Baby’s First The Thing

It may have had a rocky critical & commercial start when it first arrived in the 1980s, but at this point John Carpenter’s The Thing is a verified classic, one of the unassailable titans of the horror genre. Unlike how a lot of horror classics age into being so culturally familiar they’re no longer traumatizing, however, The Thing remains . . . inappropriate for most children. No matter how many times I watch that goopy-gory practical effects showcase, I’m always taken aback by how upsetting it is on almost a cellular level. The grotesque transformations its titular shape-shifting alien beast exhibits onscreen chill me to the marrow in my bones, even now that I know through repeat viewings what’s going to leap onto the screen and when. Of course, there are plenty of macabre children who love being exposed to those kinds of age-inappropriate nightmares long before they’re mature enough to fully appreciate them in context – the kind of kids who grow up to run amateur horror movie blogs. For most children, however, the cosmic grotesqueries of The Thing would be too much to stomach; they require a far more toned-down gateway into that particular end of horror fandom before graduating to the real Thing.

Our current Movie of the Month, the 2010 darky fairy tale Rare Exports, is the perfect school age primer for future The Thing fandom. Whereas John Carpenter’s 80s classic mines the history of monster movies past (using Howard Hawks’s The Thing from the Another World as an entry point) to catch its adult audience off guard with a false sense of familiarity, Rare Exports does the same with a well-worn subject that would be just as warmly familiar to children: the myth of Santa Claus. It doesn’t take much recontextualization to make a magical world-traveling demon who constantly monitors children’s naughty behavior (and penalizes them accordingly) into something unnatural & scary. Like the more recent Michael Dougherty horror-comedy Krampus, Rare Exports rolls back “the hoax of the Coca Cola Santa” to reveal that character’s more authentic, pagan roots in the Finnish folklore of Joulupukki. The way Joulupukki is depicted onscreen in Rare Exports as an unknowable, evolving creature entirely separate from its Santa Claus corollary is much more in line with the shape-shifting alien of The Thing than it is with the set-in-stone demonic image of Krampus. Both Rare Exports & The Thing allow your imagination run wild in determining their respective beasts’ true form, but only one of them takes the time to scar you for life with surgical & animal cruelty gore in the meantime. That’s the one you probably shouldn’t burden your children with.

It admittedly does feel a little odd to recommend Rare Exports as the child-friendly version of The Thing, since it’s the only film of the pair to feature full-frontal male nudity. A good bit of it too. Although Joulupukki never reveals his finalized form in the movie, his little helper elves are essentially scary shopping mall Santas who forgot to wear their uniforms to work, chasing down little children in the snow while entirely nude. There’s nothing sexual about this nudity. The image of naked old men is played purely for childhood terror the same way the goopy surgical monstrosities of The Thing are played for deep phycological discomfort in adults. Because Rare Exports is made with a European sensibility that’s much less squeamish about nudity than Americans are in general, it doesn’t interfere too much with the feeling that this was a horror movie made specifically for children. The only way the naked male bodies on display in Rare Exports really stood out to me was in emphasizing the masculine environment of the entire picture – wherein gruff working-class Finnish men wage war against a Christmas beast in the harsh frozen wilderness. Like in The Thing, no women appear onscreen in Rare Exports, so that both movies feel like they’re about male bonding & male distrust just as much as they’re about terrifying supernatural creatures.

I’m not a parent, so I can’t speak to how that (sexless) male nudity might have played for me if I were watching Rare Exports with my own child. I’d like to think I’d feel more comfortable exposing to them to those naked old men than to Carpenter’s hideous tentacle dogs, but who knows.

For more on November’s Movie of the Month, the 2010 dark fairy tale Rare Exports, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Belated 2015 NOFF Report

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The 26th Annual New Orleans Film Fest stretched across the city about a month ago & I’m finally getting around to submitting this better-late-than-never journal of my experience. My relationship with the festival is usually fairly removed, amounting to a single screening a year. It’s typically where I catch limited release indies that played months earlier in larger cities before they arrive at Netflix purgatory. It’s where I first saw the grossout romcom Wetlands, the grossout grossout Human Centipede 2, and the not-gross-at-all documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. This year, on the other hand, I was up close & personal with the festival. I’m currently working at a movie theater that serves as a NOFF venue, so the fest literally swirled around me on a daily basis during its run. I’d liken that experience to what it might be like if a small mom & pop record store were used as a venue for a large music festival one week out of the year. It’s pretty intense. More importantly, though, I actually exceeded my quota & got to see triple my usual amount of NOFF screenings this year. It’s far from what more dedicated attendees gobbled up while they had the chance, but I’m still proud of myself for making the effort. The three movies I saw have already been covered on the site, but here’s a quick report of how the screenings went.

The very first screening I caught was the Roy Ferdinand documentary Missing People at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s Howard Memorial Library. If you’ve never seen that space before, you should really check it out as soon as you get a chance. It’s a gorgeous room, one I’ve seen at various poetry readings & museum-curated events, but never fail to be impressed by. Watching a movie about fine (outsider) art in that context elevated the material a great deal, especially since the Ogden is one of the few venues in New Orleans that still displays Ferdinand’s work & is located mere blocks away from some of the film’s establishing shots. Also strengthening the atmosphere was a post-film Q&A featuring the documentary’s director David Shapiro, the owner of Barrister’s Art Gallery Andy Antippas, and the deceased Ferdinand’s surviving sisters. The director added some context of interest, especially in the details of his relationship with the film’s other subject, art collector & Ferdinand enthusiast Martina Batan. Shapiro had first met Batan when she collected a piece of his work & it took two full years of knowing her before she trusted him to film in her Brooklyn apartment. He also revealed that Batan’s real-life MRI scans were included in the film & that the word “missing” in the title was meant to be read as a verb & a noun. Ferdinand’s sisters were even more fascinating, though, however sad. They joked about Roy’s claim about being an OG in the film, but mostly they lamented that they never had a chance to collect their brother’s work (and had seen most of if for the first time while watching the film) and argued with Antippas about how Roy’s ashes (which they donated to Barrister’s) are currently displayed in a Voodoo alter instead of a Christian display. It was a little awkward, as was Antippas’ nitpicking of the film’s Batan-Ferdinand content balance, but it was also a fascinating, one-of-a-kind experience.

Just a couple hours after Missing People concluded, I zipped Uptown to catch a BYOB, midnight screening of John Carpenter’s The Thing at the Prytania Theatre. Although it technically wasn’t an official NOFF screening, it directly followed one & the crowd very much felt in the festival spirit. It was somehow my first time ever seeing The Thing, as I’ve mentioned before, and that communal, loopy, nearing-2am atmosphere was more or less the perfect introduction to the immortal creature feature. After watching the film a second time in dead-sober daylight, I’m perfectly willing to declare it a masterpiece & am proud to have it included in The Swampflix Canon. It only sweetens the deal that I pushed through after the Missing People screening (and a boozy intermission at The Kingpin) to catch it on the big screen.

The next NOFF screening I caught was the second & final showing of Driving While Black at the Theatres at Canal Place. The movie itself was hilarious & politically provocative, playing very well with a large crowd (as opposed to watching comedies in the silent room of at-home streaming). The post-screening Q&A with director Paul Sapiano, however, was more or less fruitless. The questions were less frequent, less enthusiastic, and less interesting than they were at the Missing People screening. This might’ve had something to do with Sapiano’s visible fatigue with self-promotion, which was gradually edging towards open hostility. There were some interesting revelations nonetheless, even if they were mere confirmations of things I had already assumed. For instance, he & the film’s lead actor Dominique Purdy started writing the film as a comedy, but it took a much darker turn from there in terms of tone. Also, Purdy improvised a lot of his own lines, while Sapiano was responsible for the majority of the racist cops’ dialogue. Makes sense to me. I also liked Sapiano’s confession that, “I get bored easily in movies, so I like to keep things moving,” when questioned about the movie’s pace. Otherwise, the screening was mostly significant due to the game-to-laugh audience & the accompaniment of a short film titled Traction, which more or less amounted to a 5min one-liner about mock outrage vs. true-life racism. I found myself wishing after the screening that Purdy were there to answer questions instead of Sapiano & I doubt the director himself would disagree with that sentiment. He seemed pretty exhausted with the process.

The third & final screening I caught this year was on the closing night of the festival. I made it out to Chalmette Movies for Goodnight Mommy, an Austrian art house horror film that I had been itching to see since Boomer reviewed it for the site. Because of that review’s warnings I spotted the film’s (admittedly overblown) plot twist long before its third act revelation, but I still wasn’t prepared for the gruesome violence ahead of me. For a film so crisp & so beautiful, it’s surprising how willing Goodnight Mommy is to devolve into schlocky brutality, setting its creepy children antagonists free to gruesomely torture a woman they believe is not their mother, but an imposter. As with Driving While Black, it was great to see the film with a full-capacity audience, as their discomfort (along with my own) with the film’s intense, intimate violence was very much audible. It was a great way to close out the fest for me, personally, because it took me back to the uncomfortable squriming of my past NOFF experiences with Wetlands & Human Centipede 2. I have no idea if I’ll be able to squeeze in as many screenings next year as I did this time, but I hope to have at least one of those uncomfortable group experiences again if possible. There’s an incredible sense of camaraderie that comes from surviving screenings like that as a group, especially when the audience is caught off-guard by what’s coming (let’s face it; film fest audiences can paradoxically be both stuffy & unassuming). Those are the experiences I live for & this year wouldn’t have felt complete without one, so it was a perfect note to end on.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing from Another World (1951)

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three star

In a lot of ways John Carpenter’s 1982 technical marvel of a creature feature The Thing is a one of a kind movie. If nothing else, the titular creature in the film presents itself in many uniquely complex-grotesque forms, each worthy of being preserved & displayed in a museum. As unique of a picture as it is, Carpenter’s The Thing is just one of several adaptations of the same novella, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. Three decades before Carpenter got his hands on the story, prolific Hollywood producer Howard Hawks had already loosely adapted the work in a film titled The Thing From Another World. Carpenter was undoubtedly a fan of this older incarnation, as he borrowed its title & the look of its title card, but the two films are fundamentally different in their approaches to telling Campbell’s space invasion story. While Carpenter’s The Thing dazzles viewers with complex, constantly evolving forms of its alien beast, Hawks’ The Thing From Another World keeps its monster mostly under wraps until the last third of the film, instead building its narrative more around the paranoid infighting that plagues the crew dealing with the otherworldly presence.

Set on the exact opposite side of the globe as Carpenter’s The Thing, the film begins in Anchorage, Alaska, where a crew of poker-playing, dame-talking military men are sent on an expedition to the North Pole to investigate a potential UFO sighting, a newspaper man in tow. Once there, they discover a massive flying saucer buried in the ice & attempt to melt it free, accidentally destroying the ship in the process. What they manage to preserve instead is a frozen alien being, one roughly shamed like a human male, except over 8ft tall. In Carpenter’s The Thing, the crew’s paranoid in-fighting revolves around the creature’s ability to imitate other life forms, thus making every team member a suspect for being “the thing”. In The Thing From Another World, the conflict is more concerned with balancing the need for scientific research with the more immediate concerns for self-preservation. As the gigantic humanoid alien monster proves itself to be a threat to the crew, they must decide whether to destroy it for their own safety or to attempt to peacefully contain it for further research, as instructed by the military higher ups.

Although the titular thing in Hawks’ production isn’t quite as visibly alien as Carpenter’s eerily unrecognizable shapeshifter, its humanoid form is merely a deception. The beast is eventually revealed to be a highly evolved form of plant life, one that feeds off of blood rather than water, like Aubrey II in Little Shop of Horrors. There’s a great sense of unnerving ambiguity in the gradual way the film’s isolated crew of scientists & military men piece together exactly what makes the thing ticket. There are also a couple of moments of special effects spectacle in the film, like in a sequence involving a severed arm and an extreme scene of violence in which the thing is set aflame & escapes into the snow. For the most part, though, where Carpenter established the terrifyingly alien nature of his creature’s biology through visual technique, the 1951 adaptation of the same story builds the same effect through a slow burn of dialogue, saving its creature feature surface pleasures for the final half hour. It’s not quite as exciting or satisfying as Carpenter’s picture, but fans of The Thing are likely to get a kick out of The Thing From Another World, both for the surprisingly adept dialogue and for the  fun of comparing & contrasting.

-Brandon Ledet

The Thing (1982)

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I’ve greatly enjoyed every John Carpenter movie I’ve ever seen, save maybe a couple nu metal-era misteps like Ghosts of Mars. As much as I love the director’s landmark films & his soundtrack work, though, there are still a few major titles from Carpenter that I haven’t yet made the effort to catch up with. That’s why it was a godsend that the Prytania Theatre is dedicating the October schedule for its Late Night movie series to Carpenter’s work, culminating at the end of the month, of course, with a screening of Halloween. As I mentioned in my recap of the theater’s recent screening of Cinema Paradiso, The Prytania is a century-old New Orleans institution, the oldest operating cinema in the city, a fine venue for seeing great films for the first time. It was where I first saw Jaws, their frequent selection for America’s favorite holiday: Shark Week. When Robin Williams passed away last year it was where I first saw Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King. And, most recently, it was where I finally watched John Carpenter’s masterful monster movie The Thing, screened on the first truly cold night of the year (how’d they plan that?), so that you could feel a fraction of the chill of the film’s Antarctica setting in your bones. Technically, it’s still fall outside, but when Kurt Russell gripes in the film, “First goddamn week of winter,” it was easy to empathize. All that was missing was a shape-shifting alien & a bottle of Jim Beam.

The Thing is essentially a 1950s Roger Corman monster movie taken to its most logical & most pessimistic extremes. In fact, the short story the film is based on had been previously adapted into an actual 1950s creature feature (and would later be resurrected for an episode of The X-Files & a cheap CGI trifle of a remake). A practical effects masterwork, The Thing‘s titular creature is just as ambiguous in form as it is in name. It’s a grotesque, rapidly evolving mess of undercooked biology, calling into mind the hot mess of vaguely defined monsters in the back half of 1981’s psychological horror Possession. The thing arrives on Earth via a disc-shaped, Millennium Falcon-esque UFO in the opening credits with very little detail provided for its origins. A complicated “organism that imitates other life forms,” the thing is alien in every sense of the word. It transforms in ways that are shocking & disgusting because they don’t make sense in the context of anything we’ve ever seen or understood in biology. Even in cinema, we’ve seen dogs used to create tension or terror, but never by splitting their faces open to reveal a mass of spider-like tentacles. We’re used to monsters killing for sport or nourishment, but not so much a creature that infiltrates a species through physical imitation, like a disease. Cellular activity found in corpses, blood that actively avoids extreme heat, half-cooked human imitations that look just about almost right except for long claw-like hands that resemble gigantic, deep-fried softshell crabs: the thing is far beyond human comprehension of basic biology, constantly opening compartments of itself like horrific Russian dolls to reveal more & more layers of ambiguous terror. Too often sci-fi horror models the designs of its creatures around what we already know. The Thing‘s creature might be the most alien alien to ever grace the screen.

Finding themselves face to face with this unknowable threat is an all-male crew of scientific researchers isolated in Antarctica for the winter. Even as scientists our protagonists have a difficult time making sense of the thing. Kurt Russell’s character exclaims early on, “I don’t know what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird & pissed off, whatever it is.” Once the thing infiltrates their ranks & starts imitating human lifeforms (a computer model helpfully explains, “Possibility that one or more crew members are infected: 75%”), everyone becomes suspect. The group of goofs, once prone to drunkenly playing computer chess, rollerskating to Stevie Wonder, and smoking six-paper joints in the lab, soon has to ask of each & every team member, “How do we know he’s human?” The notorious scene of extensive, pointless, paranoid violence in Carpenter’s They Live (“Put the glasses on! Put ’em on! “) is drawn out here to a full length narrative. Nearly every member of the crew is an affable goof, so it’s a very tense atmosphere in which at least one of them is not what they seem, but instead is a shape-shifting mess of mismatched body parts & gore.

I’m not sure of the exact reason The Prytania is spotlighting John Carpenter this month (not that I would complain if they did so every October), but it does feel like kind of the perfect time to do so. After scoring his own films for decades, the director just released his first studio album, Lost Themes— complete with his first music video & live concerts. Screening They Live earlier this month was a fitting tribute to the recently deceased “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, as it was easily his best work outside the wrestling ring (and I’m bummed to say I missed it). Even in a more general sense, the current cinematic climate is adoringly looking back at the Carpenter aesthetic & it’s all too easy to see echoes of his work in films as recent as The Guest, It Follows, and Cold in July. In other words, everything’s coming up Carpenter.

If I only catch one film during this mini-Carpenter Fest, I’m glad I at least got to experience The Thing for the first time on the big screen. The movie’s visuals are on par with the best the director has ever crafted. The strange, rose-colored lighting of emergency flares & the sparse, snow-covered Antarctica hellscape give the film an otherworldly look backed up, of course, by the foreign monstrosity of its titular alien beast. The film’s creature design  is over-the-top in its complexity and I sincerely hope every single model made for the film is preserved in a museum somewhere & not broken into parts or discarded. Also up there with Carpenter’s best work is the film’s dark humor, not only in Kurt Russell’s drunkenly cavalier performance, but also in the absurdity of the film’s violence & grotesqueries. It played very well with a midnight, BYOB audience. The only thing that’s missing here from Carpenter’s typical masterworks is one of his self-provided, glorious synth soundtracks, but with a pinch hitter like Ennio Morricone stepping in to fill the void, it’s near impossible to complain. The Thing is a perfectly crafted creature feature, one that even satisfies art cinema tastes with a resistance to tidying up its ambiguity in a bleak, mostly open conclusion. It’s by no means a stretch to rank it among the best of Carpenter’s works & I’m grateful to The Prytania for providing the opportunity to see it large, loud, and (in the spirit of the film’s isolated crew of scientific researchers) more than a little drunk with a live audience at a late hour. It was special.

-Brandon Ledet

An Ill-Advised Journey through All Craptastic Four Fantastic 4 Adaptations

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It’s gradually becoming conventional wisdom that you simply cannot make a watchable Fantastic 4 movie. For two decades running Hollywood has failed rather miserably to adapt Stan Lee’s/Jack Kirby’s half-goofy/half-gritty characters into a successful feature film, despite having much better luck with other Lee/Kirby designs such as Iron Man & The X-Men. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Fantastic 4 specifically that is so difficult to competently capture on film, despite the wild commercial success of other superhero properties. What is certain, though, is that despite the disparate variety of approaches, no adaptation has won over fans of the comics or even casual movie goers looking for mindless escapism. And it’s somehow still likely that there will be even more shoddy attempts to adapt this property in the future, despite the four already-raised red flags. Listed below is a brief review of every Fantastic 4 feature released so far, hopefully to serve as a guide for the morbidly curious.

The Fantastic Four (1994)

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three star

Perhaps the most infamously troubled Fantastic 4 adaptation of all also happens to be the one I enjoyed the most. A Roger Corman production from the mid-90s, the original Fantastic 4 movie is often rumored to have been made solely so that co-producer Bernd Eichinger could retain the film rights that he eventually put to grander use over a decade later with the 2005 adaptation. As a result to these backscene shenanigans the Corman picture never saw an official release. To this day, the film can only be viewed through bootleg VHS copies & less-than-legal YouTube uploads. There’s even a documentary in works called DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (which I’m dying to see) that’s supposed to recount the entire troubled production & intentionally bungled release, which are, in short, a jumbled mess.

What’s most surprising about this mucked-up non-release is that it’s actually a really fun picture, much unlike the three adaptations that followed. Corman’s production ignores the insanely popular trend of Burton’s Batman pictures & intentionally reverts to a time when comic book movies were still made for children. 1994’s The Fantastic Four plays like a live-action Saturday morning cartoon. Even Dr. Doom’s surveillance setup & pack of obedient goons recalls the evil Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget more than it does any other villain I can name. Sure, the costumes & effects employed here were way behind the times even for 1994 & the film was easily distracted by subplots that involved not one, but two will-they-won’t-they love stories as well as some less than compelling & entirely tangential jewel thief goblins that must’ve wandered from the set of Ernest Scared Stupid by mistake, but that’s all part of the movie’s hokey charms.

When viewed as a children’s movie instead of how we think of modern superhero fare, Corman’s The Fantastic Four is a fun little modestly-budgeted movie. There are some great cheesy lines like “Hello, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny & Susan go out into space with us?” & [flying a spaceship] “Using turn signal. Turning right.” The cheapness of some of the effects can be fun in a campy way, especially in the psychedelic outer space transformation scene where the group gains their powers (where the background looks like something you’d expect to be projected behind The Doors) & in Doom’s hand-drawn space palace. There’s also some really awkward twists on the Fantastic 4’s core members’ group dynamics, like in the revelation that Reed “Mr. Fantastic” Richards knew Susan “The Invisible Woman” Storm as a little girl who she had a crush on him (gross!), Ben “The Thing” Grimm’s self-hating depression cycles turning him into a silent film bum, and in an over-explained monologue that reveals that each of the 4’s powers are reflections of their personalities, (something that’s much more subtly hinted at or assumed in the films to follow). Corman’s stab at adapting The Fantastic 4 is far from a perfect picture, but it is at the very least a mildly enjoyable slice of mid-90s children’s media with a fascinating context given its troubled production & lack of an official release. That’s more than you can say for any of the other films listed here.

Fantastic 4 (2005)

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If Corman’s goofy adaptation sorta worked in its decision to chase the goofy, kids’ media bent of the Fantastic 4 universe, the 2005 adaptation that it made possible fails miserably because it makes no decisions at all. The mid-00’s Fantastic 4 is remarkably bad, just awful. Even more-so, it’s a prime example of what’s terrible about Hollywood’s chase for the PG-13 movie, a grey blob of un-creativity meant more to hit every possible demographic in their wallets more than it is meant to entertain. It tries to mimic the childlike goofery of the Corman film in lines like “Why the long face?” (directed at a stretched-out Mr. Fantastic, of course) & “That’s my nose. This is my face, genius,” (in a scene where an invisible Sue Storm is being sloppily kissed, of course), but also attempts to appeal to salacious old men in a gag where Sue (played here by 00’s sexy symbol Jessica Alba) is left publicly embarrassed in her underwear, ripe for the oggling. The 2005 adptation has its foot one in, one out, trying to juggle Corman’s children’s movie with the adult Burton Batman aesthetic; it drops the ball on both ends.

One of the strangest aspects of the film is that even though it arrived with an outrageously larger budget more than a decade after Corman’s picture, its effects were not nearly as impressive. Corman’s The Fantastic Four may have looked cheap, but at least it looked cool. The only practical effects used in the 2005 film are in The Thing’s prosthetic costume, which I gotta admit I thought was kinda cool-looking in a hand-made way (although the awfulness of Michael Chiklis’ labored voice work ruined that effect). Everything else looked stuck in the late 90s, especially in the transformation scene where the crew mutates into their newly powerful bodies, where the CGI was barely a step above an old-school screensaver.

The CGI wasn’t the only thing stuck in the late 90s, either. Further solidifying the movie’s cynical grabs at the perfect PG-13 market, Fantastic 4 is crawling with dirt bikes, snowboards, pop punk, and antiquated rap rock, gasping its final breaths here in the twilight years of its heyday. Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm is essentially a live-action Poochie in his 2005 incarnation, appealing to all of the cool, radical kids out there who are too X-treme for the establishment. The movie also indulges in some X-treme marketing in a single, extended scene that finds room for ad placement for ESPN, The X Games, Red Bull, Burger King, Pepsi, Sobe, Mountain Dew, Dos Equis, and I’m sure I’m missing a few. It was dizzying. There’s something very telling in that sequence’s love for X-treme branding as nearly every minute of the movie that surrounds it feels just as hollow & desperate to make a buck.

Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

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Despite the mixed reviews, narrative bankruptcy, and all-around awfulness of 2005’s Fantastic 4, it was still financially successful enough to garner a sequel. X-treme marketing really works, y’all! There’s a reason studios are chasing those sweet, sweet PG-13 bucks. Two years after Johnny Storm won The X-Games, Fantastic 4 returned to the silver screen, this time with a Silver Surfer in tow. The sequel is somehow even more awful & empty than the first, its narrative hinged on a much-delayed wedding between Mr. Fantastic & Sue Storm that no one could possibly care about. The Silver Surfer is an interesting character (voiced here by Lawrence Fishburn) who threatens to shake things up with his space alien aesthetics & threats of world destruction, but the movie is largely uninterested in this line of thought.

What it is interested in is repeating itself. Rather than trying to tell a worthwhile story about its titular villain , Rise of the Silver Surfer aims to tell more goofy jokes (with even fewer that land) and make room for more nonsensical asides, like in a sequence where Mr. Fantastic & The Thing both bust moves on the dance floor at a bachelor party for that all-important wedding, making me question the value of living another day . . . or at the very least watching another Fantastic 4 movie ever again. Besides some surprise cameos from folks like Brian Posehn & Kerry Washington (not to mention a not so surprise cameo from Stan Lee as himself, even though he played a mail man in the first film), Lawrence Fishburn’s competent voice work, and a needless sideplot where the 4’s powers are switched around in a gag that felt hokey even for Scooby-Doo (2002), there’s just really not much to distinguish this film from the first. It feels like an exact repeat of the not-at-all satisfying formula that came two years before, complete with yet another gag where Jessica Alba is left naked in public, complaining “Why does this always happen to me?” It’s a moment almost existential in its pleading desperationg, prompting me to ask it of myself as a member of the movie-going public. Why?, indeed Jessica. Why?

Fant4stic (2015)

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Although Corman’s Fantastic 4 film is the adaptation most widely known for its troubled production, the version that’s currently running in the theater may one day give it a run for its money. Although director Josh Trank won a lot of superhero fans over with his debut film Chronicle, they’ve quickly abandoned ship with the release of his much higher profile follow-up. To give you some perspective on just how much critical abuse the latest Fantastic 4 film is receiving, just take into consideration that it currently boasts a dismal 8% score on Rotten Tomatoes, while the much more infamously reviled (and not even officially released) Corman movie is carrying a 33% on the same site. According to Trank, the film’s problems could mostly be blamed on studio interference after 20th Century Fox reportedly hijacked the production in order to, in their eyes at least, limit damages & save face. It’s difficult to say if the final product would have been more successful if it were left completely in Trank’s hands, but there’s definitely enough going for it that indicates a decent Fantastic 4 film was at some point in the works here before it was hideously derailed. Trank claims that his original, unaltered cut of the film was a much better product than what was delivered, but that remains to be seen.

What actually reached theaters is not an entirely shoddy film, however. At least not in the first half. The beginnings of 2015’s Fant4stic (hey, if they’re going to spell their shit that way on the ads, they have to live with it) feels like a kids’ movie in a way very much unlike how Corman’s film did. The idea of children getting in over their heads while building teleportation devices in their garage using stacks of N64s and other dated electronics calls to mind a wonder-struck Spieldbergian kids’s flick or maybe Joe Dante’s Explorers or JJ Abrams’ Super 8. Much like with a lot of recent non-MCU superhero films, though, Trank’s Fant4stic succumbs to the mood-spoiling temptations of post-Dark Knight grittiness. During an early scene, The Thing’s family name “Grimm” flashes in neon, serving as an early warning of the Nolanisms to come. It might as well have read “Gloomm” or “Broodd”.

As the Spieldbergian tykes transform into disgruntled teenage nerds, the film gradually became a slog of very sciency lab montages, who-cares struggles with military figureheads, and knowing looks of teenage lust & self-hatred. This transformation wouldn’t be so bad if it actually built to something significant, but the film completely derails after the 4’s superpower-gaining transformation scene and never really gets started in any significant way. In short, it’s a total nonstarter. By the end credits, reminders of flashes of promise in the film’s cast, which included Miles Teller, Tim Heidecker and (voice of Homer Simpson) Dan Castanella feel so distant that they’re almost unbelievable. I was left in the darkened theater with one all-consuming thought: “What happened?”

The two characters that are seemingly hardest to get right on film are The Thing & Dr. Doom. Part of what makes the newest Fantastic 4 film so frustrating is that it gets them both so horribly wrong. The Thing’s 100% CGI body is much more of a yawn than his practical effects looks in the earlier films & his silly/infamous “It’s clobbering time!” catchphrase is one of the Nolan-spoiled elements in play, as it is delivered by a physically abusive family member (whereas in the other film’s it’s first heard as a cheeky action movie one-liner or through the speakerbox of an action figure). Also bungled here is Doom. In all craptastic four films listed here, Doom is burdened by the prolonged build of the origin story format and, thus, afforded very little time to rock his metal face & hooded cape look. He gets the most screentime in Corman’s film, but even then he’s often obscured by that behind-the-chair Dr. Claw angle. In the 2015 version, since Doom isn’t shown in his full glory until very late in the film, audiences mostly know him as an angry Redditter type, the kind who rarely bathes & is very concerned with the “ethics in gaming journalism” or whatever. He’s grotesquely misused.

Perhaps the absurdity of Stan Lee’s & Jack Kirby’s collaborative aesthetics are just too at-war with our current Dark Knight gloominess. The most enjoyable moments of the latest Fantastic 4 film are when it reverts back to the childlike wonder wholeheartedly embraced in Corman’s adaptation. There’s even a couple full-on goofy moments, like with Johnny Storm’s X-treme love of Fast & Furious style street racing, or the way Sue Storm’s energy shield is at one point employed as a Hamster Ball of Justice. For the most part, though, the movie is sank by a crushing lack of imagination despite its high concept & well known characters. Watching the Fantastic 4 waste their time in the alternate greenscreen universe of Planet Zero or buck against the tedium of government interference is way more of a chore than it should be, very far removed from the unhinged silliness that made Corman’s film mostly enjoyable. I don’t think the 8% score on the Tomatometer is accurately indicative of the film’s overall quality, as it was a much better picture than the X-Treme branding of 2005’s picture & its weak echo of a sequel, but it does reflect a frustration I personally felt. The first half held so much promise. The second delivered so, so little.

-Brandon Ledet