In the history of cinema, there are actually quite a few films, by both great filmmakers and not-so-great ones, that have gone unfinished for one reason or another. Orson Welles, famously, was nearly done with The Other Side of the Wind when the money ran out; Stanley Kubrick had done all the prep work for an epic about Napoleon Bonaparte but never actually got to make it; Terry Gilliam has had such trouble getting his Don Quixote project done that there’s actually a documentary made about it. I bring these up because, generally, unfinished films either don’t get released or they get finished by someone else if they have to be released. 20th Century Fox’s Fantastic Four is somehow both completely unfinished and yet still deemed suitable for people to see.
Directed by Chronicle‘s Josh Trank, Fantastic Four seemed like, from the outset, something of a high-concept oddity. It was taking a lot of liberties on the first superhero team created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for what is now the juggernaut of Marvel Comics. The four, generally recognized as adults in the comics, were being played by a cast of young actors (playing even younger in the film). Instead of going into space and getting bombarded by cosmic rays, the film was adopting the Ultimate universe continuity where they travel to another dimension and get blasted with some weird power. These were risks but they were clearly a concept Trank was passionate about.
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has always been something of an odd duck. As a fifth-grader, he began work on a teleportation device that blows out the power grid in his neighborhood. After years of hard work and the help of his wrong-side-of-the-tracks best friend, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Richards has perfected not only teleporting matter across space and time, but also bringing something back. While his science teacher gives him a failing grade, he catches the eye of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his brilliant adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). They represent some school for bright youngsters and they immediately put Richards to work creating a full-scale version in order to travel to another dimension. Richards wasn’t the first budding, young scientist to pursue this project, though; it was first begun by the government-hating recluse Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell) who nevertheless has been convinced to help.
Meanwhile, Storm’s son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) is squandering his potential by street racing and he’s forced to join the project by his father after a race goes awry. Thankfully, Johnny is something of a mechanical whiz kid, so he fits right in. After a montage, it’s time to send a chimp to another dimension, which succeeds. But after finding out the government, represented by Tim Blake Nelson, wants to farm the project out to NASA, a tipsy Reed, Johnny, Victor, and Reed’s old pal Ben decide to go to the other dimension themselves. As you might imagine, this doesn’t end well for any of them, or for Sue who has shown up in the lab back on Earth to try to bring them back. They’re all bestowed with incredible and rather terrifying new abilities, but none more so than Victor — but he’s barely in the movie so I won’t talk about him.
That’s essentially the main problem with Fantastic Four. The first act, despite a fair amount of hokey dialogue and ham-handed references to the comic book (very out of place in a “serious” adaptation), does a good job of setting everybody up and the experiment. It doesn’t matter too much that the characters are so much younger than their comic book counterparts and the cast all does a good job…for the first part. The movie has huge jumps in time for, as far as I can tell, the sole purpose of shortening and truncating the action. There’s barely a second act at all; what would be some rather interesting character development and action beats have been reduced to only seeing video of it during a presentation.
And then we’re left with a very lengthy first act, no second act of which to speak, and a rushed and incredibly unearned third act where our heroes have to band together using their new powers. But, to our eyes, they’ve barely gotten to use their powers in the first place. The stakes for why they need to defeat Doctor Doom (I mean, come on, you know he’s the bad guy with a name like that) are immediately gargantuan and seem antithetical to what’s been going on up to that point. You’ll notice, most of the trailer bits you’ve seen have been from the time before the characters become superheroes; this is because that’s the only part of the movie that even remotely works.
When’s the last time a big superhero movie by a major studio, especially a rebooted origin story, came in under 2 hours? Ant-Man was 1 hour and 57 minutes, but that was also the eleventh film in a franchise. Fantastic Four is an anemic 100 minutes and the story suffers for it. There were reports that the film was being edited frantically up until this week; I have to wonder how bad the rest of the movie was if Fox felt like less was more to this high of a degree. I wasn’t clocking it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a whole hour until they get their powers and then only 40 minutes for the rest of the film. It feels THAT lopsided.
Which is a shame, because I was enjoying myself up to that point a whole lot more than I thought I was going to. It’s rare that you watch a movie and still feel like you haven’t seen that movie. There’s a lost Fantastic Four somewhere on the cutting room floor I’d like to see. I’m not saying it would be good, but at least it would be a full film.
Rating: 2 out of 5 Cut-to-Ribbons Burritos (made up of 3/4 of a burrito and then random bits of the rest)
If you want to learn more about the Fantastic Four’s comic book origins (hint: it started on a golf course), then watch this episode of The Dan Cave: