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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Fantasy Island, Review: Risks submersion

Fantasy Island, Review: Risks submersion

Inspired is equal measure by two incompatible sources as divergent as Agatha Christie and the U.S.S.R. film Solaris, Fantasy Island plays deep desires against harsh realities in an implausible tale that is part vendetta, part science fiction and part psychic phenomena. There are too many back-stories and unexplained events, as a result of which the movie gets bogged down. In the end, you will make sense of it only if you stop analysing or questioning the goings on, which is a tough ask for any intelligent cine-goer. No, I do not mean that we should refuse to suspend disbelief, a pre-requisite for enjoying most films. Even after suspending disbelief, there have to be enough logic and rationale to make any movie experience worthwhile.

After winning a lottery, businesswoman Gwen Olsen, ex-cop Patrick Sullivan, doting step-brothers JD and Brax (who has oriental features) Weaver, and the Melanie Cole, arrive at Fantasy Island, a vacation resort where their fantasies could come true. They meet the island’s “keeper”, the enigmatic Mr. Roarke, who warns them that though their fantasies will take the shape of reality, they must see them through to their natural conclusions, which may not be what they wanted or expected. That night, JD and Brax are whisked away to their fantasy of “having it all”, which leads them to a rave party at a mansion. The next morning, each of the remaining guests are taken to their fantasies; Patrick’s to enlist in the army in honour of his fallen father, Melanie’s to get revenge on a childhood bully, and Gwen’s to accept a marriage proposal she turned down years earlier, with a black partner.

Gwen is taken into a replica of the restaurant her boyfriend Alan proposed to her in. Although she is initially taken aback by the fantasy’s realistic detail, Roarke persuades her to complete the fantasy, and she accepts Alan’s proposal. Patrick is dropped off in the jungle where he is taken by a group of American soldiers as prisoner. He is taken to their commander, who is revealed to be his father on his last mission, during which he died. Patrick attempts to convince him that he’s his son, but to no avail. Melanie takes an elevator to a room under the house, where she discovers her childhood bully, Sloane Maddison, strapped to a chair, as Melanie is given various options to torture her. She uploads a video of Sloane cheating on her husband, online, before seeing a video of her husband’s reaction, only to realise from the video that Sloane was actually kidnapped, and taken to the island to perform in the fantasy against her will. A masked surgeon enters, and begins to torture her, but Melanie uses one of the torture tools to electrocute him, before rescuing Sloane.

Did all of the above really happen? Or are these fantasies that the guests dreamt about while under the influence of some hallucinogen? Take a guess. Some sort of explanation comes from the base of the story, which is an American ‘reality’ show that aired during 1977-84 and was also called Fantasy Island. The show, created by Gene Levitt, had a one season revival in 1998. In it, the mysterious Mr. Roarke and his assistant Tattoo granted so-called "fantasies" to guests, on the island, for a price. This big screen version is written by director Jeff Wadlow, Chris Roach and Jillian Jacobs, the same team that co-wrote Truth or Dare (2018), which Wadlow directed and which was a box-office money-spinner, thanks to a shoe-string budget. It was panned by critics. One cannot predict box-office performance (the movie was made on a low budget, of $7 million), but the critics are not likely to have a much higher opinion of this enterprise either.

If all that is happening is for real, then it is impossible. If, on the other hand, it is surreal or imaginary, then we have been taken for a royal ride, a gigantic rip-off. Frankly, all that is shown on the island as part of the guests’ fantasies just cannot co-exist and neither can all the people and places from the guests deepest desires be transposed and transported into the present as parts of a huge theatrical production. In one instance, a player is shown as having been kidnapped, and brought to the island to participate in the fantasy, which itself is preposterous, but what about all the other characters? And why is the resort owner collaborating in devious and vindictive machinations? He could just as well grant normal people their normal desires, without getting into vendetta.

Nobody’s idea of Valentine Day fare, though it was released on lovers’ day, the film borrows from two Agatha Christie novels, Ten Little Niggers (And Then There Were None/Ten Little Indians) and Murder on the Orient Express. The former has been adapted to cinema at least ten times, four times in India. The latter, too, has been filmed many times, between 1974 and 2017. The main angles of selected guests landing on an island resort after winning a lottery, and being targetted for being eliminated one by one, come from these two films. Wishes being granted, and leading to undesirable and traumatic consequences, comes from the masterpiece, Solaris, based on the novel written by Stanislaw Lem in 1961 and filmed in 1972, with screenplay credited to Fridrikh Gorenshtein and Andrei Tarkovsky. It was the genius of Christie and Lem’s pens and the directorial skills of a host of talent that turned literary works into film classics. No such luck here. At 109 minutes, the film, in fact, makes you feel that there should have been more footage, by way of clarifications and explanations, in the absence of which even the 109 minutes are not much fun spending.

Michael Peña (American Hustle, Ant-Man, Extinction) is dignified, and just that touch sinister, as Mr. Roarke.

Maggie Q, as Gwen Olsen, has the grace and face that come with the part.

Lucy Hale, as Melanie Cole, is as hyper as required.

Austin Stowell, as Patrick Sullivan, fits the bill physically.

Portia Doubleday, as Sloane Maddison, has an unlikeable part, till Melanie falls from grace.

Jimmy O. Yang, as Brax Weaver, has a whale of a time and even gets some real action with munition.

Ryan Hansen, as JD Weaver, is the step-brother everybody would love to have.

Michael Rooker, as Damon, looks too haggard to justify the action scenes.

Parisa Fitz-Henley, as Julia, with a bleeding nose, imparts a mysterious air and keeps up the suspense.

Evan Evagora, as Nick Taylor, comes in towards the end, in a small role.

Charlotte McKinney, as Aphrodite, is one among a bevy of beauties with bodies to die for, which is exposed enough to leave little for any fantasy.

Some well-executed graphics and VFX help the Island remain afloat, preventing it from getting submerged under its own weight. Fantasy Island does not conform to the usual definitions of suspense, horror/supernatural, detective or science fiction. That, by itself, would be no cause for concern, if it had been able to carve a niche for itself, and invented its own genre. In failing to do so, it remains a shapeless fantasy.

Rating: **


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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