Saturday, February 22, 2020

Island Reveries

Fantasy Island (2020)

I suppose it was too much to hope that a new version of Fantasy Island (2020, directed by Jeff Wadlow) would be something other than a bunch of moralizing twaddle. Moralizing twaddle was baked into the DNA of the old TV series. It's what made the show popular with the old ladies who were its primary audience. My grandmother loved the show, although that might also reflect her crush on Ricardo Montalban. There's a certain poetry in the original show's position as the follow-up to The Love Boat, given that it takes the privileged bourgeois characters of THAT show and holds up a mirror to their moral failings. That could work even today. It's not too surprising to see it re-imagined as a horror movie, either. The original 1977 pilot for the show had more than a little horror woven into it, particularly that weird Gothic ambience unique to 1970s tv movies. Horror tropes abounded throughout the series original run from the outset. The pilot featured a riff on The Most Dangerous Game and another story about a woman who wants to attend her own funeral, after all. It was a sunlit variation of The Twilight Zone at Rod Serling's most didactic. So the new movie, which includes both the moralizing and the tired horror tropes, is at least recognizable as descended from the original show.

The story begins with a woman fleeing from unknown assailants. She has been abducted to the island for reasons she doesn't understand and when she talks to Mr. Roarke, the proprietor, he tells her that she is his guest, witting or not. The next day, a plane arrives bearing more guests. All of them have won a contest to be there, and each of them has a particular fantasy they would like to live out. Roarke tells them the rules: On fantasy per guest, and you must continue that fantasy until its logical conclusion. There's Gwen, who would like to fix her biggest regret, and whose fantasy initially involves saying yes to a marriage proposal she turned down. For J. D. and Brax weaver, mismatched brothers, it's living the high life with women (and men for Brax because he's gay) and partying till dawn. For Melanie, it's getting revenge on the schoolyard bully who made her early life hell on earth. For Patrick, it's living up to his father's legacy as a soldier. Needless to say, all of these fantasies go wrong. There are mysterious elements to each fantasy that hint at something darker behind them, and when the fantasies begin to overlap, it becomes clear to all of the guests that they are the elements of someone else's murderous fantasy...

Austin Stowell, Michael Peña, and Lucy Hale in Fantasy Island (2020)

The idea behind this edition of Fantasy Island is clever enough. Let's look at the fantasies from the point of view of the people roped in to making the fantasy real for someone else. Sure. Why not? From there, the film throws a bunch of genre spaghetti at the wall and hopes that something sticks. Zombies? Got it. Torture porn? Got it. Ghosts? Got it. In the course of weaving all of it into a narrative it drops a few stitches, making narrative leaps that sometimes seem like non-sequiturs even when the audience is provided with an exegesis at the end. Why does the island allow Gwen to change fantasies midstream? Why does the island need the live version of Melanie's bete noir when it has provided simulacra of everyone else's? Why is Roarke beholden to the island when its method of compelling his servitude seems more like a compartment of hell than heaven? The answer to all of this is that the film can't actually proceed without cheating.

Lucy Hale in Fantasy Island (2020)

The filmmakers probably could have done without explaining how the island works. One of the central functions of this movie is to provide an origin story of sorts for both the island and for Roarke and his servants. This isn't a slasher movie, per se, but it makes the classic mistake of the slasher movie. It explains too damned much. Back story is not necessarily character, particularly when presented with characters whose mystique revolves around the possibilities of what they are. Explaining them robs them of what makes them interesting in the first place. It kills the golden goose when you dissect it. That's what happens here. The back story they give Roark and the way this "explains" how the island works turn them both into something all together less than they were at the outset. The island in particular becomes the equivalent of a video game level to solve while Roarke...well, Roarke is far less compelling as a grieving widower than as a character who might be an angel or who might be a devil and it's up to the viewer to decide which one he is.

Michael Peña in Fantasy Island (2020)

Michael Peña would not have been my first or even my fourteenth choice to play Roarke, but he works well enough, I suppose. He lacks the charisma of Ricardo Montalban or even Malcolm McDowell, but I can imagine him aging into the Roarke of the TV series if I squint hard enough. Michael Rooker's character, the guy who is trapped on the island after going off script in order to expose the place to the world works better, but it's a character Rooker has played before and better. The remainder of the cast is anonymous, with the possible exception of Lucy Hale. Her character vacillates between motivations throughout the movie, arriving at a fine madness in the end, but she's not subtle about the transitions and the screenwriters have done her no favors. The screenwriters have done the entire production no favors and perhaps it's to everyone's benefit that the film's actual title ("Blumhouse's Fantasy Island") lays the blame squarely where it belongs.

Lucy Hale in Fantasy Island (2020)

The film suffers a bit from a convention of the original series, too, given that the island setting lends the film a samey same ambiance to most of the fantasies. The only visually distinct fantasy in the film is Melanie's torture room, and even that seems constructed at second hand from the Saw or Hostel movies. This shows the filmmakers' hands in so far as they haven't imagined anything new about the premise of Fantasy Island except how it allows them to regurgitate tired tropes from the last twenty years of horror movies no matter how played out they are. You don't get the shock of the new one encounters in movies like It Follows or The Babadook or The Witch. This is a high concept instead, a marketer's movie banking on the idea that if you slap the Fantasy Island brand name on a bunch of crap you've already bought, who cares if it's good so long as it makes bank in its opening weekend before anyone has an idea that they've been baited.

Since I've criticized this as a marketer's film, it's only fair to give credit where credit is due. The film's marketing is stellar, particularly its posters. They're the only element of the whole production where creativity and novelty are on full display. These are really good.

Fantasy Island Poster 2 (2020)

Fantasy Island Poster 2 (2020)

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