Twentieth Century Fox has had two opportunities to get Marvel’s “Fantastic Four” right (three, if you count the studio’s “Rise of the Silver Surfer” sequel to its 2005 attempt to get a franchise going as a separate failure, rather than as salt in the original wound). With a shiny new reboot that renders the comic book superheroes’ origin story as a tale of barely post-pubescent nerds who have acquired frightening powers that, like cystic acne, they are at a loss to handle, the studio seems to be making a bid for an audience too young to remember anything about the earlier flop.
In other words, for some viewers, “Fantastic Four” will be the first experience of heartbreak. For me, it is merely one more in a chain of disappointments.
The new film introduces us to the main character, Reed Richards, while he’s still in high school. (In the comic books, the character has graying hair; in the earlier films, Ioan Gruffudd played him in his 30s.) As rendered by a bespectacled Miles Teller, this Reed is a socially awkward science geek barely out of short pants: less father figure than pimply faced Poindexter. Teller is joined by Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell as the other members of the titular quartet, who — after traveling in a homemade teleportation device to another dimension, where they are irradiated by something that looks like green lava — get transformed into the characters we all know.
Reed becomes Mister Fantastic, who can stretch and shape-shift. Mara’s Sue Storm turns into the Invisible Woman, whose powers include the generation of force fields. Her brother Johnny (Jordan) acquires the ability to burst into flames and fly, adopting the moniker the Human Torch. And Bell, as Ben Grimm, transmogrifies into a human-shaped pile of rubble that would put the Rock to shame. He’s known as the Thing.
Unfortunately, it takes an entire movie’s worth of agonizingly slow exposition just to get to the point described in the last paragraph. Much of “Fantastic Four” consists of sullen teenagers bickering and staring at computer screens. I thought that’s what people went to the movies to get away from.
What’s most galling, especially for an action film, is that there’s precious little action here. The special effects look cheap, the acting is wooden, and the shouted dialogue consists largely of throwaway action-movie cliches (“Let’s do this”) and B-movie sci-fi jargon (“His bioenergy is off the charts!”).
This is a step backward, in more ways than one, for the franchise.
Director Josh Trank displays none of the lo-fi verve he wowed audiences with in “Chronicle,” his 2012 “found-footage” debut about a bunch of teens who also found themselves suddenly possessing strange powers after an encounter with a device from another world. Jordan starred in that film; here, he is hidden inside a CGI ball of fire for much of his performance. But Bell is even more to be pitied, providing little more than a computer-altered voice for the Thing.
As villain Victor Von Doom, Toby Kebbell is given what is perhaps the most thankless task, having to utter lines such as this, during the film’s climactic battle in a place called Planet Zero, without cracking up: “When your world is destroyed, and I’m all that is left, then that will be enough.” (It probably helps that his face — disfigured after he, too, is irradiated — makes him look like C-3PO’s evil twin. He has as much expressiveness as a member of the Blue Man Group, after Botox.)
But the most telling line is uttered by Reed, who expresses his dismay upon discovering that soulless bureaucrats have somehow rebuilt his beloved teleportation device while he was away: “You made it ugly,” he kvetches, in a sentiment that will no doubt be shared by those of us who wonder why it’s so darn hard to tell this story.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains coarse language and sci-fi action violence. 98 minutes.