'Fantasy Island': Film Review

Just as lame as the inevitable 'Love Boat' follow-up will be.
2/14/2020

Jeff Wadlow directs a big-screen, Jason Blum-produced adaptation of a nearly forgotten TV series.

Another dishwatery exploitation of IP whose nostalgia value for young moviegoers is dubious at best (for those who don't know, this is a riff on a late-'70s TV series), Jeff Wadlow's Fantasy Island lets Michael Pena don Mr. Roarke's pristine white duds and grant wishes to his guests on a remote tropical isle. Well, sort of.

This being a Jason Blum venture targeting horror fans, the dreams turn to nightmares very quickly — with careful-what-you-wish-for ironies that hope to teach moral lessons, or at least supply an O. Henry-like kick. But neither highs nor lows offer viewers much fun here, despite a fair amount of talent in the cast. When closing scenes set the stage for a series of future installments, one wonders: Are the film's producers indulging in a wilder fantasy than its characters?

The sinister nature of this Mr. Roarke's operation is apparent right away, when his customary pep talk to staff members — "Smiles!" — elicits only a stoic, almost corpse-like response from pallid bellboys. Roarke himself is less devilish than dour. The rich, Corinthian courtliness of Ricardo Montalban, who played host on the TV show, is replaced, as Pena greets new arrivals at his resort, by an almost affect-free politeness. Perhaps, one wonders, this Roarke has long ago grown weary of seeing foolish vacationers undone by their own desires.

The only happy person on this island appears to be Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley), a fresh-faced new employee of Roarke's resort who paces the beach in a pleasant daze and, when appropriate, whispers to herself in anticipation as new guests approach: "The plane!"

When the story's five guests disembark, Julia congratulates them on winning visits to this much-discussed paradise. The only thing their hosts ask in return is some post-trip love on social media.

While swapping theories about how the island's fantasy-fulfilling reputation was earned — holograms? virtual reality? hallucinogens? — the travelers give us an idea who they are: JD and Brax (Ryan Hansen and Jimmy O. Yang), high-fiving bros who also happen to be brothers; Elena (Maggie Q), a quiet woman haunted by regret; straight-arrow Patrick (Austin Stowell); and Melanie (Lucy Hale, from Wadlow's limp thriller Truth or Dare), a take-'er-sleazy lone wolf who unnerves Patrick by suggesting she might help make his fantasies come true, no magic required.

Roarke starts making dreams real right away, and, as is customary, bros come first: JD and Brax are escorted to a modern mansion where Spring-Breaky debauchery is well underway, with plenty of pneumatic Barbies for JD and equally perfect muscle-men for Brax, who (twist!) is gay. Elena, who five years ago rejected the man she should have married, is sent back to the night he proposed for the do-over she longs for.

Those scenarios play out as expected for a bit, while the other two turn sour immediately. Melanie, who lusts for revenge on the mean girl who made her high school life hell, is immediately chastened by a torture-porn scenario and winds up rescuing her bully (Portia Doubleday's Sloane) from a grisly death. Patrick, who grew up in the shadow of his soldier-hero dead father, is sent into an Army fantasy but is immediately arrested by soldiers who think he's a spy.

Happy or unsettling, the fantasies are all shadowed by outsiders. A disfigured man shows up in the corner of guests' eyes, then disappears before they can register who he is. A grizzled stranger (Michael Rooker) spies on Patrick and Melanie's travails, trying (and failing) to steer them away from danger.

The script's big idea, which does bring some scenes briefly to life, is that these strangers are somehow involved in each other's stories once they swerve from fantasy to peril. Patrick's band of soldiers, for instance, might wind up being able to rescue Bro Mansion from the narco-gang that has put an end to JD and Brax's hedonistic fantasy.

Things feel anarchic for a moment, as if the film might throw predictable narratives into a blender and emerge with something amusingly meta or (as unlikely as it seems at this point) actually frightening. Sadly, the truth is a much more prosaic connectedness, leading characters to team up in a tired attempt to quash the unexplained power at the heart of the film. "If we can stop her, maybe we can stop The Island," one hero proposes. "It's worth a shot," another bravely replies.

And so it goes, in rote magic-adventure fashion, until evil is vanquished in a way that allows a more vague menace to survive. If this were the feature-length pilot episode for some cheap reboot on a streaming service — which is what it feels like — a generous viewer might half-heartedly agree to tune in next week and see if things get more interesting. But on the big screen? A sequel would be less welcome than a new episode of, say, Charlie's Angels. Or Starsky & Hutch.

Production company: Tower of Babble
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Michael Pena, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Michael Rooker
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Screenwriters: Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach, Jillian Jacobs
Producers: Jason Blum, Marc Toberoff, Jeff Wadlow
Executive producers: Couper Samuelson, Jeanette Volturno
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Marc Fisichella
Costume designer: Lisa Norcia
Editor: Sean Albertson
Composer: Bear McCreary
Casting directors: Terri Taylor, Sarah Domeier Lindo, Nikki Barrett

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes