What Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four Got Right About Scientific R & D

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe apparently pressing ahead with another shot at a really successful Fantastic Four series (the more clearly so after Reed Richards’ little cameo in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness) one may wonder if the third time will not prove to be the charm — and find it an appropriate time to look back at the preceding attempts, not least the last such effort, Josh Trank’s 2015 film.

Trank’s Fantastic Four, of course, was not a commercial success relative to the resources invested and the hopes set on it. (The $56 million it made domestically, the $167 million it made worldwide, would generally have been regarded as solid indeed for a small film like Trank’s prior Chronicle — but a disaster for a would-be summer blockbuster that cost ten times as much, and from which a half billion or more would have been hoped.) Moreover, it is hard to see how it could have been that kind of success. There were, after all, the numerous alterations the film made that could be expected to displease purists (like making the Fantastic Four over into Young Adults), and more general superhero movies audiences (the downbeat, grim-and-gritty tone, the body horror element, the slightness of the action by the standard of such projects) — even before getting into the tangled matter of how well or how poorly all this was done (at least, to go by the results of a reportedly brutal and sloppy editing process).

Still, speaking for myself I did find much of interest in the film (in making this superhero film Trank was going for something unconventional, subversive, critical, and for much of the film accomplished that, even if it wasn’t the movie most Fantastic Four fans or most summer moviegoers would want to see), with this extending to what, for a Hollywood production, is an extraordinarily astute handling of scientific R & D. While at the outset there is a bit of garage-tinkering, per Edisonade cliche, really making the big breakthrough means entering the world of Big Science, with its large teams and expensive equipment, all as, rather than some hand-waving after a big “Eureka” moment, what we see is lots and lots of hard work — exhausting, collaborative hard work in which the team has to piece together the jigsaw from puzzle pieces that might be scattered very far and wide, and certifiable geniuses get corrected by their colleagues, and as they keep at their task longer than is good for them they fall asleep at their work stations (all of which can only be shown in montage form, but all the same, it’s more than most movies give us). And of course, all of this means submitting to the big organizations that have the big money to pay for all this, which are controlled by people who know and care little about science and scientists, but determinedly pursue agendas not necessarily nicer than those of a Victor Von Doom, in the course of which the scientists eventually realize that where science fiction may present them as gods among men, in the real, practical world their status is that of hired help to those who really have power, who are apt to rather rudely remind them how dispensable they are, unlikely to get the credit they deserve, and likely not even get to finish what they might have been so naïve as to think was “their” project, which can be taken from them at any time, and eventually is.

Of course, these aren’t the sorts of things that the typical film critic can be expected to appreciate. Indeed, looking at the film’s cynicism about the powerful and their agendas (“We could send our political prisoners there. Waterboarding in the fourth dimension could be very effective”) I suspect that at least part of the cause of the critics’ opprobrium was their usual hostility to the appearance of a critical standpoint in a movie made for the broader public — the obverse of their happily suspending their critical faculties as they cheerlead for an Iron Man or a Top Gun 2. That is a testament to the failings of the critics, not the movie — which on this score displayed far more intelligence and offered more truth than Hollywood, and science fiction, generally offer about this hugely important side of modern life, with this certainly going for a plenitude of work that they have praised far more highly.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.