FANTASY ISLAND (2020)
When the mysterious owner of a luxurious island invites guests to live out their most elaborate fantasies there, chaos quickly descends.
Blumhouse Pictures has risen to prominence as a studio focused on making profitable low-budget horror (Get Out, Split, The Invisible Man) and occasional award-winning dramas (Whiplash, BlacKkKlansman). I’m always interested in what they release, but their decision to remake 1970s TV show Fantasy Island (1977–1984) felt peculiar. Alarm bells started ringing after Blumhouse hired their Truth or Dare (2018) director Jeff Wadlow, as he was responsible for the sorry disappointment of Kick-Ass 2 (2013). I guess the secret is how Blumhouse keep their financial risks so low, as even Fantasy Island only cost $7M and managed to scare up $47M at the box office despite unkind reviews.
A familiar setup awaits fans of the silly TV show, of which there are arguably few in the target demographic for Fantasy Island. A plane full of holidaymakers arrives on an exotic island, suspicious of its keeper Mr Roarke’s (Michael Peña) reputation for making any of his guest’s fantasies come true. After settling in overnight, we’re swiftly made aware of each person’s heartfelt desires: businesswoman Gwen (Maggie Q) wants to accept a marriage proposal she regrets turning down five years ago and start a family; competition winner Melanie (Lucy Hale) is seeking revenge on a childhood bully (Portia Doubleday); former cop Patrick (Austin Stowell) wants to enlist in the army (which stems from his desire to meet his dead war hero father); while stepbrothers Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) and J.D (Ryan Hansen) are keen to experience the ultimate pool party with beautiful people to sleep with. All get their wishes, of course, but each fantasy comes with a sting in the tail, which each vacationer can’t escape because the rules state each fantasy must be allowed to play out.
It’s classic Monkey’s Paw stuff, which the TV series toyed with to varying degrees of success for mainstream audiences many decades ago. This update clearly takes inspiration from things that became popular in Fantasy Island’s wake, most obviously a focus on a “magical island” mystery narrative fans of Lost (2004–2010) will recognise. The soundtrack by Bear McCreary even evoked Michael Giacchino’s amazing Lost score during a few of the emotional moments, or so my ears believed. And the similarities to Lost becomes unavoidable once the gang are meeting enigmatic “Others” like Damon (Michael Rooker) — named after Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof? — and collectively searching for the “source” of Fantasy Island’s wish-granting powers.
Around the Lost-style ‘what the hell is going on?’ puzzle-solving, Fantasy Island offers a Twilight Zone-style assortment of idyllic experiences going bad, forcing characters to see the error of their ways and try to escape the deadly game they’re playing. Some of those subplots aren’t too shabby, at least in the early going, but there are obviously highs and lows. I don’t quite understand why Patrick went to this island expecting to… join the army? Some “fantasy” when that’s possible in ordinary life. And while the island knew his real fantasy was to meet his late father, did he seriously expect that to come true before boarding that plane? Ditto Gwen’s turn-back-the-clock fantasy, who at least acknowledges the seeming impossibility of her wish.
To be fair, I was rather enjoying Fantasy Island for the first hour. The story didn’t hang about and got down to business quickly, and it was entertaining to see what each person’s fantasy was and get a sense of how each one’s dream scenario would become a nightmare. The jumpscares involving burned figures and ominous drops of water sadly foreshadowed a less interesting second half, when answers had to be forthcoming and some less convincing twists and turns presented themselves. Perhaps that’s a sign of how this idea works best for weekly TV, with simpler ‘be careful what you wish for’ morality tales. Once a bigger mystery has to be explored to fill a longer runtime, it starts to feel like a poor man’s Lost hastily wrapping things up during the first episode.
It’s the script (written by Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach, and Jillian Jacobs) that lets Fantasy Island down in the end. The humour is excruciatingly bad, mostly shouldered by the intensely annoying Jimmy O. Yang and Ryan Hansen as immature “bros”, and Michael Peña is horribly miscast as Mr Rourke — seemingly because he was the only actor of Mexican origin, like the TV show’s original star Ricardo Montalbán. Peña’s made his name in Hollywood being funny, so perhaps he took this role as a chance to use more dramatic muscles, but he doesn’t connect in this role. He plays things too seriously when he should be mischievous, and a presence you look forward to seeing. Instead, he actually seems to suck away any fun at times. There was actually a 1998 TV remake of Fantasy Island with Malcolm McDowell as Mr Rourke (ignoring the ethnicity and memorable flamboyance of Montalbán), but at least McDowell had screen presence as a trickster type of character. Peña was the wrong man for this job as an actor audiences have been conditioned to laugh at.
Fantasy Island is a missed opportunity, lacking imagination and characters with enough depth for their individual stories to hit home. Maggie Q’s story works the best emotionally, and I enjoyed elements of Lucy Hale’s when her fantasy turns into a loose sequel to Hostel, but the rest is only occasionally entertaining. And once the fantasies are dealt with, the remaining mysteries aren’t all that interesting. But there are a few enjoyable nods to the TV series (“the plane, the plane!”), Peña’s snow-white suit, and an ending that shifts the perception of what this film was. But it’s not scary enough for horror fans, or funny enough for those expecting a macabre comedy vibe, or fantastical enough for those who naturally expected a big-budget reinvention of the TV show concept. Not a total waste of time, but a frustrating failure because there’s a sniff of a worthwhile revamp here.
USA | 2020 | 109 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
Fantasy Island lands on Blu-ray with an ‘Unrated’ version that’s a staggering 16 seconds longer than the Theatrical cut. Here’s a Reddit about the differences. The picture is presented in 2.39:1 and every shot of the titular island are mouth-watering, with azure blue sea and lush green jungles.
There’s a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track available on the disc, not Dolby Atmos or DTS:X for greater immersion, but it’s sufficient and has enough punch where it counts.
director: Jeff Wadlow.
writers: Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach & Jillian Jacobs (based on the TV series created by Gene Levitt).
starring: Michael Peña, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Portia Doubleday, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen & Michael Rooker.