What ‘high concept’ (to use the term loosely) horror films have that most mainstream horror pictures (particularly of the supernatural haunted house subgenre) don’t is the promise of wonder and discovery. The promise of being sucked into a world with unique rules, mechanisms and interesting set pieces. 2019’s Escape Room is a solid example. Despite it not being particularly great or very good for that matter, I’d still recommend people watch it in their living rooms with some friends, over a carton of beer on a boring Saturday night. Its entertainment value is only as deep as the sweat on your skin, but make no mistake, it does have entertainment value brought about by numerous distinct and wonderfully designed set pieces. Which is why I was moderately excited to catch Fantasy Island.
Fantasy Island is one such movie. We follow a few people (noisy hot girl, quiet hot guy, two brothers — one white, one gay Asian — and Maggie Q) who arrive on an island after winning an online contest of sorts. The island, as they soon learn, is special and as its owner (Michael Pena) says, has the ability to enable their deepest fantasies to play out. You would think that it’s an obvious opportunity for the screenwriters and director to let their imaginations run wild and create diverse set pieces. But holy sh*t are these “fantasy” sequences as imaginative as a high school teacher who just reads off his PowerPoint slides.
So you know what exactly you’re dealing with here, apparently, the ultimate fantasy of two brothers in their 30s is to go to a party and dip their legs into the swimming pool with bikini-clad women. You don’t need a magical island for that. You just need to go to Langkawi. I guess it’s not often you see someone jet-skiing in the swimming pool, so there’s that. There’s also a torture scene where not much torturing actually takes place and Maggie Q spends half her time standing around by the beach, looking deeply into the horizon, wondering if she regrets starring in this or Live Free or Die Hard more. For a film with FANTASY in its title and in which one of the characters (Michael Pena who plays the owner of the island) repeatedly reminds you about the profound magic the island holds, Fantasy Island is profoundly uninventive.
Not only that, there’s not a single scene in the film that’ll get under your skin, not a fraction of a frame that will elevate your heart rate. To be fair, there’s an out-of-nowhere mirror jumpscare shot very early on which basically translates to: What you’re about to see will not contain an ounce of creativity, thought or craftsmanship worth a damn whatsoever.
So, what happens when a movie like this, a so-called ‘high concept’ horror outing, sucks even at an aesthetic level? Now the issues with the character writing and plot become more pronounced than they otherwise would’ve been. Now you don’t just have stupid characters, you have stupid characters who slap you in the face and kick you in the nuts for two hours straight while carrying large signs that read “I’m stupid!”
Take Magie Q’s Gwen Olsen’s character arc for instance, whose fantasy is to go back in time and accept the proposal from her then-boyfriend. Her fantasy becomes a reality. She wakes up one day with not only a husband but a little daughter. Naturally, the experience is confusing for her. I can only imagine how messed up it must be to wake up with memories of moments you didn’t actually experience. Gwen is conflicted (well, she mostly just stares into the distance but just roll with me here) and so she walks up to the Michael Pena character and tells him… that this isn’t her deepest fantasy — her deepest fantasy is, in fact, to be given another chance to save her neighbour who died in an apartment fire. That’s right. The writers just decided to drop the whole thing with the daughter because they figured it’s time to push the narrative in a different direction. In Fantasy Island, characters don’t have arcs, they just get jolted around haphazardly.
I shouldn’t be surprised considering the film is written by the same gang who gave us Truth or Dare (Jillian Jacob, Christopher Roach and Jeff Wadlow, who once again is also the director). The film just makes sh*t up as it goes along. Rules change or are altogether forgotten because the plot apparently demands so. Late in the film when the various characters start interlocking with one another, they look genuinely shocked and say “How are you in my fantasy? How is it possible?!” as if someone had just intercepted their dreams. This makes no sense because the fantasies aren’t taking place inside their heads, it’s literally happening on hotel grounds. I think. After a while, you stop trying to keep up with the rules cause it’s obvious that even the writers aren’t trying.
Then there are the plot twists. TL;DR – URGH! The first reveal involving a hotel staff named Julia, you see coming from a mile away. But the movie desperately tries to throw you off via new plot points, incomprehensible lines of dialogue and moronic red herrings, only to finally reveal that what you predicted while you were still a dumb sperm aimlessly swimming around in your father’s testicles, is in fact accurate. There’s another plot twist that you’ll never see coming only because it makes less sense than Donald Trump on Twitter. Then you’ll feel a little sad because at least Trump’s grammatically cancerous rants are mildly entertaining and Fantasy Island is not at all.
Fantasy Island opens in Malaysian cinemas 27 February 2020.