At risk of putting too fine a point on it, Blumhouse’s “Fantasy Island” is pretty much everything that’s wrong with contemporary commercial moviemaking. It’s a big-screen adaptation of a justly forgotten television show, “reimagined” for a contemporary audience by removing all but the barest skeleton of its inspiration and fleshing it out with the spare parts of other, unrelated properties. The original, seven-season ABC television series was a corny, soapy ‘80s prime-time drama (a product of the Aaron Spelling factory) about, well, an island where fantasies come true; this is what was called a “high concept,” apparently because you could understand it even if you were high.
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It has been transformed by the folks at Blumhouse into, unsurprisingly enough, a low-budget horror movie. I know Mr. Blum’s commercial instincts are demonstrably uncanny, but there’s a baffling question at the center of this project: why purchase this dusty IP to begin with? Does it mean something to his Millennial target audience? (It does not.) Are there legions of “Fantasy Island” fans out there, waiting to be serviced? (There are not, and if there were, they would be disappointed by its deviations.) Why not just rip off the concept and go on your merry way, rather than bothering with half-hearted acknowledgments like the occasional, embarrassed incantation of the show’s catchphrase, “The plane?” (Again, the ‘80s were weird, and they were doing a lot of coke.)
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Anyhow, for whatever reason, here we have the PG-13 horror film version of the PG-rated ‘80s TV show “Fantasy Island”; it’s been made and released and there’s nothing we can do about that, so we may as well review it. And it is terrible. We fly onto the island with a handful of mildly annoying but undeniably attractive protagonists, including dissatisfied career woman Gwen (Maggie Q), blonde hottie Melanie (Lucy Hale), party boy stepbrothers Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J.D. (Ryan Hansen, doing yet another variation on his Dick Casablancas shtick), and frustrated cop Patrick (Austin Stowell).
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“Well, this place doesn’t suck,” Melanie notes, taking in the clear blue waters and immaculate cabins, and Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley), their greeter, informs them, “Your life is about to change forever,” because this is “a place where anything and everything is possible.” How, exactly, will their fantasies become reality? “Only the island knows,” says their host, Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña). But, he warns them, “Once a fantasy begins, you must see it through to its natural conclusion.”
Or, as Michael Rooker’s mysterious, grizzled weirdo explains, of his own fantasy experience, “It was beautiful! But then it became twisted. Turned into a nightmare.” Sure enough, each of our heroes’ fantasies eventually goes off the rails, but first, there’s a bizarre war-movie riff on “Frequency,” and some goofy “Scarface”-style shenanigans with Brax and Bradley, and an online revenge scenario… by the third act, you’ll find yourself shrugging in exhaustion. Black-eyed unkillable zombies? Sure! “Us”-style doppelgangers? Why not!
The problem with this kitchen-sink approach is simple: all movies, even genre movies (frankly, especially genre movies) need some kind of internal logic – a sense of what the movie’s rules are, an occasional feeling of sturdy ground. Otherwise, everything is just arbitrary, a filmmaker throwing random jolts at the lens to see what lands.
The filmmaker, in this case, is Jeff Wadlow, whose slipshod CV runs the gamut from Blumhouse’s earlier “Truth or Dare” to the Netflix Kevin James vehicle “True Memoirs of an International Assassin” to the woefully unrequested “Kick-Ass 2.” Here, he indulges in the moldiest of horror clichés (there are empty jump scares a-plenty), but as tired as those devices are, the film’s attempts at poignancy and pathos are even more unfortunate. And Wadlow could not pace his movie if his own life depended on it – he intercuts the various story strands so haphazardly and ineptly, with such long breaks between them, that they’re somehow rendered even more forgettable in their hiatuses.
“Fantasy Island” would be a complete washout were it not for the presence of Peña, who so rarely lands a leading role that I guess we should be thankful for what we get. From the moment he arrives, introducing himself as “the ambassador of your deepest desires” and announcing, “welcome to (dramatic pause) Fantasy Island,” he seems in on the gag – or, more accurately, aware of the gag, in a way that the filmmakers don’t. Resplendent in his white linens, joyously aping Ricardo Montalbán’s heavy accent, Peña’s clearly having a great time, like Vincent Price chewing scenery in some forgotten B-movie. But a little of him doesn’t go a long enough way; he’s rarely involved in the main action, logging a total of maybe 30 minutes of screen time, tops.
The script, by Wadlow, Jillian Jacobs, and Christopher Roach, keeps trying to dazzle us with its clever plot twists, none of which holds an ounce of water – leading up to a big reveal that’s breathtakingly, insultingly stupid, and a closing joke beat that made me want to pitch something at the screen. It’s not that the film’s badness is a surprise; it’s a transparently terrible idea, and the fact that Sony chose to screen it for critics the day before its release, with a review and social media embargo of noon on opening day, speaks to the confidence they have in the picture. It’s hard to blame them, but somehow, “Fantasy Island” is even worse than you’d guess. Both artistically and intellectually, it’s an absolutely bankrupt enterprise. [D-]