There are exactly three segments of the new Fantastic Four film that actually work. The first: ten minutes showcasing the rise of child genius Reed Richards from the ramshackle of his parents’ garage to the not-so-bright lights of a local science fair, to the actual bright lights of a prestigious science foundation. The second: a mid-movie drinking excursion between Richards and his new pals Johnny Storm and Victor Von Doom in the bowels of said foundation. The three of them wax poetic on the spoils of those who walked on the moon, lamenting the fact that the true geniuses behind that achievement went unheralded while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldren became stupidly famous. You see, this is relevant because they’ve just created a portal to another dimension, but are in danger of being usurped for the historic trip by government lackeys. The third: a creepy introduction to Von Doom’s mutated self after he returns from said dimension, melted skin coursing with unpleasant unknowables, eyes devoid of humanity.
The rest is a disjointed amalgamation of phony family dynamics, underdeveloped friendships, and science fiction curios that rely on too many tropes and too little wit to earn any sort of sensible care in the world. There was obviously effort here to approximate character development, but it’s lost in a script that has no interest in making you laugh, cry, or cheer. Then again, “Flame on!” and “It’s clobberin’ time!” rear their heads as if to plead with the audience to engage in one of those. It’s difficult to tell whether the bad decisions here are a result of a director in over his head, or the result of direct studio interference. Trade stories have suggested FOX took control from director Josh Trank in the cutting room, forcing re-shoots and re-jiggering a large portion of the movie. Whether those stories are true is impossible to know, but here’s one thing I do know…you can tell which scenes were re-shot by looking at Kate Mara’s hair. When it’s a decent dye-job and flowing, that’s all principle photography. When it’s banana yellow and stiff as a wig, because it is, that’s all re-shoots months after the original production, hence the need for a wig. Watching so many scenes with that hideous thing, you begin to believe the trade stories. What else besides behind-the-scenes chaos would cause a team to accept such a travesty of visual buffoonery? It’s symptomatic of desperation, a feeling that permeates the whole picture. It’s a shame, considering the cast at hand. Miles Teller is a great actor, but between this and March’s Insurgent he’s been a part of two of the worst movies this year. Kate Mara and Toby Kebbell have impressed in Netflix’s House of Cards and last summer’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but they’re reduced here to rote exposition and sparse character beats. Michael B. Jordan, so captivating in Fruitvale Station, is utterly unconvincing as a cocky hothead, and Tim Blake Nelson is inexplicably omnipresent as a dullard of a government operative, apparently milking his paycheck for all its worth. The only actor who scrapes by is Reg E. Cathey as Franklin Storm, father to Johnny and adopted dad of Sue, somehow registering gravitas amid all of the humorless interplay masquerading as drama.
I don’t mind the stubborn refusal to revel in the Fantastic Four’s comic-book sensibilities, at least for half of the movie. Indeed, it only gets worse when Trank (or the studio, or the ghost-director) decides it’s a comic-book movie after all, particularly in the third act, a never-ending fifteen minutes that are so eye-rollingly awful I had to close my eyes. The climax finally throws some crazy inter-dimensional action at us, but it’s too late, too conventional, and littered with some of the silliest dialogue you’ll hear this summer. From swelling Beltrami beats to dramatic slow-motion stand-ups, signaling the start of a heroic comeback, it’s like the entire ending was an attempt to turn a dark drama into an uplifting actioner. Take the closing coda, where the Fantastic Four snark about their inevitable name, as if the audience is going to laugh with them after such morose beginnings. Instead, we laugh at them. And then, there’s that wig again. Yes, that’s right, according to Kate Mara’s hair, the entire third act was the result of re-shoots. Yeah…I think that sums it up. It’s still early, but it’s going to be hard to beat Fantastic Four as the worst movie of 2015.