FANTASY ISLAND (2020)
Directed by Jeff Wadlow
Written by Jeff Wadlow, Christopher Roach, Jillian Jacobs
Starring Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rooker, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Mike Vogel, Kim Coates, Robbie Jones, Jeriya Benn, Charlotte McKinney, Josh McConville, Tane Williams-Accra, Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Ian Roberts, Evan Evagora, Goran D. Kleut, Joshua Diaz, Josh Randall, Andrew Lees, Nick Slater, & Michael Peña as Mr. Roarke!
Find out more about this film here!
I guess I am probably one of the target audience for FANTASY ISLAND, as I remember watching the original series as a child when my grandparents would let me stay up late on Saturday nights, the film itself is geared more toward the tween market. That seems to be the market Blumhouse continues to shoot for, yet why he does so with a film based on a forty-year-old TV show, I have no idea. Very few of the younger audience will know FANTASY ISLAND even existed and those who do know about it surely aren’t going to see anything recognizable here besides a familiar name or two. This might be the reason the film tanked at the box office. I personally wasn’t compelled to go to theaters to see this one, but was able to catch up with it now that it is being released on Blu-ray.
A group of adventure seekers exit a plane to claim a prize all of them have won to have their fantasies brought to life on Fantasy Island. Their host, Mr. Roarke (played by Michael Pena) informs them that each of them will have their fantasies made real and that once they begin their fantasy, they have to see it through to completion. While the group expects holograms, hallucinogens, or cosplay, they are astounded to find that their fantasies are magically made flesh and blood. Each of the group see their deepest desires come to life and then begin to morph into their worst nightmares. The only key to survival lays deep within the island in a fountain of black water, but Roarke and his crew will stop at nothing to keep them from escaping their chosen fates.
As much as I love the actor, this was not the role for Michael Pena to do a turn as a heavy. The actor has always been the personable comic relief sidekick and offered some decent dramatic roles. While I understand that he might have taken the role to go against type, he just isn’t convincing as the enigmatic Mr. Roarke. There are times Pena himself looks like he is about to burst into laughter after delivering his lines. I heard a rumor that originally, Blumhouse wanted Nic Cage to play the role, but turned it down. After recovering from the news that Cage actually turned down an acting gig, I think it would have been a much more successful film with him as the lead, given his penchant for quirky, over the top performances. Personally, I think someone like Antonio Banderas or Javier Barden would have been much more effective, commanding, and threatening as Roarke. What we got was a someone who, in a less sensitive day and age, would have been shrunken down via CGI to be Tattoo. Pena looks like he took this role for the vacation time in Fiji. They didn’t even salt & pepper Pena’s hair for this one.
And speaking of Tattoo, surely they wouldn’t leave out the most iconic character from the FANTASY ISLAND TV show? With all of the little person actors out there today, surely, they would give a prominent role in a major release to one of them, right? Nope. Tattoo isn’t anywhere to be found when we begin our tale and when he supposedly does show up at the end, he bares very little resemblance to the iconic Herve Villachaize. I understand that even attempting to do this character might have been problematic, but to completely exclude such a vital character is like making a Sherlock Holmes film without Watson, a Green Hornet without Kato, a Sanford without a son, an Arnold without Willis. I think you get my drift.
I understand subverting expectations is the flavor of the month, but with the target audience without a clue that FANTASY ISLAND was once a thing and actual fans of the show taking one look at the trailer and seeing Pena as Roarke and no Tattoo, is it a wonder this one failed to impress?
It’s a shame though, because up to a point, FANTASY ISLAND does feel like a typical episode of the original TV series. Each of the group is introduced, goes off on their own adventure, and ends up seeing their fantasies come true long enough for them to learn a life lesson. Eventually, that lesson comes back to haunt them, which occasionally occurred on the original TV show as well.
The problem is that the film knocks its own legs out from under it by trying to weave all of the fantasies together into one twisted tapestry. After a varied and decently staged set of scenes of jungle action, a siege by a drug cartel, a conflict between a bully and her prey, and even some strong relationship drama, the film’s foundation shatters when they rely on one expositional drop after another in order to clumsily connect all of the plot threads together. And while the complex connections between the fantasies make sense in a way, the amount of jaw-flapping needed to over-explain it for the cheap seats in the audience is tedious and skids any momentum the film had to an abrupt halt.
Miscasting aside, had the film played out like a typical FANTASY ISLAND episode, keeping the mystery and wonder to separate stories in a sort of anthology format, I think this might have been a surprise. By the hour mark, I was wondering why people were so down on the film. The film leaps between the plots well, keeping with continuity, and working the pace briskly. Each plotline was interesting and unique. It all worked like a typical episode. But then the second hour (you heard that right, this film is almost two hours long) goes and clues me in on why this one was a dud. This new FANTASY ISLAND overcomplicates itself, kneecapping any good will I had for it in the first half with unneeded attempts to be clever and unpredictable.
In the end, I think there was a version at some point that adhered to the original and might have been good. The first hour is solid. But FANTASY ISLAND’s biggest flaw is being almost unrecognizable compared to the source material and since nostalgia is the only thing that was going to make this one work, that makes the whole experience downright un-fantastical.