Putting The Science Back In Science Fiction

The story of how the novel “The Martian” became a bestseller is almost as fantastic as its plot. Author Andy Weir wrote the book over the course of two years, meticulously researching the scientific aspects of the story to make it as accurate as possible. When he finished the manuscript in 2011, he was rebuffed by literary agents – not an uncommon story for a debut author – so he published the book in serial form on his website for free. People asked him for a Kindle version, which he prepared and priced at 99 cents, the cheapest price possible. It soon sold more copies than were downloaded for free and climbed to the top of the Amazon bestseller charts. That got the attention of publishers, and Weir signed a six-figure deal with Crown Publishing. 20th Century Fox optioned the film rights and assigned Drew Goddard to write and direct the film.

Goddard’s first writing credits were on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” during its final season, including working on one of the series best episodes ever, Conversations with Dead People. Goddard then worked on “Angel,” “Lost,” and “Alias” on the small screen, and wrote the films Cloverfield, World War Z, and Cabin In The Woods. He also directed the last movie, with Joss Whedon co-writing and producing. Goddard likely would have done a good job directing The Martian, but then another director expressed a desire to do the film: Ridley Scott. Having made Alien and Blade Runner, Scott is legendary in sci-fi circles. Goddard gave up the director’s chair, but he crafted a sharp, witty script that also communicates the science of the story in a thrilling way. Scott for his part has created a third gem of a sci-fi film.

The plot is Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13. Astronaut Mark Watney is part of the third manned mission to Mars. A huge storm forces the crew to abort the mission early, but as they make their way to their Mission Ascent Vehicle (MAV), a piece of debris hits Watney and destroys his telemetry monitor. To the crew he appears to be dead, and with the storm threatening to destroy the MAV, they have to take off. They return to their mother ship, the Hermes, and begin the multi-year journey back to Earth. The next day, the storm past, Watney wakes up and realizes he’s been marooned. Another mission is planned that will land on Mars in four years, but his food will be exhausted long before that and he’ll have to travel 3200 kilometers to meet the new mission in a rover whose battery lasts for about 30 km before it must be recharged. So, as Watney says, “I’m going to have to science the s**t out of this.”

Matt Damon has to hold about half of the screen time on his own, which he proceeds to do beautifully. Damon has the Everyman quality similar to Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks; the audience easily identifies with him. While The Martian has been compared to the other recent great sole survivor tale, Hanks’ Cast Away, the two films are completely different in thrust and tone. In Cast Away a man had to revert to his primitive nature to survive; it was essentially a tale of loss, The Martian deals with using the intellect to solve a life-and-death situation – mind over nature – and does it with a wonderfully wry sense of humor. For long segments, Cast Away was a silent film, while The Martian has Watney explain what he’s doing for the station’s video log.

There are two other main settings for the film: the Hermes on its return flight to Earth and Mission Control in Houston. For these, Scott has assembled one of the best casts in recent memory. There’s Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as the mission director, Kristen Wiig as a PR person, and Sean Bean as the director responsible for the crew. That part of the story, though, is almost stolen by Donald Glover (“Community”) as a brilliant though maladroit astrophysicist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. On the Hermes, you have a crew captained by Jessica Chastain who gets to go into space this time rather than remaining earthbound as she did in Interstellar. Filling out the crew is Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Aksel Hennie. It’s an embarrassment of rich talent.  

These days you expect the technical visuals and the spacecraft to be first-rate, and Scott doesn’t disappoint. What’s most stunning, though, are the landscapes of Mars. Scott shows vast vistas that underline Watney’s complete isolation.

The Martian has an extended running time of 141 minutes, and covers years with the story. However, you won’t look at your watch until the lights go up at the end. This is a movie that proves science can compete with any fantasy for an edge-of-your-seat thrilling tale. Hopefully it will inspire those who will one day help us actually make the trip

The Mountain Wins Again

In a little over 8 months, it will be the 20th anniversary of one of the great disasters in the annals of mountain climbing. On May 10th, 1996, several climbing parties attempting to summit Mt. Everest got caught on the mountain when a storm raced in. It dropped visibility to almost nothing while hurricane-force freezing winds ripped at the climbers’ bodies. Eight people lost their lives, their bodies lost or unrecoverable from the 29,000 foot peak. (There are now over 150 permanent residents on the mountain.) The story was told in the bestseller by Jon Krakauer, “Into Thin Air.” Now it’s been made into the movie Everest.

As the movie opens, text tells how after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first summited Everest in 1953, 40 more climbers attempted it in the next few decades, with one in four losing their lives in the attempt. But then two companies turned climbing the mountain into a commercial venture, charging a hefty price to take climbers to the top of the world. While there’s a certain amount of hubris in thinking an inherently deadly activity can be commercialized, the companies were able to operate without any fatalities for the first few years. That changed on May 10th.

Everest focuses on the leader of one of the commercial climbs, Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), whose company Adventure Consultants had 8 clients for the climb, including Krakauer who had contracted to write about the experience for Outside magazine. Others in the group included Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), whose climbing put a strain on his marriage to his wife Peach (Robin Wright); Doug Hansen (John Hawkes), a postman who’d tried to summit before but had to turn back; and Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who’d climbed 6 of the 7 highest mountains in the world and was trying to complete the septet.

Hall’s wife Jan Arnold (Kiera Knightley), a climber herself, was back at home in New Zealand expecting their first child in July. Hall’s base camp team included camp manager Helen Winton (Emily Watson) and Dr. Caroline Mackenzie (Elizabeth Debicki). The leader of Mountain Madness, the other commercial company, was Scott Fisher (Jake Gyllenhaal), with a more laid back attitude towards the climb. Two other teams, one from South Africa and the other making an IMAX movie about the mountain, were planning like Hall and Fisher to summit on May 10th, which created a traffic jam on the narrow points on the route to the summit. There’s only a small window in May when the summit has the best weather conditions and it’s only -4 F at the summit, rather than the average -31F. The winds are also less severe at that time. Everest is so high it protrudes into the jet stream; winds have been clocked at 175 mph, faster than a Cat 5 hurricane.

Icelandic director/writer/producer Baltasar Kormakur is mostly known to US audiences for directing 2013’s 2 Guns starring Denzel Washington and Mark Walburg, but he’d also made other films in his native country, including The Deep, a based-on-a-true-story tale of a fisherman trying to survive after his boat capsizes in the freezing ocean. Along with screenwriters William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) and Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire, 127 Hours), Kormakur has created a remarkably faithful account of the disaster as well as a story of survival against huge odds for some of the mountaineers.

It helps that the movie was partially filmed in Nepal as even with the special effects available today it’s hard to recreate the spectacle of the Himalayas and the Nepalese landscape. Before the showing at the Flix Brewhouse where I saw Everest, they screened clips of movies starring actors from the feature or films that have similar themes. One clip was from 2000’s Vertical Limit that supposedly takes place on K2, the second highest mountain and the neighbor of Everest. Comparing it to the visuals of Everest is like comparing a gangster movie from the 1930s filmed on the studio backlot with Goodfellas – the point being, there is no comparison. Visual effects were used to recreate Everest’s summit, but director and crew did an incredible job matching it to pictures that have been taken of the actual route.

The film doesn’t delve deeply into the characters, particularly in the case of Scott Fisher, but it does draw you in and has a definite emotional power. If you’ve read “Into Thin Air” or some of the other accounts of the events, Everest is visually illuminating and clarifying. It’s hard to turn real life into reel life, but the makers of Everest have done a commendable job.

10 Movies I’m Eager to See This Fall (Plus One Given)

We are now officially in the season for the release of prestige pictures, as opposed to the blockbusters of the summer. It’s hard for a summer movie to have the legs to make it to the Oscars or the Golden Globes, unless it’s for a technical award or it’s an animated film. (You could write in Inside Out right now as the Best Animated Film, since it was a stunning accomplishment.) Of last year’s non-technical Oscar winners, only The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood were released before September. So I always get excited about what’s coming in the Fall movie season. I’ll give you the ten films I’m most looking forward to in ascending order, but first there’s a given.

(Given) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With JJ Abrams in the director’s chair and Lawrence Kasdan co-writing the episode with him, hopes have to be high that the new Star Wars film will be more A New Hope that The Phantom Menace. If the reboot of Star Trek that Abrams did is any indicator, the Force will be strong in this one. It also had me when Harrison Ford said, “Chewy, we’re home” in the second trailer. I still remember attending a midnight showing of Star Wars in Westwood before it became a phenomena and being completely stunned when the Battle Cruiser first comes onto the screen – and keeps on going for what seems like a year. It was a seminal moment for science fiction films and for movies in general, and I’ve been hooked on the series ever since. (Release date: December 18th – an early Christmas present)

#10: By The Sea

Angelina Jolie Pitt was pretty much overlooked for Unbroken in spite of the movie’s power and excellent performances. Here she’s not only directoring but also acting with her real-life husband Brad Pitt for the first time since they met on Mr and Mrs Smith. The couple made this film about a husband and wife dealing with grief while they were on their honeymoon. Not your usual getaway. (Release date: November 13th)

#9: The Revenant

Last year’s Best Director winner, Alejandro Inarritu, is back with a story that seems unusual for him to tackle – a fur trapper (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear and left for dead by his friends, but instead he wills himself to travel hundreds of miles to survive.  That the story’s true only makes it more unusual.  However, before Birdman would you have picked Inarritu to do a mesmerizing movie about putting on a Broadway play? (Release date: Christmas Day)

#8: Black Mass

Johnny Depp has had a run of inferior films, but this may make us forget them. Depp plays real life gangster Whitey Bulger who ran the rackets in Boston while serving as a snitch for the FBI at the same time. Bulger was part of the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed, though it appears Depp’s intensity will blow that performance away. The film also stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, and Kevin Bacon. (Release Date: September 18th)

#7: Secret In Their Eyes

This is the remake of an Argentinian thriller that won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010. Julia Roberts plays an investigator for a District Attorney who must relive the rape and murder of her teenaged daughter when a colleague (Chiwetel Ejiofor) uncovers new evidence. The film was written and directed by Billy Ray (Captain Philips, Breach) and also stars Nicole Kidman. (Release date: November 20th)

#6: Sicario

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made Prisoners, one of the darkest crime dramas in recent memory. Now he’s taking on the Mexican drug cartels, and it will likely be as dark as a smuggler’s tunnel. The film stars Emily Blunt – who proved in Edge of Tomorrow she could kick butt with the best of them – as an FBI agent assigned to a special task force, along with Benicio Del Toro as a Mexican policeman with questionable allegiances.  (Release date: September 18th)

#5: The Martian

Based on the bestselling book, The Martian stars Matt Damon as an astronaut marooned on Mars who must use all his scientific knowhow to survive until a rescue mission can reach him. The film was directed by Ridley Scott, and boasts the best cast of the fall: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wigg, Kate Mara, Michael Pena, and Sean Bean. (Release date: October 2nd)

#4: Legend

What’s better than Tom Hardy in a movie? Two Tom Hardys in a movie. In Legend, Hardy plays real-life twin gangsters Reggie and Ron Kray who ruled over London’s underworld in the 1960s. Writer-Director Brian Helgeland had originally planned for Hardy to play Reggie, but Hardy was more interested in Ron. They compromised. The supporting cast includes Emily Browning, Paul Bettany, David Thewlis, and Christopher Eccleston. (Release date: October 2nd)

#3: Carol

This movie is based on a novel by the outstanding mystery writer Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley) and is directed by Todd Haynes who did the exceptional Far From Heaven in 2002. The 1950s-set story stars Cate Blanchett as an older woman and Rooney Mara as a clerk who falls in love with her. The movie was one of the hits of the Cannes Film Festival this year. (Release date: November 20th)

#2: Trumbo

I’ve been fascinated with the Hollywood Blacklist, and with Dalton Trumbo, since the 1960s when I picked up a reissue of his anti-war novel “Johnny Got His Gun.” Trumbo wrote Roman Holiday during his blacklisting and used a front man, Ian McLellan Hunter, on the credits. It won the Oscar for best screenplay. Trumbo finally got his name back thanks to Kirk Douglas and Spartacus. The trailer for this film, starring Bryan Cranston as Trumbo and Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, looks wonderful. It was directed by Jay Roach and also stars Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, and Louie C.K. (Release date: November 6th)

#1 Joy

David O. Russell is one writer/director that I’ll watch simply because he made the movie. With The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle, he created unique visions of unexpected stories. For the third time, he’s working with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert DeNiro, and the rest of the supporting cast includes Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, and Isabella Rossellini. (Release date: Christmas Day)

Honorable Mentions (That I Still Plan to See): Bridge of Spys, Spectre; Truth; Freeheld; Suffragette; The Intern; Sisters; The Danish Girl; The Walk; Creed; Steve Jobs

American Bipolar

American Ultra wants to be Jason Bourne riding the Pineapple Express – an action/adventure stoner comedy. You don’t usually think of high powered weapons, hand-to-hand combat, and a high body count when you think “slackers.” The weird thing is American Ultra comes pretty close to making it work.

Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) is a stoner living in a backwater West Virginia town. He’s been hassled by the police so much that they have a first-name, semi-friendly relationship, so it’s helpful that his girlfriend Phoebe Larsen (Kristen Stewart) works for a bail bond company. Mike has a raging case of agoraphobia that hits him if he ever leaves town. A planned trip to Hawaii so he can propose to Phoebe ends with him physically sick in the airport bathroom. Instead they return to town where Mike manages a mini-market and draws comic books starring a gorilla.

At CIA Headquarters in Langley, Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton), an agent who’d been in charge of a top-secret project to turn losers into lethal operatives, receives a coded call. A former agent in the project has been determined to be a security threat and is scheduled for termination – Mike Howell, whose memories have been suppressed. Rather than leave him a sitting duck for a former underling (Topher Grace) who now outranks her, Victoria heads to West Virginia to activate Mike’s memories to give him a fighting chance.

Ultra boasts an exceptional cast. In addition to those mentioned above, you have Walton Goggins (“Justified”) as a semi-psycho hitman named Laugher, John Leguizamo as Mike’s drug supplier, and Bill Pullman as a shadowy person in the CIA hierarchy. The screenplay was written by Max Landis, the son of John (The Blues Brothers, Animal House), so outlandish comedy may be a genetic trait. Max has established his own bona fides with the exceptional Chronicle in 2012. The plot is familiar, since aspects were taken from the Bourne series and Pineapple Express, though it is executed with energy.

Director Nima Nourizadeh has done one other feature, the found-footage wild party Project X from 3 years ago. The scenes he’s shot are set against rust belt bleakness, but he doesn’t give you a sense of the town. It’s like there’s no one else there except for those directly involved in the plot, so the mayhem seems unattached to reality. On the other hand, he works well with his cast. You do believe Eisenberg could be a secret agent

The major surprise of the film is in Kristen Stewart’s performance. She was lampooned for having almost no range of expression in the Twilight series – and rightfully so. However, starting with The Runaways and building with Still Alice and Clouds of Sils Maria, along with American Ultra, she’s developing into an effective actress. Sometimes early success is the high-water mark for a young actor, and it sadly goes downhill from there both on and off the screen, such as with Lindsay Lohan.  It’s rarer for one to have great success at first and then develop into a good actress and build a career. It looks like Stewart is accomplishing that.

If you don’t have high expectations for American Ultra, it manages to pull off its bipolar nature, at least for its 95 minute running time. It didn’t cost much to make – a lean 12 million – so it should recoup its cost plus extra. It would count as a modern B picture that’s not a first string entertainment but does have its pleasures.

Turnabout is Fair Play – and a Great Movie

It’s interesting when someone becomes an overnight sensation, because they’ve usually paid their dues with years of toil. The overnight is of the North-Pole-in-winter variety. When they finally have their breakthrough, we get to savor their genius. In the case of a comedian, we get to laugh our heads off. Amy Schumer is having one of those breakout seasons that started with her show on Comedy Central and a couple of filmed concerts, and now has jumped to feature films with Trainwreck.

The first film for a hot comedian can often be an embarrassment. The hall of shame includes Ellen DeGeneres (Mr. Wrong), Billy Crystal (Rabbit Test) and Robin Williams (Popeye). On the other hand, Eddie Murphy struck gold with 48 Hours, though his career over the past decade or two has with few exceptions been cringe-worthy. However, none of the above wrote their first major movie. That’s not the case with Schumer, who has the sole screenwriter credit for Trainwreck. She matches her sharp wit with a deep understanding of character that makes the movie much more than a bunch of one-liners strung together. Trainwreck tickles your funny bone, but at the same time it sneaks up and pulls your heart strings.

You could look at the movie as Schumer telling Hollywood that turnabout is fair play. The romantic cad has been a staple of films going back to Tom Jones and Alfie in the 1960s and beyond. In Trainwreck, Schumer plays Amy, a magazine writer for a trendy New York publication. While she has her steady boyfriend Steven (John Cena), when she’s not with him she picks up guys for drunken sex but never stays the night or calls them again. The movie begins with the adolescent Amy and her sister getting a talk from their father Gordon (Colin Quinn) on why monogamy isn’t natural. It’s a stunning mix of bizarre logic and self-justification that’s funny even as you know it will completely screw up the child’s life, as it does with Amy. But then she’s assigned to profile Dr. Aaron Conners (Bill Hader), a sports doctor who’s pioneered surgery to save athletes’ careers. She seduces him, but he doesn’t play by her rules, and she finds herself experiencing a very scary new feeling – love.

In some ways a romantic comedy, even an R-rated one, is as constrained an art form as Kabuki Theater. You know pretty much from the time you settle in your seat where the story is going. What separates movies in this genre is not where they take you but how they get you there. Schumer excels in that with surprising comedy sequences that go in ways you don’t expect. Schumer is completely fearless in the role – especially so since she wrote it herself. She’s ably assisted by Hader who’s both human and humane as Dr. Conners, but who can also handle Schumer’s tossed off, did-they-really-say-that humor.

She’s also in the best of hands with Judd Apatow directing. He’s shaped comedy movies in the past decade with his writing, producing, and directing of The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up along with individual writing and producing projects. This is the first time he’s directing a feature film that he didn’t write, but he works beautifully with Schumer and captures the nuance of her comedy perfectly. Hopefully they will collaborate more in the future.

A stand-out aspect of the film is the supporting characters. Much has been made of LeBron James playing a wicked parody of himself as Dr. Conners’ best friend, and rightfully so. He pretty much steals his scenes. However, there are other delights as well. You have Tilda Swinton almost unrecognizable as Amy’s hard-driving boss, while John Cena completely lampoons his wrestling persona. Colin Quinn’s performance as Amy’s father is enough to even give the audience daddy issues just by watching it. For movie lovers, there’s Norman Lloyd as Gordon’s nursing home friend, still sharp even at 99 years of age. There’s also a number of celebrity cameos; one of the funniest is by Marv Albert doing play by play for an intervention. A beautiful counterpoint performance is given by Brie Larson as Amy’s younger sister Kim, who’s pretty much chosen the opposite path through life but who still loves her sister.

Trainwreck should cross the $100 million mark at the box office this week, a milestone for an R comedy, and its showing good legs for a longer run into September. It’s definitely not a family-friendly comedy, but it is a funny, well-written and well-acted movie that’s satisfying to watch. In this case turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s well played.

Don’t Cry UNCLE

The original series “The Man From UNCLE” was supposed to be TV’s answer to James Bond. It did boast some formidable guest stars, including Boris Karloff, Raymond Massey, Steve McQueen, Yvonne de Carlo, and John Carradine, and featured scripts by writers like Robert Towne and Harlan Ellison. As it went on, though, it slipped more and more into a parody of the genre, with campy villains and over-the-top stories. However, it was in competition with “Batman” and there was no way it could out-camp the caped crusader, so it vanished from the airwaves.

Now it has become another early TV show remade for the big screen, always a risky proposition. For every The Fugitive or Get Smart, you have several  Dark Shadows, Lost in Space, or Starsky and Hutch level movies. It’s hit-or-miss, with a lot more misses than hits. Fortunately for The Man From UNCLE, Guy Ritchie was both in the director’s chair and collaborated on the script (with Lionel Wigram, who also produced with Ritchie, working from a story by Jeff Kleeman and David C. Wilson). Ritchie knows how to blend humor and adventure, as he proved with Snatch and the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes. The story is set in the early 1960s, when the Cold War almost went hot, and Ritchie mines the history and the visuals of that time beautifully.

The characters of Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin are fleshed out a bit more than they ever were in the series. Solo (Henry Cavill) isn’t just a secret agent but also a thief who’s working for the CIA rather than sitting in jail – which basically makes this a remake of “It Takes a Thief” as well. In contrast Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) is a straight-laced and lethally strong KGB agent al a Robert Shaw in From Russia with Love, but played for comedy rather than menace.

In the opening sequence, the two are antagonists as Solo seeks to extricate a young female car mechanic named Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from East Berlin. Gaby’s important because her father, a nuclear physicist, has gone missing, and the CIA wants her help to find him. Solo manages the extraction with a great deal of daring do mixed with suavity, leaving Kuryakin embarrassed and itching for revenge. The next morning Solo and his boss have a meeting at a West Berlin café – with Kuryakin and his handler. The two spy agencies have decided to work together to stop an independent group led by the Italian heiress Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki) from getting their hands on an A-Bomb. After a rough introduction, Solo, Kuryankin, and Gaby head for Italy.

Cavill handles the role of the charming rogue/ruthless spy with aplomb, and can throw away a line with the best of them. Hammer must be thankful for a role that will make moviegoers forget about The Lone Ranger, and he’s a great foil for Cavill while still excelling at the physical demands of the role. Vikander and Debicki both look like they stepped out of an early 1960’s movie directed by Fellini or De Sica, though they’re both better actresses than models from that era. Vikander has passion and fire, while Debicki plays an ice queen on the surface though hot-blooded beneath.

There are as many wise cracks being shot off during the film as there are bullets, but it never slips into parody like the original series. The edge of danger keeps the plot and the quips under control. Special kudos must go to production designer Oliver Scholl and costume designer Joanna Johnston. They perfectly present the early 1960’s world with the sets and costumes.

While it doesn’t transcend its roots as The Fugitive did, The Man from UNCLE does improve on the original rather than just packaging it as nostalgia. It also works as a decent spy adventure, and there are enough twists and turns to make it a fun ride that’s worth the trip.

Not So Fantastic

Most people who grew up on superhero comic books (back when they were comic books rather than graphic novels) have a particular series that was their favorite – SpiderMan, Batman, Thor, Green Lantern, etc. For me it was the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, his girlfriend and later wife Sue Storm, her brother Johnny, and test pilot and Reed’s oldest friend Ben Grimm, who get exposed to cosmic radiation on a space mission and become, respectively, Mr. Fantastic who can stretch, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch, and the Thing (indestructible with super strength). They were the first superhero series written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, the start of the Marvel Universe.

The series also had Victor von Doom, a genius inventor as well as Romani sorcerer who was disfigured in an experiment and became the masked and hooded supervillain Doctor Doom. He blamed Reed for his disfigurement, thereby setting up the classic struggle of good and evil, and perhaps preparing the way in the 1960s for Obi-wan and Lord Vader in the 1970s. The series also introduced other facets of the Marvel Universe including the Silver Surfer and the Inhumans who are now being featured on “Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.”

While the rest of Marvel’s heroes have had movie success, that hasn’t happened with the Fantastic Four. There was an el cheapo version made in 1994 with a cast of unknowns; Stan Lee later said it was never meant to be released and was shot only to retain the movie rights for the series. The 2005 version with its 2007 sequel were light-weight when compared to the first two Sam Raimi Spiderman movies or the beginning of the Marvel movie renaissance, 2008’s Iron Man. I hoped that that would be corrected in the new Fantastic 4, released this weekend.

It had potential. The director Josh Trank made one of the best and most original superhero movies, 2012’s Chronicle, and he was once again working with actor Michael B. Jordan, who’d followed up Chronicle with a stunning performance in Fruitvale Station. Trank also wrote the script along with Simon Kinberg (2009’s Sherlock Holmes, X-Men: Days of Future Past) and newcomer Jeremy Slater. The early trailers featured a darker look to the story that was missing from the earlier movies.

The first part of the film is decent, even if it makes major changes to the backstory and progresses at a leisurely pace. The earliest sign of weakness, though, is in the casting. While Jamie Bell is an excellent actor, having him play Ben Grimm is like having Tom Cruise play 6’6” Jack Reacher. In the comic book Grimm is a football hero with strength to spare. In fact, the genius of the Fantastic Four was that the cosmic rays gave superpowers that highlighted the character archetypes: the scientist is flexible, his love interest becomes invisible, the young brother is a hothead, while the jock becomes raw strength. With Jamie Bell in the role and with the changes, Grimm is diminished from part of the team to a good luck charm for Richards.

Jordan and Kate Mara, who plays Sue Storm, are decent in their roles but are underutilized. Most of Mara’s time on screen is spent staring at a computer screen. The biggest weakness is with Miles Teller as Richards and Toby Kebbell as von Doom. Teller is an incredible, intense actor as he proved with Whiplash, but he can’t breathe excitement into the underwritten role, while Kebbell comes across as a 2nd tier Euro-trash musician.

Once the trip to the other dimension is made, the rest of the film feels truncated, as if the main plot development got left on the cutting room floor. That may be true, since scenes featured in the trailer are not in the film. Trank tweeted that the version he made was recut by 20th Century Fox executives. The film comes in at a brief 100 minutes. Ant-Man, in comparison, is almost twenty minutes longer. There’s also no cameo by Stan Lee, who showed up in Ant-Man and even made an appearance in Big Hero 6. Worse for fans of the interconnected Marvel Universe, there are no tags at the end.

With a 4.1/10 rating on IMDb and a 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, people will stay away from this movie in droves, and that’s as it should be. It is a major disappointment. IMDb notes that a sequel has been announced, but that’s highly unlikely now. Maybe in 10 more years a filmmaker will finally give the Fantastic Four their due with a good movie that captures the feeling of the comic books. I’ll keep on hoping.