I'll admit it. About an hour into "Fantastic Four," the inexplicably plodding and dreary new attempt to adapt the beloved Marvel story, I started thinking about Ethan Hunt from "Mission: Impossible."
Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, as I watched these fake young superheroes battle unconvincingly on a fake-looking planet for a reason nobody seemed to care much about anyway, to see Ethan swoop in — a real middle-aged guy hanging off a real plane by his bare knuckles, with a clear and immediate purpose and a real, throbbing pulse?
OK, enough wistfulness. "Fantastic Four," directed by Josh Trank, deserves to be judged on its own merits. So here goes: It's not wholesale terrible — just depressingly mediocre, and at a certain point you sort of start wishing it WERE definitively terrible, because that would at least make it more entertaining or give it a certain strange raison d'etre. (Let's amend that slightly: the final scene IS terrible. But we'll get to that.)
It's not that the raw materials aren't there. Aside from the known story — in a few words, science-loving humans experience a cosmic accident while exploring inter-dimensional travel and emerge with formidable superpowers — we have some talented actors on hand. They include the usually very compelling Miles Teller and Michael B. Jordan, along with Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Reg E. Cathey ("The Wire") and an expertly creepy Tim Blake Nelson.
It all begins promisingly, with a setup that introduces Reed Richards and Ben Grimm as fifth-graders on Long Island. Reed is a bespectacled science nerd; he tells his class his life goal is "to be the first person in human history to teleport myself." The unimpressed teacher directs Reed to come back with a more realistic goal.
But the precocious lad has already developed a mini-version of said teleporter. Years later, Reed (now Teller) is back with his invention at the high school science fair. Here, he and Ben meet Dr. Franklin Storm (Cathey) and daughter Sue (Mara), who realize what Reed has — a better teleporter than their own. Storm gives Reed a scholarship at his science institute to pursue his dream.
There, Reed meets Storm's son Johnny (Jordan), a reluctant scientist but expert builder, and the disaffected but talented young scientist Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Soon, they're a team. And eventually, the full-blown teleporter is ready. One night, the youngsters get tipsy and decide to take a test spin.
Oops! They end up on Planet Zero, aka the other dimension, but we'll just call it Planet-Very-Bad-CGI. (Are these really the best special effects money can buy? And here's another question: If the other dimension is so, um, one-dimensional, why do we want to get there so badly?) The idea is just to plant a flag, but Reed's curiosity leads him close to a mysterious energy force, and havoc ensues. When the group returns, they're forever changed.
The best scene is where everyone discovers their new forms. Reed (Mister Fantastic) has limbs that stretch indefinitely. Johnny (Human Torch) is a blaze of flames. Sue (Invisible Woman) can disappear. Poor Ben (The Thing), is unrecognizable, a powerful mass of rocks.
If you know the story, created more than a half-century ago by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, you know that the four must fight their erstwhile colleague, now Dr. Doom, to save Earth. The fight is energetic but feels rather perfunctory. And then there's the final scene, where the team stands together, and the dialogue suddenly becomes so silly, people erupted in laughter at my screening.
This movie isn't the first attempt to make this story into a profitable franchise. Previous efforts failed, and the thought here must have been to re-energize things with a young and appealing cast. But these actors — unlike, say, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone in the recent "Spider-Man" films — are not well used, and their charisma remains largely untapped.
The result? Something much less than fantastic.
"Fantastic Four," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America "for sci-fi action violence, and language." Running time: 100 minutes. One star out of four.
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