2020 | rated PG-13 | starring Lucy Hale, Michael Pena, Maggie Q, Ryan Hansen, Jimmy Yang, Portia Doubleday, Michael Rooker | directed by Jeff Wadlow | 1 hr 49 mins |
All the way around, the 2020 Blumhouse adaptation of Fantasy Island is on of the most bizarre, baffling, misguided and oddball things I’ve seen in a while. From it’s out-of-the-box concept to it’s crazy execution to it’s endless series of increasingly convoluted twists, this thing gets to a point that it is so dumb and so full of frothed up energy that it almost cycles over to being so bad that it’s good. I haven’t seen a studio movie this out of control with competing bonkers ideas since The Predator. Call it a guilty pleasure, as director Jeff Wadlow keeps everything light, bright, frothy and moving at a brisk, effortless pace. It’s incredibly dumb, but I also wasn’t bored. I spent much of the last half of it just going “what?”
To be fair, every time a straight forward reboot comes out of Hollywood many of us vocally complain that there is no reason to remake a fine film if you’re not going to give it a new spin, new modern twist or reason to exist. For all of it’s nonsense, the moment someone at Blumhouse said “Let’s turn the 1970s Ricardo Montalban series into a horror movie!” Fantasy Island became exactly that. The film bears little resemblance to the show, but is still very concerned with building in references for Mr. Roarke, Tattoo, “da plane” and other things that PG-13 crowd of dating teenagers couldn’t possibly care less about.
The other surprise is that despite it’s Blumhouse label, Fantasy Island isn’t even a horror movie. It’s an action movie where the anything-can-happen self-contained fantasy stories of the series are given a tangible sci-fi, Lost, backstory. Director Jeff Wadlow, who previously helmed Kick-Ass 2 but more relevantly Blumhouse’s awful Truth or Dare, doesn’t even attempt to pull the horror strings, stead going for a grab-bag of chaotic action across multiple genres. Wadlow has a history with trying to bottle the infinite possibilities of God-like power into a set of rules with Truth or Dare and fumbles it similarly here, but Fantasy is a lot more fun.
When the seaplane lands on Fantasy Island, a small group of guests disembark for a vacation of fulfilling their individual fantasies. Brothers JD (Ryan Hanson, Veronica Mars) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang, Silicon Valley) want to “have it all”. Gwen (Maggie Q) wants to get over regret and know what it was like to accept a previous marriage proposal. Patrick (Austin Stowell, this year’s Swallow) wants to play army like his father who died heroically in combat. Melanie (Lucy Hale, I do like that she seems to have taken to these movies) wants to get revenge on a childhood bully. Just like that Fantasy Island writes itself a pass to be anything, sliding easily from a war film to a Hostel torture film to an ethereal romance to a Scarface story. The thing that keeps the movie so interesting is that it seems to have some idea of where it needs to go, but just doesn’t quite have the time or attention to detail to get there.
Where it starts to go, where it does go in it’s moments of chaotic fun, is to start crashing of these fantasies together. An early scene has JD and Brax discover an armory in their mansion and play with grenades, setting off an explosion that causes Patrick’s platoon of war-weary soldiers to notice. A better version of this movie would have worked the script forward and backward, Seinfeld style, to take these seemingly very different storylines and weave them cleverly together into a chain reaction of misunderstandings and fateful decisions. Eventually a few of them collide in a way that seems accidental, but a version of this movie where all of them collided in a darkly ironic ways that locked into each other would have been incredible.
The film comes across a couple of interesting ideas for how it could have played with the rules of the island and settles on none of them, just throwing everything against the wall and then knocking over the wall. There are two competing ideas. I love the idea that you might be at Fantasy Island thinking you are there to fulfill a fantasy, but you are just the victim in someone else’s fantasy. That the fantasies are arranged by luring or kidnapping real people from the mainland to come as victims. The other idea, where the movie starts going loony is that the island itself is magic, conjures up events that can send you back and forth in time and unleashes an army of undead soldiers that bleed black oil to stop you. “The fantasies proceed to their natural conclusion”, says Mr. Roarke (Michael Pena), but the movie doesn’t stop and think through the ironic Monkey’s Paw double-edge sword that might actually turn the fantasies into nightmares. What is the inherent flaw in the fantasy that the guest is blinded to that makes them deserve their fate?
Every once in a while Wadlow gins up some fun when these stories collide. The last act of Fantasy Island goes full-tilt insane and into a series of escalating twists that make the story dumber and over-complicated. I’m pretty sure it renders the first half completely nonsensical, as if two scripts were forced together mid-production and nobody cared to reconcile it. While Wadlow is affective at creating chaos here, the movie doesn’t have a pulse. It’s not exciting, scary, thrilling, funny or sexy (nobody has a sex fantasy, come on). It’s hollow, without any interest in exploring it’s characters or the rules of the world, just arranging random set pieces. It’s ideas are mostly at odds with itself. The cherry on top of the weird sundae is that it sets itself up for a franchise. Well, why not.
I’m tempted to almost recommend Fantasy Island for a night of bewildering, head-slapping guilty pleasure camp. It will probably elicit a lot of “what”, “why did that happen” and “what’s going on” from an audience and it certainly isn’t miserable or meanspirited as these movies tend to be. One of the best lingering questions is the entire movie’s fundamental irony – how would an island like this even exist if all of it’s tourists end up tortured and murdered? Pena’s Mr. Rourke explains that away with babble about the island turning your experiences into a hazy memory and everyone apparently just forgets. Fantasy Island itself will be gone from my memory in the morning.