Just how dire is Hollywood’s dependence on intellectual property? The “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie wasn’t even this week’s most desperate attempt to bring an old brand into multiplexes. Not that rebooting ABC’s “Fantasy Island” for the big screen was an inherently bad idea — the 1977 television show’s “‘Twilight Zone’ in paradise” vibe is always sunny and evergreen — but there’s a real whiff of desperation to the way that Blumhouse has dusted it off, and this slapdash programmer is such a complete shrug of a movie that it feels almost defiantly apathetic from the moment it starts. Dumb in ways that range from inane to insulting, but always growing duller by the minute, this new “Fantasy Island” is only a few minutes old before your greatest wish is to be watching literally anything else.
So there’s an island (played by Fiji, in the film’s best performance). And fantasies come true there. But — and here’s the catch! — people need to be careful what they wish for. Aladdin learned that lesson, Brendan Fraser in “Bedazzled” learned that lesson, and now a bunch of attractive television stars are going to learn that lesson or die trying. The movie is off and running before anyone can even shout “The plane! The plane!,” as five contest winners promptly land in paradise for a stay at a mysterious resort that they read about on Reddit (if you think this isn’t a movie that ends with one of the survivors joking that they’re going to leave a bad review on Yelp, you are wrong).
Gwen (Maggie Q, acquitting herself well), is the closest thing the movie has to a lead character, and it’s clear that she wants something from the experience that a normal vacation couldn’t provide. Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and JD Weaver (Ryan Hansen), on the other hand, are step-brothers who seem to want something that you could probably arrange at a Club Med: Namely, to party with beautiful people in swimsuits (“this doesn’t suck,” JD mistakenly observes upon arriving at the hotel). The movie lucks into its funniest moment when the island grants these boys their ultimate fantasy, and the first thing we see is… someone jet-skiing in a swimming pool. Every “Lost” has its Nikki and Paulo, I suppose.
Bringing up the rear are wannabe soldier Patrick Sullivan (Austin Stowell, burdened with a melodramatic backstory this movie has no way to support), and the ultra-horny Melanie Cole (Lucy Hale), who wears so much eye shadow that it looks like she smeared the Smoke Monster all over her face (in fairness, there turns out to be a reason for this). When it comes time for the guests to find their rooms, Melanie tells Patrick that he can “bung-a-LOW” with her. That’s about as clever as this “Fantasy Island” gets. Of course, all of these characters have their secrets — Melanie most of all — and it’s only a matter of time before the island’s enigmatic Oz figure manages to expose them.
His name, of course, is Mr. Roarke, and Michael Peña’s full-bore Ricardo Montalbán impression is almost reason enough for this movie to exist. “Anything and everything is possible here,” he tells his guests, repeating a mantra that screenwriters Jillian Jacobs, Chris Roach, and Jeff Wadlow (who also directed the film) apparently struggled to internalize when reconceiving “Fantasy Island.” No matter how low your expectations, it’s hard to forgive a movie about boundless imagination for not having a single new idea. Which isn’t to say that the script doesn’t offer a few unexpected riffs on some old ones.
Playing Melanie’s high school bully, “Mr. Robot” star Portia Doubleday provides the most curious wrinkle, and breaks open this reboot’s increasingly unintelligible rules even as she forces along its asinine revenge plot. It’s rare to see such an intricate mythology at work in a movie that feels like it’s just making stuff up as it goes along, and while it’s intriguing to consider how one person’s fantasy is often located inside another person’s nightmare — and that our world only works if we all concede to the compromises of real life — this tossed off genre exercise doesn’t have the gumption to follow through on its “Inception”-like approach to human desire. (It does, however, have a very confused-looking Michael Rooker as a renegade who shows up with a machete whenever a scene is too lifeless to be salvaged any other way.)
Having said that, the genre that “Fantasy Island” exists inside is up for debate, as Wadlow’s direction struggles to settle on the right tone. Or even a tone. Half-assed jump scares punctuate a handful of brainless action beats as the movie is pulled between PG-13 horror and the kind of stringy psychothrillers that were made for teens who needed somewhere dark to make out (“Swimfan” comes to mind); like raw dough that’s stretched too thin to even put in the oven, Wadlow’s film doesn’t split the difference between modes so much as it sags between them. Between the blood that drips from the ceiling and the steroidal torturer who stalks the cast across the island, you can feel that the film is desperate to shake loose from its source material and embrace the idea that violent delights have violent ends, but the finished product is entombed by the morality play mechanics it inherited from the original.
By the time this “Fantasy Island” arrives at its gallingly stupid final twist, you’ll be dying to go home.
“Fantasy Island” is now playing in theaters.