A couple months ago, cineplexes were treated to a big-screen remake of “Charlie’s Angels”. This didn’t last long, as it was one of the year’s biggest commercial and critical flops, quickly dispensed to make room for a slew of more lucrative films. But at least it made sense on paper. While the original TV show occupies a controversial place in feminist history, revisiting the property by way of a female-driven action flick — written and directed by a woman! — sounds like a perfectly fine idea.
Compare that to Fantasy Island (2020), a remake of an even goofier TV show from the same era. What the hell kind of logic got us here?
Well, the basic theme of the show was always “be careful what you wish for.” Not exactly a new or timely concept, but certainly a timeless one. Hell, this theme has already been the center of countless paranormal horror stories — just last summer, we got a remake of Pet Sematary, so why not “Fantasy Island”?
Moreover, the original show never explained precisely what the island was or how it worked. If the filmmakers want to explore that question as the central mystery at the heart of a paranormal horror plot… well, that’s certainly not the worst idea I’ve ever heard. Not by a long shot.
So what have we got here? Well, the movie opens with a chase sequence in near darkness, shot in extreme close-up with a shaky handheld camera. It’s an action sequence that’s incomprehensible. Yes, gentle readers, we’re in trouble.
Shortly after, we’re introduced to Mr. Roarke, played by Michael Pena. In the role made famous by Ricardo Montalban. I hope it goes without saying, but that is not an upgrade. What, was Esai Morales not available? Jimmy Smits wouldn’t pick up the phone? Did you even try getting Lin-Manuel Miranda? Of course he’s insanely busy, but maybe he’d like a working vacation in Fiji, you never know.
His assistant is Julia, played by Parisa Fitz-Henley. And yes, she is the one who gets to utter a new interpretation of the famous “The plane! The plane!” catchphrase. What about Tattoo, you may ask? Um… well, they set him up for the sequel (that’s probably never coming), that’s all I can say at the moment. For now, let’s move on to the unfortunate victims who won a trip to this island.
Gwen (Maggie Q) is a cynic who turned down a marriage proposal five years ago. It left her paralyzed with regret, believing she’s not worthy of love or a family of her own. So now she wants a do-over, to see what might have been.
Melanie (Lucy Hale) is a vindictive and vapid little bitch who was bullied relentlessly back in high school. Thus she dreams of revenge against the high school classmate (Sloane, played by Portia Doubleday) who made her life hell. This storyline is all about living with grudges and learning to let them go.
Patrick (Austin Stowell) is a disgraced cop who always wanted to join the military. His reasons are kind of a long story, but suffice to say he’s got a ton of daddy issues to sort out.
Then we have JD and Brax (respectively played by Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang), a pair of stepbrothers and lifelong BFFs. To try and get over JD’s recent breakup, the two of them are out for a typical weekend of debauchery — sex, drugs, alcohol, and so on. What could go wrong?
Last but not least is Michael Rooker, playing… well, he’s not exactly a guest. I’m loathe to get too deep into spoilers, but suffice to say his character is one of many interesting yet mishandled ways in which the film considers the greater possibilities and ramifications of the island and how it works.
From start to finish, the characters and the plot are heavily preoccupied with figuring out the island and how it works. What’s real and what isn’t? Are the other people involved all actors? Everything from holograms to freaking time travel is put on the table. One character even raises the possibility that they’re ALL guests, all playing a part in each other’s fantasies.
This is where we start running into problems.
On a fundamental level, the premise is all about what the characters want. In storytelling terms, that’s called a “motivation”, the foundation of any character in any plot. If the motivations aren’t clear, the characters and the plot won’t be clear, that’s all there is to it.
That’s a problem when the characters go in wanting one scenario, only to decide partway through that they want or need something else. That’s an even bigger problem when the island itself is this unknowable sentient being that takes an active role in the plot for its own mysterious reasons. This is compounded by the standing question of what’s real, what isn’t, and what limits (if any) the island has in reshaping reality.
Now multiply all of those questions by four or five storylines. All affecting each other in different ways. Compounded by the revelations and double-crosses made as the film unfolds.
The end result: The film dissolves into a convoluted and incomprehensible mess by that wreck of a third act.
What’s more, this is inherently a movie about characters confronting their own flaws. The plot is all about characters who work through what they think they want on the way to discovering what they truly need. Trouble is, that only works if the characters are worth a damn.
There’s certainly the potential to develop the characters into something more fully realized, but the writing just isn’t there. The performances sure as hell aren’t there. At the top of the bill, we’ve got Michael Pena playing a Ricardo Montalban character with maybe a tenth of the late actor’s charisma, and the cast only gets weaker from there. The characters all start out thin, they all end up thin, and there’s not an actor in this cast who can make any of them the least bit compelling. (Though Maggie Q puts in a Sisyphean effort, bless her heart.)
But is it scary, at least? Hell no. The jump scares are frankly pathetic, and the filmmakers do fuck-all with the multitude of creepy ideas on display. I’ve already mentioned the incomprehensible action sequences. It’s clear that the filmmakers were depending on the mysteries of the island to power the suspense, but that only goes so far when most of the setups take the laziest and least satisfying payoff. Either that or they straight-up break their own rules to get the plot where it needs to go.
But on a positive note, I’m happy to praise the work of Bear McCreary, still one of my favorite composers in the business. While his score is loaded with sinister strings like you’d find anywhere else in the genre, he mixes it up with tropical flutes and drums. It’s a distinctive spin on the established Blumhouse sound, giving the score a Polynesian flavor of paradise without making it sound less creepy. Nicely done.
Fantasy Island (2020) is the boring kind of bad. It’s not aggressively awful, as there are a lot of genuinely good ideas in here and so much raw potential on display. Alas, it would take a better filmmaker than Jeff Wadlow to see that potential realized.
The cast is flat, the action is a mess, the horror is boring, and the script is maybe a draft or two short of where it needed to be. It’s genuinely disappointing to see a plot start out with such promise, only to collapse under the weight of its own bullshit in the third act.
Sorry, Wadlow, but you’re not as clever as you think you are. Not recommended.