So the story goes, when the first atomic bomb was being tested out there in the New Mexico desert, no one was sure that that chain reaction that started with detonation would end with the explosion. There was, in other words, a chance that the reaction would continue until our planet was a burned out cinder. Well, that would be a different way of ending World War II, but not the one either the scientists or the military or the politicians had in mind. I was put in mind of that story while watching the latest incarnation of Marvel Comics FANTASTIC FOUR, an ambitious film that intended to be more than just another comic book flick, but didn’t succeed.
It is an origin story, and one that pushes the ages of the Fab Four back into late adolescence, a move that is less about appealing to the teeny boppers out there than it is about exploring that unbridled enthusiasm and impatience that is inherent in that age group. A state of mind that dares much, but that rarely looks farther than reaching a goal, and almost never ponders the long term consequences of an action. In this case a matter transporter that Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has been tinkering at since the fifth grade. He has almost mastered the process with the technical help of his best friend, Ben Grimm (Jaime Bell) when a mysterious duo, Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Chathey) and his daughter, Susan (Kate Mara), appear at his high school science fair and offers him a chance to perfect the invention. They also drop the bombshell that he hasn’t been sending things to other places on Earth, but rather sending them into another dimension. In short order, Reed is ensconced in the Baxter Institute, one of those convenient places where uber-geniuses can congregate, where, under Dr. Storm’s mentorship, he joins a host of other whiz-kids who are hoping to save the world with this discovery of an energy-rich dimension.
He’s eventually joined by Dr. Storm’s son, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a hot-head with a penchant for building fast cars, and Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebell), who ten years earlier, in his whiz-kid phase, had started working on the inter-dimensional portal before being dismissed for bad behavior. Dr. Storm is determined to give him a second chance, and despite the friction with Reed over the science and Sue, they succeed beyond their wildest dreams. And then the dream becomes a nightmare.
The first part of the film follows the conceits of a gothic horror film, and considering the disturbing transformations these kids experience, it was a clever choice. There is the classic trope of good intentions running afoul of hubris, as the inventors of the portal want the glory of making the first human trip there for themselves, instead of allowing the military that honor. When they get there, there is the adrenalin rush of wonder, and then, as they plant the American flag, the ground splits and they bring the disaster of the alien dimension’s glowing green energy crashing in one themselves. Note: anytime there is a something glowing green, it never bodes well.
Once the swipe has been taken at the military-industrial complex with the takeover of the portal and the weaponizing of the newly minted Thing, The Human Torch, and The Invisible Girl, the film becomes another typical CGI extravaganza, albeit very good CGI, with Susan bobbing around in a force field bubble like Glinda the Good Witch of the East, and Johnny rippling with a startlingly active halo of flames. Alas, the conceits of the horror genre are still in effect, turning what had been atmospheric into dull pacing that is the kiss of death for an action flick. And this is a shame because the actors are capable of carrying a film that is character rather than effects driven. Teller in particular has that shaggy confidence born of being the smartest guy in the room that in a less careful actor would come across as arrogance. Bell, buried beneath layers of CGI rock at The Thing nevertheless finds an emotional resonance to that creature’s sorrow at being betrayed by his best friend, as well as being transmuted into a monster, even as he is yelling about it being clobbering time.
Rumor has it that there was a different cut of FANTASTIC FOUR, perhaps one that maintains the moody and melancholy exploration of surrendering one’s ideals and accepting the changes that come from youthful idealism dealing with the compromises that come with adulthood. The trick, that is, of not becoming a monster while making peace with those compromises. This film ain’t it, but kudos for trying.