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Non-Review Review: Fantasy Island

What, exactly, is the point of the Blumhouse reboot of Fantasy Island?

To be fair, Blumhouse are a studio with a varied track record. They have produced some of the most interesting and compelling mainstream horror movies of the past few decades, including films like Get Out and The Invisible Man. They have also produced a fair amount of cynical schlock, such as Truth or Dare. There are also a number of films that seem to exist in the middle ground between those two extremes, like The Hunt or Black Christmas. It’s certainly a more varied approach than the standard horror films that heralded the studio’s arrival, like Insidious or Sinister.

Palming it off.

Jason Blum is a shrewd producer, and there’s a sense in looking at the studio’s output of trying to balance competing artistic and commercial demands. Blum tends to keep budgets under control, but he also seems to offset the riskier and more ambitious projects with generic crowd-pleasing fare. Fantasy Island would seem to belong in that category, but exactly what crowd is it intended to please? Watching Fantasy Island is a strange experience, and not just because of the multitude of structural and storytelling problems.

On a more basic level: who exactly is this movie for?

Can’t stick the island-ing.

Is there a dedicated and active fanbase out there for the classic seventies and eighties prime-time television show, chomping at the bit for a major cinematic adaptation? Fantasy Island seems to think so. Writers Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow clearly assume the audience has some knowledge of – and appetite for – nostalgia for the property. The opening sequence ends on a startling reveal of a name plate on a desk that reads “Mr. Roarke”, assuming the audience knows or cares who that is. The film’s closing joke is to offer an origin story for “Tattoo.”

This sort of continuity fetishing isn’t particularly unusual. After all, this is the age of the recycled intellectual property. Recognisable brands are arguably more important than movie stars, and even casual television audiences can be expected to recognise the name and concept of Fantasy Island. The film even finds a way to awkwardly shoehorn in the catchphrase “the plane!” However, is there a die-hard fandom? Will continuity fetishing draw those fans to cinemas?

By Roarke or by crook.

In some respects, the approach of Fantasy Island recalls the way Elizabeth Banks’ Charlie’s Angels seemed to assume a certain kind of nostalgic viewer. There is a paradox in all of this. Even if such a viewer exists in enough numbers to justify tailoring the movie towards them, surely those same viewers will be alienated by a perceived deconstruction or subversion of the core franchise? Elizabeth Banks offered a strange version of Charlie’s Angels that seemed trapped between fetishising and critiquing the past, while Fantasy Island reimagines its core concept as a horror.

There is, to be fair, something mildly cheeky in reworking a beloved family television show as a grotesque and nightmarish horror, in tipping the familiar into the uncanny. However, as The Banana Splits Movie discovered, this approach will only get a film so far. There’s only so far that a horror movie can stretch the dissonance of “here’s a beloved property… but with blood and guts!” before it needs another trick to layer on top.

Trouble in paradise.

It is perhaps too much to describe two films as “a trend”, but it is interesting to wonder about the fact that The Banana Splits Movie and Fantasy Island emerging so close together. Is there something to this? After all, even crass and crude horror movies tend to be reacting to something primal in the zeitgeist, reflecting the fears and anxieties of contemporary culture back at itself. Is there a fear about the nostalgia for these artifacts of childhood, about the way in which pop culture seems to increasingly infantalise its audience?

There are shades of this to Fantasy Island. It’s notable how, even outside the premise, so much of the movie hinges on nostalgia. Gwen gets two wishes from the island, and uses them both to try to undo past mistakes, become trapped in memories and fantasies. Patrick dreams of reconnecting with the father that he idealised, who died in service while Patrick was a child. Even Melanie dreams of avenging herself on her high-school bully. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that Roarke himself is trapped on the island by his own yearning for a lost past.

Well, that’s one way to get the audience to watch Fantasy Island.

Of course, all of this nostalgia is inherently toxic. The crystal at the core of the island has been corrupted. The film is full of shots of dripping black water, polluted by these dark whims. At the climax of Fantasy Island, it is revealed that the guests have all been tricked and trapped; they are not living inside their own fantasies, but have instead been lulled into a false sense of comfort and security by the bread and circuses.

It goes without saying that this is an extremely generous reading of Fantasy Island. The film never explores or develops any of these ideas. Indeed, it’s just as easy to read the film as a broad metaphor for the perils of social media. After all, this is another (far more common) trend in contemporary culture, evident in everything from The Hunt to Cam to Assassination Nation to Unfriended to Friend Request. In this reading, Fantasy Island is a story about the bubbles in which people live, and the way in which easy self-obsession obscures the connection to one another.

A pipe dream.

After all, the seemingly random assortment of guests on the island are inevitably revealed to have a shared connection to one another – a very grounded, very real, very memorable shared experience. However, the characters are so swept up in their fantasies that they never realise the overlap. It’s notable that the real horror at the heart of the film begins when the boundaries between the fantasies overlap; when the soldiers from Patrick’s fantasy invade the compound under attack from the terrorist from Brax and J.D.’s fantasy.

Again, there’s a sense in which all of this is too kind to Fantasy Island. The film is a mess, which perhaps lends it a rorschach blot quality. The film’s plot makes no sense, even by the standards of these sorts of disposable horror movies, hinging on a climactic twist that is both insane and inane. It makes absolutely no sense in the context of everything leading up to the reveal, seems to exist primarily to wrongfoot the audience, and then does nothing particularly interesting with some of its more interesting ideas. Nothing in Fantasy Island holds together for more than two seconds.

Shore enough…

Everything in the film seems to have been plotted no more than a single scene in advance. The internal logic of the film is not consistent or even articulated, but instead operates according to the logic of how horror films are shaped. It seems completely arbitrary that Brax and J.D.’s fantasy of a stereotypical hedonistic lifestyle should lead to them being targeted by terrorists, even with Mister Roarke offering a half-hearted justification. It only happens because this is a horror movie and the internal logic amounts to “… and then bad things happen.”

This wouldn’t be a fatal flaw of itself. After all, it is possible for deeply stupid films to be highly enjoyable if taken on their own terms. However, Fantasy Island also suffers from incredible tonal issues. The movie seems to have been pitched as something approaching a “horror comedy”, but never seems to settle on the right mix of its constituent elements. The jokes are tired and lame, but occasionally reach that low-level sitcom charm. However, they are also positioned so that they sap and undermine any level of mounting dread or anxiety.

Hale or shine?

It doesn’t help matters that Fantasy Island also inexplicably reaches towards actual character drama at certain points. The film seems to want to play certain beats very earnestly, such as Patrick’s reunion with his deceased father, and the navigation of the gulf between how Patrick idealised the hero and how the man actually behaved. Similarly, Melanie’s struggles with her high school bully Sloane are granted a heft within the narrative. The story also tries to paint Roarke as a tragic figure, which is a questionable choice in the context of operating what amounts to a murder island.

However, even allowing for those sorts of tonal issues, none of this approach to characterisation remains consistent across the runtime. Some of these characterisations are completely erased and reversed by the climactic twist, and how that shifts the understanding of the characters. Some of these characterisations pay off in deeply stupid ways, like the decision to build a key moment of Patrick’s father-son reconciliation around J.D. and Brax’s playful approach to grenades.

A-door-able innocence.

Even in its unrated form, Fantasy Island brushes up against the limitations of a “PG-13” horror movie. It is possible to make a great horror film that doesn’t contain gore or violence, but it requires inventiveness and creativity. Fantasy Island completely lacks those qualities, and so strangely keeps leaning towards horror only to pivot away to other genres. This explains the tonal issues with the comedy and drama in the script, but also the strange twenty-minute sequence where Fantasy Island becomes a tropical riff on Die Hard.

All of these individual choices are terrible, but they compound one another. Fantasy Island seems designed to appeal to nostalgic fans of the original show, but those fans will be alienated by the decision to render it as a horror movie. Fantasy Island seems intended to attract a young audience that might enjoy a schlock horror, but then cuts that with heightened melodrama, awkward comedy and generic action.

In stitches.

It’s hard to imagine that Fantasy Island can deliver on any audience’s fantasy.

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