reports I heard of the genesis of the whole film on the internet as it geared up and then entered production, to be truly dreadful. While it certainly has a few real issues, which I think are easy enough to highlight (probably more problematic to fix), I found myself enjoying this film a heck of a lot more than I expected to and I would say that people really need to check this one out for themselves.

I used to read the Fantastic Four as a nipper, back in the early 1970s. I had at least one annual in the seventies detailing their adventures in The Negative Zone, which kinda has a counterpart in this movie version and which, I remember, had a gorgeous Jack Kirby splash page featuring the four of them drawn against a surreal photomontage. My main source of reference for the characters, however, was a book of reprints of the first seven or so issues as a paperback and, of course, reruns of the late 1960s TV cartoon show... I can still hear the music to that one in my head to this day (I wonder if I’ll be able to catch up with those again one day or whether they’re unavailable). I also had a vinyl LP by a group called Icarus as a kid called The Marvel World Of Icarus, which had a great song about the superteam too (and many other Marvel characters) which was always stuck in my head. After it was quickly pulled from circulation and considered a "lost album", it resurfaced relatively recently on CD if you want to check it out from the usual sellers.

I also liked the previous two Fantastic Four movies (and would have loved to see another one of those made) because they were fun... although they really screwed up Doctor Doom, I would have to say. The Roger Corman movie which was made purely to retain copyright of the property in order to make those two, and which was never shown (although you can read my review of the Roger Corman version of Fantastic Four right here) is really not good, to be honest... but I do find it interesting in that this new version of the movie was kinda 'panic made' again because of exactly the same problem... the rights to the characters were going to revert back to Marvel unless Fox made a movie right now. Interesting piece of history repeating itself regarding this property, methinks.

The director here is Josh Trank and I remember when I heard he’d been brought on, I gave a little inner “woohoo” because I’d seen his previous movie, the debut feature Chronicle (reviewed by me here) and had absolutely loved it. Although that’s a relatively low budget, found footage piece, the story of teenagers who accidentally find themselves ‘gifted’ with superpowers and the way it changes them was a really clever piece of cinematic storytelling and it seemed obvious that he was a natural for a superhero team movie at some point. Alas, all the subsequent news I heard after this... down to casting and changing both the origins of the characters and their history made me hate the project more and more each day and, although I quite enjoyed this new version, be warned... this is not the same Fantastic Four that anybody my age will remember from the comics. Even the fact that they’ve dumbed down the adult characters to kids I find objectionable... hey guys... at the very least, Reed Richards had some very distinctive white sideburns... what happened?

However, if you can divorce yourself from the original source material, which it plays around with a great deal, then you can probably hook into this tale of four kids who are almost, but not quite, playing out a less sophisticated, bigger budget version of the directors debut feature, the aforementioned Chronicle. And it’s actually pretty good in a lot of ways. I don’t know what all the negative reviews are about on this one because the acting by the principals; Miles Teller as Reed Richards (Mr. Fantastic), Kate Mara as Sue Storm (The Invisible Girl), ex Chronicle co-star Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) and Jamie Bell as Benjamin Grimm (The Thing)... is all pretty good and there’s some strong character work midst all the special effects, which keeps things strolling along. Like I said though, there are some problems with this movie too...

Now I’m not going to go into all the behind the scenes drama on this movie that is being dragged out in the press in the form of leaks and rogue tweets. I have little respect for the Hollywood machine in that it chews up and then spits out talented individuals and turns what could have been great artistic masterpieces into 'by the numbers', emasculated pseudo-spectaculars that underperform due to the very reasons that the studio tampers with the work in the first place. I don’t think we’ve heard the last of the story behind the scenes on this one yet but... well I reckon we’ll know what goes on at some point in the future. There are some things which do hurt the movie though and, because of all the hidden shenanigans on this one, including the cutting before even shooting, by the studio, of three main action set pieces (apparently)... well I’m just not sure who you can blame for any of the slightly negative things which are in this movie... or at least the things I perceive to be negatives.

Okay... so leaving out the complete changing of the characters and their origins, not to mention their age, we have the whole Doctor Doom problem again. Now in the previous two films, part of that problem, as far as I was concerned, was that the actor playing him was pretty unlikeable... yeah, okay, he’s supposed to be a villain but I found it a barrier to his performance. Here, we have a pretty great guy called Toby Kebbell playing the role. I don’t know what else this man’s been in but he does a really great performance in the movie before he turns into the nemesis of the Fantastic Four. However, what with the changes to his origin and his portrayal as some kind of organic, metal monster... he doesn’t really work. It’s something I think may have been a hangover from the Marvel Ultimates comics but, my opinion in movies based on Marvel or DC comics is that, unless it involves Elektra or She-Hulk, anything post 1973 never really happened... go back to the original characters because those ones worked. The biggest problem with Doom here though, apart from the changes on his look and attitude, are that he’s damn near omnipotent. It’s like trying to fight an evil version of Superman and, though the writers here at least use this to force the film back to one of the ideals of the original comic strip from the early 1960s, it makes for a bit of a dull climax to the movie which, in all honesty, leaves you expecting to see more in the next one or two set pieces... before you realise that this is it, the movie is now over.

There seems to be whole sub-plot missing from the movie and it leads to Reed Richards looking like he’s betrayed his friends at one point and... we’re none the wiser because it’s never really explained as to the project he’s working on when he’s on the run, although I assume he’s working on a way to bring back the human version of Ben Grimm. But we’re never enlightened about that matter in the final cut of the movie and neither are any of Reed’s team mates. I suspect the trailer, which shows a version of the super group working together in a way that never actually happens in the film, either has footage not in the final cut or, I suspect, has been cut in a very clever way into fooling the viewer into thinking something else is going on. Either way... you won’t be seeing a fully functional, working team as you do in this version of the movie until their serendipitous final fight at the finale (of sorts).

Which is another problem I had with this movie... even though the final battle (as it turns out) is our first chance to see the team in action together... that’s a bit of a mistake, I think. The special effects and action was handled well enough but the sheer lack of action when the film has been hurtling at a fair momentum to get to these kinds of scenes tempers the movie a little and leads directly into my third and final problem with the film... and I think this is where a lot of the audience probably lost it a bit...

The epilogue to the movie, with the Fantastic Four setting up as their own, government funded super group is... well it’s really badly written. There’s a scene right at the end where they are trying to think of a name to call themselves and I’m guessing the collective audience are thinking exactly what I was thinking... “No... they’re not going to do this like this. Please don’t say the lines I dread are coming. Please don’t do it like this, it’s such a terrible way of doing it in a contemporary movie it’s going to come off as really silly... this is just the worst.” And then... yeah they do it and that’s the punchline leading into the credits roll... I think this must have been the main reason why members of the audience were shouting out that the movie was “rubbish” when they left the screening I saw and, really, I can’t blame them, to be honest.

Not me though because, in spite of these problems, there’s a lot to admire in this movie too. It’s fairly solid apart from scenes like that at the end which, one might suspect, were reshoots with another director anyway (possibly... don’t think we’ll find out conclusively for or against that hypothesis with any honesty for a while yet... I don’t trust big corporations to tell the truth). One of the key things which stopped me losing my rag with the movie and sit up and take notice is that, while it changes everything, the key values of the original comic book... the sense of family and the idea that a group of heroes working together can defeat something they can’t tackle on thier own (something which was no doubt inspired by the Justice Society Of America from the DC comics of the 1940s and their 1960s and onwards counterparts, The Justice League Of America) is something that Fantastic Four comics always took the opportunity to preach to the fan base and, whether you personally embrace those values or not (I don’t really, most of the time), it’s a relatively good set of values to have at some levels and that spirit is definitely in this movie in spades.

Another great thing about this is the music. Now it’s co-composed by Marco Beltrami and one of my favourite composers, the genius concert hall minimalist Philip Glass. However, I’d really like to know the story behind the scenes here because Glass doesn’t work on these kinds of movies, rarely lets his music be timed to a scene in the traditional way most composers have to work (the directors have to cut their scenes to fit his music, not the other way around) and... I just don’t know how he became embroiled in this. What I suspect is he maybe composed a few pieces and Beltrami took them and extrapolated parts to use to build some of the other pieces in the film... my understanding is that Glass himself wasn’t present at the recording sessions which suggests, to me at least, he had a bad experience here and washed his hands of the film as much as he could. That being said, it’s a really strong score and Beltrami and Glass both do a wonderful job on it. It seems a bit ‘dialled down’ in the movie against the sound effects and I felt it a shame that in a sequence where Sue Storm explains the nature of music to Reed Richards, it’s left unscored... but the soundtrack album to this one is awesome and it’ll be on lots of repeat spins on my CD player, I can tell you that much. My copy turned up before I saw the film and I was grooving to it before I got to see the visuals it supported. I doubt if we’ll see Glass come back for any sequels though.... if, indeed, any sequels get to be be made.

And that’s my take on the new Fantastic 4 movie pretty much done. Has it got problems... oh yeah. Do these problems stop it from being an enjoyable movie experience? No, it’s mostly pretty good, well acted, brilliantly scored and, despite some awful scripting in certain scenes (especially the end one), I’d have to say I enjoyed it a hell of a lot more than, say, the last 20th Century Fox superhero movie I saw, X-Men: Days Of Future Past (reviewed here). It’s not the exactly the best superhero movie ever made and, while I can’t claim I had a completely fantastic time with it, I certainly was kept entertained for the length of the running time. Maybe not one for big fans of the comic book characters to go see but certainly, if you’re into your superhero movies, this one doesn’t fail so hard as people seem to be saying it does. Give it a look sometime, maybe.

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