'Fantastic Four (1994)' Review: The Film That Wasn't
In 1986, a German producer named Bernd Eichinger successfully obtained the rights for a Fantastic Four film from Stan Lee. At the time superhero films weren’t a hot commodity. There had been some successes and some failures. The genre hadn’t become a blockbuster guarantee yet. According to Wikipedia, it’s estimated that he paid $250,000 for the option, but no confirmation has ever been officially provided. Because superhero movies were expensive unsure ventures, no major studio wanted to produce it, so he sat on it.
The way options on existing properties work is a little bit confusing. It’s kind of like copyright law with a shorter lifespan, but with a way to renew the contract without being Disney. (For those unaware Disney has successfully lobbied to extend copyrights so that Mickey Mouse will never be in the public domain) In this case, if Eichinger used his option to make a Fantastic Four film before the contract expired in 1992, he would get to hang onto it and potentially make another film later. Another quirk in this provision is the film only has to be made. It doesn’t have to be released or seen by anybody.
The Fantastic Four went into production, helmed by veteran low budget master Roger Corman. You might know Corman from the cult hit Death Race 2000. His filmography goes back to 1954. In 1955 he made six films, in 1956 he made three, in 1957 he made nine, and so on. All of them were no frills ticket bait. All of them were drive in, make out-get lucky-or not joy rides with titles like, Swamp Woman, Apache Woman, and Naked Paradise. By 1992 there was no one better to hire if you wanted to make a flick on the cheap. A master of garbage with several cult hits under his belt, Corman took on The Fantastic Four. It would never be released in theaters. As far as I know, it’s the only one of his many films to never see the screen. Unbeknownst to the director and all of the actors, that was the plan from the beginning.
The result of this is an ambitiously directed piece of cheap cinema that fails to fall into the "so bad it's good," camp. Nor does it transcend its own cheapness. The effects are reminiscent of long abandoned techniques used in films like Forgotten Planet, and the sets look like they were abandoned Bond pieces from the 70’s. At the helm was Oley Sassone, a director conscripted by Corman. And to be fair, for what he was given, he does a pretty bang up job.
So how is the film? It’s not bad enough to be a cult classic like Troll 2, but it’s not good enough to break out of B-movie mediocrity. The film begins with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) inventing a device that is supposed to channel something called Colossus. Their initial experiment goes wrong resulting in the total burnage of Victor Von Doom via 1970’s style lighting bolts. He goes down hard, saved only by the heroics of Ben Grimm, (Michael Bailey Smith) the football player with an attitude and mind to match it, who runs in and breaks him out of the electric grasp of the machine.
If that sounds horribly confusing, it’s because it is. It plays out nine minutes into the film. To make it more difficult, every male character wears slacks and a blue button up shirt. Other than than their size, there isn’t a distinguishing factor, which makes differentiating between the characters frustrating. I actually rewatched the opening twice just to keep the three of them apart. I Guess the costume department only had one style.
After Victor Von Doom is horribly burned, his ER nurses (it’s unclear if they’re nurses or doctors or even work there) tell Dr. Reed that his friend has died from his injuries. This turns out to be a lie. It’s all in favor of creating a strange comedy relief crew from these two ER employees. Victor Von Doom isn’t dead, but for reasons unclear, these two employees want everyone to think he is.
This is just one of the confusing villain henchmen groups in the film. Almost immediately after we’re introduced to the two ER doctors turned bad, we meet the Jeweler and his men. A group of Oliver Twist style hobos who live underground serving a man with a jewelers magnifying glass. It might be compelling if part way through the film Dr. Doom didn’t discuss the Jeweler as though anyone with their ear to the ground had knowledge of him.
We now jump ten years into the future. Into a set that I swear is left over from a 70's Bond film. Everything is made from cement, and there are strange and unnecessary arches segregating the nice bay windows that face out into black nothingness. It doesn’t just feel cheap, it feels old. Older than Robo-Cop. The one piece of equipment in the room is a gussied up computer screen with rope lights wrapped around it. In this scene we get to see Dr. Reed and Ben Grimm discuss briefly who they should take into space with them on their new rocket.
They decide they should take the Storm siblings despite the fact that they have no training and are young. It's not the first completely baffling piece of storytelling to punch its way out of this movie. As the film plods along we witness a failure of a rocket in the vacuum of space that ends with all of the characters in the wreckage on earth, the kidnapping of a blind woman because The Jeweler assumes she must feel like an outcast, and the inexplicable turn of Victor Von Doom into the villain Dr. Doom. This is probably the most glaring hole in this entire film. At no point is it explained why he turns villain, why his ER room saviors kept everyone in the dark, why they serve him after his revival, or worst of all, why he wants to stop the Fantastic Four.
It's really a piece of trash.
Needless to say, the Fantastic Four beat the bad guy, and win the day. The film even ends with a wedding. Very little about getting to the ending is fun, and the whole thing lacks enough WTF moments to make it a cult classic. It stands better as a testament to the cruelty men can do in the name of making a buck. Everyone involved gave their all, their time, and their effort for something those at the top knew was destined for the junk heap. When it’s all said and done, it’s not fun. It’s just kind of sad.
Final Say: Don't Watch
If you're so inclined, you can watch the whole thing on YouTube: