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Fantastic Four review: Incomplete but Still a Little Charming

Friday, August 07, 2015 Rob Samuelson

Fantastic Four

Jack Kirby, I am not.

Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank

Starring: Miles Teller, Michael B. Jordan, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell
Rating: Three stars out of five.
Available now in theaters.

Fantastic Four is like a batch of cookie dough. You look at it, you see the shape of what it could be, the rough outline of a snack that will make your day. It tastes fine, maybe even pretty good if you're willing to forgive the chewiness. It's all right, but it's not cookies.

The double-edged sword of the movie is its running time. At an even 100 minutes, it scoots along at a pace not often seen in recent superhero films, which routinely run well over two hours. It is almost cruel in how surgical it is about what to leave on the screen. It results in a lean picture, but one that gives it a halfway finished quality. 

Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) are grade school friends with a penchant for science. Or rather, Reed is a genius who inadvertently discovers inter-dimensional travel and Ben is his buddy whose family owns a junkyard that supplies raw materials for his experimental machines. Ben's more of a mascot for Reed than anything. The Storm siblings also suffer from golden child-itis. Sue (Kate Mara) is the adopted daughter of a scientific genius, an eager-to-please workaholic who is very good at pattern recognition because the plot requires it. Her brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), is the rebel, always racing (and crashing) his cars, ignoring the genes that make him the ideal engineer. 

There is a great amount of storytelling economy in how these character traits are doled out, at least at the beginning. Fantastic Four sets things in motion in a handsome way, with crane shots and a sense of wonder of the unknown and seemingly impossible. There is an unmistakable Steven Spielberg bent to the early scenes, with a nighttime crane shot at Ben's junkyard indebted to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The story's goal of exploring this uncharted other dimension has the pure idealism of Star Trek, and the consequences suffered for that idealism bring to mind John Carpenter's The Thing, and not because the big orange guy has the same name. The chief concern on the film's mind is flying too close to the sun, with a literal sequence of drunkenness teaming with ambition and a greedy desire for knowledge. It subverts that Star Trek do-gooder feeling with a warning for cautiousness. Observe, dissect, report. Don't jump in by the seat of your pants.

The actors put in sly and effective work in those opening scenes, too. Sideways glances hint at interior pain, or pride, or delusion. There is little literal vocalization of who these characters are in the early going. Their actions and attitudes drive them more often than the plot, although the commercial needs sometimes get put first, too. Reed is so focused on the ways he will "make a difference" with his work that he cannot see how left out Ben feels. Ben's lack of book smarts feed his desire to be wiser, more restrained, than his eager friend, although the movie does not mine this particular notion for all it's worth. Sue doesn't understand how she has replaced Johnny in their father's eyes by bending to his whims. Johnny wants to be his own person, but he's dragged into his dad's world because his talents leave him with little other choice. It's lightly rendered and does not achieve full impact, but this thematic stuff is there and it is relatively effective.

The thing is, Fantastic Four gets through the character setup and powers-bestowing/cursing sequence, then slams the pedal down until its completion. The second half of the movie feels like a plot synopsis rather than a full story, all, "this happened, then this happened, then this happened, the end." It skips ahead a year, past the trials of the newly powered members of the would-be team. They have learned how to use their abilities for military gain and/or resigned themselves to their fates. The movie does not give us the emotional journey of learning to deal with these problems, the isolation these characters feel as they are experimented on and used for combat missions with an unmeant promise that it's all for them to earn a cure from these freakish abilities. Their problems with each other and their anxieties about themselves melt away as they must face a threat of existential, multi-dimensional consequence. Whereas in the beginning sections of the movie, the script, direction, and acting combined to form a minor success of thematic transportation, the action-y latter part turns the dialogue into an exposition festival. Reed explains what is happening onscreen at every moment of the climax, when the audience is already primed on what will happen if they fail, based on talk of black holes earlier. And once the threat is handled, in somewhat underwhelming "we're stronger together than we are alone" fashion, it lurches toward an ending that feels more tacked on than organic.

There is a sense of rushing to Fantastic Four that cannot be overcome. It chops off a good portion of what it does right to get to a special effects-laden sequence that is out of director Josh Trank's element at this point in his career -- he had only made the found-footage superpower movie Chronicle before this. Parts of the trailer never made it to the finished product. These were fully finished pieces of CGI filmmaking, so there is more to this movie than the studio felt comfortable showing, whether due to perceived poor quality or something else. There is hope for a more complete version of Fantastic Four, but as currently constructed, it is empty and slightly lumpy. It cannot reach full cookie status.

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