Review: Fantasy Island (2020)

Distributor: Columbia Pictures (through Sony Pictures Releasing)

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Writers: Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, Jeff Wadlow

Composer: Bear McCreary

Starring: Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Portia Doubleday, Michael Peña, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang

Genre: Horror, Adventure, Comedy

When people talk about Fantasy Island, it’s usually in reference to the seven-season long TV show that first aired in 1977. Though my introduction to this franchise was through the short-lived 1998 television remake starring the ever enigmatic, Malcolm McDowell. Young in age and bound by the restrictions of free-to-air station time slots, I only managed to catch a few episodes here and there during its one and only season. What I still remember is its cathartic approach to storytelling; a character would arrive believing one thing, but would always leave the island learning a valuable lesson about their priorities in life. With a strong “be careful what you wish for” vibe, and morals taking a Monkey’s Paw twist, there was an ever-present mysterious and sometimes sinister undercurrent surrounding the island’s wish-granting mechanics.

So it’s not a giant leap to see this premise turned into a horror film. The groundwork had already been laid. The fantasies on the show turned bad as often as a rail journey on Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends, with the island’s caretaker, Mr. Roarke, frequently intervening to ensure the safety of his guests. Yet there are many horror films that open with a strong premise, only for the narrative to fall apart in the final act. Does this feature length reboot have the capacity to pay tribute to its source material while also exploring a previously-untapped shift in genre?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: This film is a horror and therefore intends to scare the audience. Multiple jump scares. Strong gun violence—people bleed from gunshot wounds, there are multiple gunfights, and stronger weapons like grenades are used. Frequent close ups on eyeballs that pop and bleed black blood. A woman is tied up and tortured (electrocuted, cut, drenched with liquid). There are several imposing characters that wear masks, or have gruesome features like stitched up lips or have burnt skin. Large snakes are seen briefly. Instances of physical assault and stabbing.

Language/Crude Humor: A gun is positioned in a certain way to make an erection joke. Occasional strong language, mainly variations of the s-word, along with a**hole and b*tch. Middle finger is raised.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters hold bongs with the intention to smoke them. There is a massive party scene where everyone appears to be drinking alcohol. References to pot and cocaine.        

Sexual Content: No nudity, however both men and women are seen in extremely skimpy swimwear. A couple are seen kissing on a bed. Several conversations strongly allude to promiscuous sexual activities in both a heterosexual and homosexual nature. Adultery is committed.

Spiritual Content: The entire premise revolves around a mysterious island that has the power to grant anyone their deepest desires. While this magic seems omnipotent, it is not tied to any recognisable religion.

Other Negative Content: There’s a kidnapping. Some characters show a lack of empathy in key moments. There are severe examples of hedonism.

Positive Content: The film strongly promotes the reconciliation of one’s past; to forgive, to accept and to heal from the pain of previous regrettable moments. It questions people’s shallow desires and requests its characters to dig a little deeper in order to find the true source of their discontent.

Review

Fantasy Island is a film that divides itself in many different ways. Based purely off the release date of the original television show (1977), it’s safe to assume that the majority of people who are familiar with the program would have been born in the 1950s and 1960s. Yet the slasher horror genre very much caters to audiences in their late teens and early twenties. This is only just one example of where Fantasy Island tries to bridge two completely different sets of demographics; it’s an interesting task, though ultimately the job proves a little too difficult for the film to handle.

Fantasy Island jumps straight into the narrative; forgoing a standard three-act, Hero’s Journey opening where we see the characters in their own environment before setting off on their wild adventure. Instead the film opts to introduce everyone on the titular island itself, skipping the real world pleasantries. This choice does rob the audience of the initial character development usually seen in screenplays, though as each person explores their individual fantasies, the more we slowly learn about them. It doesn’t take long to see that the characters fall into two main categories: the stereotypical characters that are pawns of the horror genre, and the serious characters that are more realistic and serve the film’s deeper themes. Once again this film splits itself in two.

The divide is apparent the very moment the characters step off the plane. Brothers, Bradley and Brax, constantly high–five each other whilst spouting cheesy dialogue that would even make Emperor Palpatine feel envious. Then there’s Melanie, whose witty criticisms and pointed situational remarks make it abundantly clear she’s the shallow, one-dimensional female character that reminds everyone that this is a horror film. Yet as grating as these characters appear, on Fantasy Island nothing is ever as it initially seems.

They are so exaggerated and over-the-top that it’s is apparent the writers intended them to be this way. As Mr. Roarke confides in one of the other guests, most people fantasize about hedonistic things—parties, sex, drugs, and riches. Indeed, this is exactly what Bradley and Brax’s fantasy entails. They actually play the role of the stereotype, to demonstrate to the audience the pitfalls of dreams of this nature.

Fantasy Island is often described as “Westworld meets The Cabin in the Woods”. What it has in common with these properties is the manufactured choose-your-own-adventure style story, and the fact it’s also trying to on purposely feature stereotypical characters. Yet it’s an incredibly hard feat to pull off. Ari Aster tried to play with the role of the stereotype in his latest horror film, Midsommar, and even he struggled with clarifying the statement he wished to make. It works in The Cabin in the Woods because the film operates as a parody, and the archetypal, clichéd behaviours were perfectly interwoven into the plot itself.

In Fantasy Island, those sorts of characters do play an important role, though the trouble begins when movie needs to start doubling down on the final moral of the story. The characters are too shallow to encompass the narrative’s weightier themes and are not fit for the task when they’re required to dig a little deeper. They are unrealistic and somewhat unlikeable, so the emotional payoff that’s presented during the film’s closing moments doesn’t come to fruition.

This is in stark contrast to Gwen and Patrick’s storylines. Both of these characters do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the film’s emotional arc. Their fantasies are nuanced and more mature in nature. It’s these two stories that harken back to the type of tales explored on the original television show. They are compelling enough to survive without the jump scares that are otherwise littered throughout the movie. Yet that’s part of the problem—Fantasy Island is advertised as a horror film and it simply doesn’t deliver on this front. The movie’s best parts fall well and truly within the narrative’s drama-driven segments. While viewers that aren’t picky about genres may be pleasantly surprised, there is enough of a contrast to consider it a bait and switch for those craving for Hostel-styled horror.

In many ways, Fantasy Island operates as an anthology of sorts, with each character telling their own story. The film offers a good cross-section of fantasies—the hedonistic, the violent, the regretful, and the cathartic—casting a wide net and banking on the idea that everyone will find at least one of these storylines appealing. Though that’s also an anthology’s flaw; the audience merely tunes out when their least favourite narrative is hogging the screen. The film is only as strong as its weakest link.

To the film’s credit, it does showcase a lot of writing talent when it starts to slowly merge all the tales into one, with fantasies residing amongst other fantasies, like some kind of fantasy-ception! I do appreciate the difficulty in reining in all these separate stories even though some plot holes do ultimately exist. This interlayering was the aspect that I thoroughly enjoyed the most, so it does surprise me to hear from a lot of other viewers that this is was exactly what they hated. Yet I can see where they’re coming from; it’s a long film and there is one twist too many. It’s a complex narrative with many moving parts, with comedy introduced to smooth over the inherent weaknesses of having half the cast being walking clichés. Unfortunately with two or three additional subplots being introduced past the halfway mark in the runtime, along with trying to balance horror, drama and humor, quite simply there’s too much stuff happening which ultimately causes the audience’s suspension of disbelief to wear thin.

Some parts of the plot do border on ludicrous (though the film intentionally tries to poke fun at itself as a tactic to beg for the viewer’s forgiveness on this transgression), but as convoluted as it may appear, the story can still be followed. Though a viewer’s level of comprehension is contingent on whether they take everything on face value. Horror films have a tendency to lay all of their cards on the table at some point in the story; it could be in a villain’s speech, or a character makes a very apt hypothesis halfway through, or everything is explained in some kind of ancient prophecy. Fantasy Island does this with its horror subplot, though since it’s a drama-based half-breed of a movie, it also follows those genre conventions as well, deciding to remain ambiguous in other parts of the story.

One character that hasn’t been mentioned yet is the island itself. While its mechanics are directly explained, audiences are never given a straight answer in regards to its motives. Is it an evil entity? Is it good? Neutral? As the island seemingly slips around an Alignment Chart, characters merely offer their perspectives, testimonies, and interpretations of where this entity stands (although this is presented as an infallible truth). In a horror film where everything else seems to be blatantly explained, the island, and in turn Mr. Roarke and his involvement, stand in contrast, which might explain why some viewers have admitted difficulty in following the plot. The film on one hand teaches the audience to take things at face value, while also suddenly flipping and playing coy with other parts of the story, as though it suddenly trusts viewers to wade through and discern its nuance.

At least that’s my interpretation as to why people are hating on this film. Personally I feel like I’m in this weird world where everyone seems to have seen a different movie to me—I actually really enjoyed this film (although I cannot rate it that high due to its narrative flaws). If someone were to ask, “What film do you like that everyone else hated?” then Fantasy Island has become my most recent example.

As a Christian, it was nice to see that this movie was more a drama with elements of horror, as opposed to the other way around. It meant the film was more focused on exploring a few different themes and issues, whereas the average junky slasher flick instead tends to steer its plot in whatever direction allows for the maximum level of carnage. Yes, this means it’ll be a massive disappointment for horror fans, although Fantasy Island might be perfect for those that shy away from hardcore scares, but don’t mind dabbling in a spooky scene or two. It might be a completely lame horror film, but it may have just succeeded in capturing the variety of the original television show.

Positives

+ Has an anthology feel. + Explores different takes on people's innermost fantasies. + Some intricacy with how all the stories roll into one. + More of a drama than a horror.

Negatives

- Is flawed like an anthology; some plots are more interesting than others. - Starts to juggle too much all at once. - Some characters and plots are too underdeveloped to carry their required thematic weight. - Switches between spoon-feeding audiences and demanding discernment; it leads to some viewers not being able to follow an already overladen plot. - It's more of a drama than a horror.

The Bottom Line

Fantasy Island is a divisive flick even within itself. It tries to balance cheese with seriousness, schlocky horror with nuanced drama, and tries to appeal to both young audiences and old fans of the show. There's a lot happening here and it's very easy to dump it to one side and label it as convoluted. Yet if you go in with no expectations and manage to ride through its rough patches, you may uncover and appreciate its charm regardless of its flaws.

 

6.4

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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