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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Fantastic Four/FANT4STIC, Review: High on Fantasy, Low on Score

Fantastic Four/FANT4STIC, Review: High on Fantasy, Low on Score

Fourth outing for Marvel’s Fantastic 4 has a thinly spread plot and is further handicapped by lack-lustre performances. While a sequel is already in the offing, the 2015 prequel to the sci-fi series that was first adapted to the screen in 1994 seems to offer little raison d’être for it. Ten years ago, the first to be released theatre version, called Fantastic 4, was critically panned, though successful at the box-office. It was directed by Tim Story, and written by Michael France and Mark Frost. Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, 2007, featuring the same 2005 lead actors, got a better critical reception and made fair collections. Again directed by Tim Story, it was written by Don Payne, John Turman and the ‘carried over’ Mark Frost. It took eight long years to witness the arrival of the prequel, which incorporates more differences from, than similarities with, the first three forays. There are new writers, a new director, and all new cast. Rated below par by most critics and scoring low on ticket collections wherever it has been released so far, Fantastic 4 just about fails to make the grade, depending, in the end, on benefit of doubt, as in cricket umpiring.

School friends Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) have worked together on a prototype tele-porter since childhood, in Ben’s family junkyard, eventually attracting the attention of black Professor Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), director of the Baxter Foundation, a government-sponsored research institute for young prodigies. Reed is recruited to join them, and aid Storm's other prodigies, scientist Sue Storm (Kate Mara) and the somewhat reckless technician, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), both being Franklin’s children, into completing a Quantum Gate, designed by Storm's psychotic and cynical protégé, Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell; Doctor Doom is the Fantastic 4’s principal comic book villain; real name Victor Domashev; in the comics, the character is the leader of a country called Latveria), who grudgingly agrees to help, partly out of his (one-sided) feelings for Sue. Victor had earlier designed a Quantum gate that could transport things to another dimension, but could not bring them back. Moreover, the experiment had caused an explosion that took Sue’s father (Storm’s best friend)’s life, after which he adopted her. Reed’s model succeeds on both counts--sending and bringing back objects like toy planes and cars. Baxter now wants to extend Reed’s model’s functionality by transporting humans to the other dimension, studying it, and coming back with knowledge about energy sources that could save the earth.

The experiment is successful, and the facility's supervisor, Dr. Allen (Tim Blake Nelson), plans to send a group from NASA to venture into the parallel dimension, known as Planet Zero. Disappointed at being denied the chance go for the expedition themselves, Reed, Johnny, and Victor, along with Ben, use the Quantum Gate to embark on an unsanctioned voyage to Planet Zero. There, they discover a world with a bizarre landscape. Victor attempts to touch the green-lava like substance which glides along the ground, causing the surface to collapse, and the ground to erupt. Reed, Johnny, and Ben return to their shuttle just as Sue brings them back to Earth. Victor is left behind after he falls into the collapsing landscape.

The machine explodes on arrival, altering Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben on a molecular-genetic level, suffusing them with super-human powers, and abilities beyond their control: Reed can stretch like rubber, Sue can become invisible and generate force fields of energy, Johnny can engulf his entire body in flames and fly, and Ben becomes bigger and develops a rock-like skin, which gives him the strength of a huge boulder. But they find themselves placed in government custody and confinement, not in an attempt to bring them back to normal, but to be studied and exploited. Blaming himself for the whole episode, Reed escapes from the facility, and plans to rescue the others, most of all, his pal Ben, whom he literally dragged to come on the trip.

Jeremy Slater (Tape 4, My Spy) was commissioned to write the script in 2012, and then Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) came aboard, the next year. It is quite likely that the two drafts were not well collated by the director, who, to add to the confusion, has reportedly claimed in the media that his version was significantly altered by 20th Century Fox before release. A lot of time is spent on the back-story, which is undeniably a tribute to Tomorrowland, and establishing characters, most of them either uni-dimensional or melodramatic, or both. Doom’s crush on Sue is hardly motivation enough to bring him back on the project, and his later motivation for sliding into decimating villainy is flimsy.

A black man with a heart of gold, his son who is a rebellious car souper-hero and the late colleague’s daughter whom he adopts—all come across as card-board cut-outs. Stereo-types abound, like Ben’s abusive step-father and the ultra-nationalist NASA supervisor. Wannabe super-heroes wanting glory for themselves, as designers of the programme, having learnt from history that credit goes to astronauts, not designers, is too vain a concept to deserve sympathy. The repeated sarcastic remarks about the earlier generation having ruined our planet and the hope that the present lot will save it would have sounded laudable had they not been inserted in such a contrived manner. On the positive side, the absence of life on Planet Zero is a smart idea-- setting a thief to catch a thief, as in Sue tracking down escapee, runaway Reed, using Reed’s inspiration Captain Nemo as a peg; Sue’s own specialisation in using music as a means of studying personalities and predicting behaviour--are parts well-written. The references to Kosovo and East European accents are witty.

Directed Josh Trank debuted with a super-hero film, Chronicle. Before that, he edited Big Fan. Trank had said before its release that Fantastic Four is heavily influenced by David Cronenberg, that 1981's Scanners and 1986's The Fly influenced the look of the film, and that its overall tone would feel like “Steven Spielberg meets Tim Burton”. Looking at it as a stand-alone property, we find a tale of squandered opportunities, and very little of Spielberg, Cronenberg or Burton. Casting is not the best we would expect, and the special effects, though seamless, get repetitive. The back-story is confined to Reed and Ben, by-passing equally, if not more, interesting characters like Sue and Victor. We do sympathise with the later plight of the hapless victim, Ben ‘The Thing’, which itself is surprising because he is such a big hulk. Take a closer look, and you’ll see him as a grouse and a wimp! The only time the four get into battle together is when they are forced to pit their wit against the mechanised, altered, invincible personality of Doom. Sadly, by then it is time for the credit titles to roll. Playing with the audience, Trank does not use the words ‘Fantastic Four’ in the film even once, not even in the last shot. Instead, he brings in the title of the film as….

Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole, Spectacular Now, Divergent, Whiplash), who fitted so well into his Whiplash role, is all at sea here. Speech (sore throaty), eyes (lost, dopey), look (faraway) and interest (disinterest)—all are suspect. Michael Bakari Jordan (Fruitvale Station, Red Tails, Chronicle, worked with Teller in That Awkward Moment) walks into, or rather flies into, a stereo-type, without distinguishing himself. Seen in Brokeback Mountain, Transcendence, House of Cards, Kate Mara underplays and deadpans most moments. It is in the ‘music moments’ that she impresses. You see very little of Jamie Bell (Jane Eyre, Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn, Man on a Ledge). As the young Ben, Evan Hannemann does well, as does his partner, Owen Judge (Young Reed). Poorly etched, Doom remains an enigma, so does Tobey Kebbell (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). Reg E. Cathey (Born on the Fourth of July, Arbitrage, The Mask, Clear and Present Danger, The Machinist) is known for his gravelly voice. Notwithstanding that fact, he could easily be replaced by any black actor in his 50s or 60s without making any difference to the proceedings.

Fantastic Four is high on fantasy, but low on score.

Rating: **1/2



Fantastic Four movie, produced by Roger Corman and directed by Oley Sassone, was made in 1994, at a cost of $1.5 million and shot in three weeks. It was junked and never released, for a host of reasons, including allegations that the quality was really bad.

Here’s the synopsis of the 21 year-old effort:

The film begins with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) as close university colleagues who decide to use the opportunity of a passing comet to try an experiment. However, the experiment goes wrong, leaving Victor horribly scarred. Sue and Johnny Storm are two children living with their mother, who runs a boarding house, where Reed lives. Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) is a family friend and college buddy of Reed's. The film then fast forwards to the present (early 1990s) where Reed, Sue (Rebecca Staab), Johnny (Jay Underwood), and Ben are planning a mission to space, as once again the same comet would pass by the Earth, as it did before when Reed was in college. Running late to meet the others, Ben crosses paths with the artist Alicia Masters (Kat Green), a blind sculptor who quickly begins to develop feelings for the strong yet kind-hearted Ben. Reed dedicates this mission to his friend Victor, believing he had died years before. The team go up in an experimental space craft, only to be hit by cosmic rays from passing comet, due to their ship having been intentionally sabotaged--the giant diamond Reed planned to use to collect the cosmic rays having been replaced with a replica.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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