Before the multicultural X-Men and the superhero supergroup Avengers there were the Fantastic Four, the brainiacs of the Marvel universe. Their leader Reed Richards, played by Miles Teller (Whiplash), is imagined here as a high-school science nerd who’s never heard of Portishead, can’t do fist-bumps and forgoes alcohol. “Ethanol kills brain cells”, he says to fellow-scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) when he offers him and colleague Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) a swig from his hip flask – by the next scene Reed’s shitfaced.
We can forgive him for celebrating: he and his fellow boffins, including Sue Storm (Kate Mara), Johnny’s adopted sister and the girl Reed and Victor pine after, have just cracked inter-dimensional travel. Unfortunately, the booze goes to their heads, and the three drunk scientists, along with Reed’s oldest buddy Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), decide to test-ride their teleporter before some NASA astronauts get the honour of being the first humans to enter the fourth dimension.
As fans of the comics and those subjected to the 2005 film will know, their trip doesn’t go well. A mysterious energy source in this new world turns Reed stretchy, Johnny fiery, Ben stony and Victor, well, we’re not sure the filmmakers have decided what Victor’s powers are yet. We’ll go with Scanners-y, as the clearest demonstration of his abilities comes in a horror-tinged section of the movie in which he wanders down a series of poorly-lit corridors making anonymous military types brains explode out the back of their heads.
What of token woman Sue Storm, I hear you ask? Despite being an integral part in creating the teleportation device, the boys don’t think to invite her on its inaugural run, and this metaphorical invisible woman is soon turned into a literal one by the energy blast caused when the craft returns to the lab. (She also has the ability to glide through the air in a bubble that kind of makes her look like a flying hamster.)
All this science whizzkid hijinks is marshalled by whizzkid director Josh Trank, who must have some affinity with his characters. Reed is handed his multi-million dollar transportation project after he creates a home-made teleportation device out of household appliances for science class. Trank, meanwhile, was handed the keys to Marvel’s oldest comicbook team after his lo-fi superhero movie Chronicle, made for just $12 million, became a cult smash. And, like Reed, Trank's multi-million dollar project goes off the rails.
Which is a shame, because it all starts reasonably well. Teller charms as the socially awkward genius with a reckless streak, while Kebbell brings more complexity than you'd expect to a character named Victor von Doom. But both disappear (Kebbell literally, with his face obscured by an inexpressive mask) in a cloud of exposition and CGI confusion following their out-of-this-world trip.
Despite having ten times the budget of Chronicle, Fantastic Four’s cinematic universe rarely convinces, with the green screen new dimension only a small step up from the flat CGI vistas of 90s kids’ TV show Knightmare. More disappointing is the lack of visual invention. With Chronicle, Trank made both the found-footage genre and the superhero movie feel zesty and fresh. The biggest letdown here is that Fantastic Four, despite being under the wing of a different studio, borrows a similarly bland style to the Marvel movies churned out by Disney.
But maybe Trank shouldn’t shoulder all the blame. This is a film that’s been shredded to near-incoherence in the editing room, with a finale that’s over before it’s barely begun. In the movie, the money-grabbing adults who try to take control of the project eventually get out of the way and let these four talented kids save the day. It’s a shame the producers of Fantastic Four didn’t have similar trust in their talented young director.