The original premise of ’70s TV impresario Gene Levitt’s “Fantasy Island” was something akin to “be careful what you wish for”, and there was a distinct horror element to the TV pilot which I believe was greatly watered down in favor of comedy, romance, campy drama in the vein of—well, let’s just say it was a place where “The Love Boat” could (and did!) stop over. So while the idea of a remake of the show sounds like a dystopian nightmare of creative bankruptcy, it didn’t have to be. And a horror-based remake was right up my alley. On the other hand, the buzz was less than compelling.
So, I went to see it at a time I knew pretty well I was going to end up being interrupted, and indeed I was, about halfway into the film.
The half I saw didn’t suck. Blumhouse usually spends some time developing characters so that you care when they’re gored through the eye with a dessert fork, and this is no exception. Our guests on the titular island are two bros who want to “have it all”, a middle-aged woman who regrets having said “no” to her dream marriage proposal, a young man who wanted be a soldier but promised his mother he wouldn’t, and a young lady who wants revenge on a high-school bully. Except for the last character, they’re all pretty likable.
Before I go on, I should point out the White Elephant in the room: Michael Peña as Mr. Roarke. Peña is a fine actor who does a fine job but he is no Ricardo Montalban. He might be a better actor, actually, than Montalban, I don’t really know. But Montalban essentially created the Corinthian leather industry (with apologies to Corinth and Bozell Advertising) from raw charisma. And the thing about Mr. Raorke is he looked good. His ’70s era white disco-leisure suit was always neat and perfect. Improbably so given the humidity on the sorts of islands we’re talking about.
Peña looks like an alcoholic who threw on the summer clothes of the island’s former dictator. The only time I really winced in this movie was looking at him shuffle around like a 21st century man in his rumpled linens. Now, this is all in-character, actually: Peña is on edge throughout the film, he is not playing Montalban’s Raorke, who was an angelic figure and part of the story hinges on that. But for me it felt like the collapse of Western Civilization.
OK, I’m being a bit dramatic. And if you don’t have any memories of the original show, you might not even notice. I didn’t care for it. But more on that later.
Anyway, our two bros get their “all”, which basically involves drugs, scantily clad models and a nice beach house. This fits in with the original show pretty well. There was always some side-character who made a very simple wish and got it and was happy. But with revenge girl, Melanie, things get weird: She’s torturing her high school bully and quickly comes to realize, it’s not a hologram and she’s actually torturing someone, which wasn’t what she thought. (None of the four parties take the island very seriously at first.) So she ends up rescuing her putative victim and the two run through the jungle trying to evade Melanie’s former therapist, who is somehow now a monster. (Roll with it.)
The other two stories present a more intriguing problem. Up till now, everything has been essentially possible, but now we come to Gwen, who regrets her past, and Patrick, who wants to be a soldier. For Gwen, she literally goes back in time so she can accept the marriage proposal (or so it seems). Patrick ends up in Central America in 1989 with his father on the rescue mission where his father lost his life. (This is why he wanted to be a soldier and why his mother wanted him not to be.) But this ’89 mission hears the noise from Melanie escaping, so…what the heck is going on?
Pause for intermission. This is where I left, but I was intrigued enough to wander back in and finish watching it later. (With AMC stubs, the ticket doesn’t cost anything.)
In the intermission, I’m going to point out two things: First, this is a seriously United Colors of Benetton movie. The two bros are a older white guy (Ryan Hansen, Friday the 13th 2009) and his much younger Asian brother (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriot’s Day). Oh, and the Asian kid is gay. Gwen is played by the lovely Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard, Mission:Impossible 3) and the man she jilted is a black man (Robbie Jones) in the mold of what Richard Meyer (of Comics Matter w/yaboi Zack) would call a Gordon Goodbrother. Roarke’s assistant is half-Jamaican. Etc.
I’m just going to say if you need—if you’re compelled—to be diverse, this is the way to do it. Maybe don’t put the diversity into ancient stories or historical tales—and when you do have the diversity, try to make the characters likable and deeper than their demographic checkpoints. (A movie has an advantage over a comic books, as yaboi would point out, because people have charisma and drawings don’t.)
So, while I rolled my eyes a bit, it didn’t grate in the way, oh, a mixed-race couple on the subway during WWII might.
Second, the reason the “Fantasy Island” series worked (to the extent that it worked) is that there wasn’t really an explanation for anything. At one point, I believe Mr. Roarke is shown to be something like an angel, and this is shown by him engaging in magical combat with Mephistopheles (Roddy McDowall). The rules, if there were any, were loosely defined at best.
Which brings us to the second half of this movie.
Gwen gets to say “yes” to her lover and wakes up on current day Fantasy Island with him, a young child, and five years worth of memories. Patrick convinces his father that he’s really his son and he’s really going to die on this mission, at which point the father’s like “Let’s get the hell outta here, then!” making Patrick feel like his father’s a coward. Meanwhile, the Bros discover that the house they were partying in used to belong to a drug kingpin when the kingpin’s enemies invade the house (and all the models lock the bros out of the panic room).
And Melanie and her companion end up encountering a crazed Michael Rooker, who’s a detective investigating the island. He’s discovered the fantasies are all powered by a magical alien rock buried in a cave. (One of the characters says it’s “ancient”, but I never could figure out how anyone would know that.)
But Gwen’s story seems to be the pivotal one: She made her wrong choice all those years ago because she felt guilty. And if she’d known that the island was real she would’ve had a different fantasy.
Now, here’s how the movie could’ve ended: She could’ve corrected her past mistake, in a story which tied in all the other characters, who also have learned a lot on their little stay, the end. But this is a Blumhouse movie, so we gotta have a horror twist and things gotta go weirder, even at the expense of any coherency.
All the characters are tied together by this mistake, and it turns out they’re in someone else’s fantasy (this is actually in the trailer), which is revenge on all of them. So they go hunt the magic rock down to kill it.
Of course, this whole plot negates most of the rest of the movie. Like, did they ever really get their fantasies, or was it all alien rock magic? Because at some points, it seems very clearly to be one way, and yet it cannot be. And if Rooker knows all about the island, his fate is especially pointless and dumb. Roarke himself is chained to the island for various reasons that were really unclear to me. (I don’t know if I zoned out or Peña was mumbling his exposition or what.) But to get out of their various fixes, there’s a lot of alien rock magic pulled into the overlong third act—which seemed geared to make this movie its own pilot.
The acting is good. Lucy Hale, while lovely and talented, has this new style of hair I can only describe as Garden Shear Homeless. I don’t know what that fashion is, but I see it a lot and I do not care for it. Maggie Q is quite moving. I didn’t want to hit The Bros repeatedly in the face, and they were sorta those kinds of characters, so good marks for Yang and Hansen. Charlotte McKinney is the model Chastity who is (of course) gorgeous but also provides some comic relief.
Do I blame writer/director Jason Wadlow (Kick Ass 2) for how it all falls apart? I dunno. It feels like a lot of it was quite good and promising, and also that several major points were foreordained by committee. And while it was critically and popularly reviled, it also made $45M on a $7M budget—that’s the Blumhouse secret!—so we might even see a sequel.