Relative to other approaches taken when attempting to revive a classic television show as a movie, doing a bit of genre bending with Fantasy Island as a horror feature is actually a smart concept. Call it pessimistic, but there is something inherently creepy and suspicious about someone offering to fulfill anyone’s deepest desires, and having all of the action unfold in a remote location only enhances that eeriness. Should that foreboding premise and paranoid atmosphere be combined with clever story and engaging characters, the potential is obvious.
The problem with Jeff Wadlow’s Fantasy Island is that the movie skips a few steps in that final part of the equation. The setting (provided to the production by the natural wonders of Fiji) is gorgeous, and the cast is filled with talented performers, but everything else feels half-baked. Questionable choices when it comes to key details eventually snowball into full-blown problems, and never is it entertaining enough to justify any of it.
Chief among these key details are the fantasies requested by the guests at the mysterious island resort run by the laconic, white suit-wearing Mr. Rourke (Michael Pena). Of the four played out, really only one of them feels realistic/not totally slap-dashed. Elena (Maggie Q) wanting to go back and reverse her biggest regret – not accepting a marriage proposal – is the only thread in the film that actually tracks, while everyone else is forced to do some ridiculous heavy lifting.
The desire for step-brothers Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) to “have it all” is laughably simplistic and undercooked; Melanie (Lucy Hale) immediately comes across as a psychopath for her desire to treat her high school tormenter (Portia Doubleday) like a character in a Hostel sequel; and it’s ridiculous to watch the magic of the island do all the heavy lifting narratively when it comes to Randall (Austin Stowell), who winds up on a time travel adventure with his dead veteran father as a result of his initial boilerplate desire to be in the army.
Fantasy Island doesn’t make any creative effort with its story, and it shows.
The rule is given that every fantasy must run its course and can’t be stopped, which is an open door invite to “careful what you wish for”/Monkey’s Paw shenanigans – but that’s why the fantasies that prop up the plot are so important, and there’s a serious problem in the audience recognizing the setup, but the characters being completely blind. Any rational person put into the base scenario of Fantasy Island would have the wherewithal to provide a certain extra level of detail in their requests as to ensure they get everything they want out of the experience, but that kind of thinking is presented as being totally beyond the various protagonists.
While the thinking among the director and his co-writers may have been that keeping things a bit open with the fantasies allowed for more plot options as things start taking darker twists, what it instead comes across as is lazy. There is no challenge or creativity in the storytelling, just a series of shortcuts that are needed to get to a totally telegraphed twist (which still manages to be unearned when reflecting on the details).
It’s not entirely accurate to call Fantasy Island a horror movie.
It would be nice to tell you that Fantasy Island’s shortcomings are balanced out by a solid collection of fun and clever scares. After all, this is a production from Blumhouse, which has become incredibly influential in the realm of horror. In reality, though, there isn’t a frightening frame in the thing; and actually calling it a “horror movie” is a misnomer.
Helping absolutely nothing is the decision to go PG-13 over an R rating (why not let this film go totally nuts, and, dare I say it, fantastical?), but even that doesn’t really matter because the narrative doesn’t provide anything that would even be enhanced by gruesome gore. Fantasy Island’s version of horror is a giant, scarred man in surgical scrubs randomly popping up places, maliciously bumbling around, and groaning, and half-second flashes of a guy with burnt skin randomly appearing in various scenes. The genre downgrade “Thriller” doesn’t fit because it’s not thrilling, and it’s not a comedy because it doesn’t even manage to be unintentionally funny. You could call it a drama, but even that implies a certain level of emotional attachment to the story that audiences just won’t get.
There’s potential for characters played by Michael Pena and Lucy Hale, but it’s all squandered.
The collection of missed swings is frustrating, as is seeing the talented ensemble working with the material. Past work in film and television has shown us how funny Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang can be, but here all they get are flat, obvious jokes paired with lazy exposition. Given what’s exposed about her through her fantasy, Melanie should be an exciting and unique role for Lucy Hale, but, as dark as it is to say, everything interesting about her falls away as soon as she realizes she’s hurting her real high school bully instead of a hologram. And while the idea of Michael Pena filling the shoes of Ricardo Montalban sounds exciting on paper, the part is mostly him stoically standing around and delivering purposefully-emotionless instructions to the guests.
Without any scares, surprises, or special performances, Fantasy Island culminates as a bad feature version of a 43-year-old intellectual property – and it’s hard to say what audience it’s targeting or for. As for those who do buy a ticket, it’s the kind of film that you start to forget at soon as they leave the theater, so hopefully the cast and crew at the very least had a memorable time in Fiji making it.
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