2020, PG-13, 109 min. Directed by Jeff Wadlow. Starring Michael Peña, Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Jimmy O. Yang, Ryan Hansen, Austin Stowell, Portia Doubleday.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 21, 2020
When it was announced that Blumhouse – commonly and incorrectly seen as a horror studio – was doing a reboot of 1970s international success Fantasy Island, the immediate response was that they were adding a level of gore, terror, and suspense. This was generally because people somehow confused the seven season magical mystery show with The Love Boat. Instead, it was "The Monkey's Paw" on a Pacific island, with ordinary people making extraordinary wishes and living – for good or ill – with the consequences.
The island is under the management of the enigmatic Mr. Roarke – a character given life and charm by Ricardo Montalbán in the original series, and a sharper tongue in the often-overlooked 1998 reboot by Malcolm McDowell. Now it's Michael Peña's turn in the famous white suit as the host with the most, welcoming a ragtag selection of irksome guests to have their deepest desires fulfilled. Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale (who previously appeared in director Jeff Wadlow's last Blumhouse project, Truth or Dare) is an acid-tongued party girl who never got over being bullied at school; Maggie Q plays the morose Elena, who never got over the one that got away; Jimmy O. Yang and Ryan Hansen are annoying joined-at-the-hip siblings Brax and Ryan; and Austin Stowell frowns a lot as a cop who always wanted to be a soldier. The island makes all those dreams come true in reality-warping ways, and everyone gets something like what they wanted, or really needed.
However, everything that made the original series so memorable and successful – its heart, its weird wit, its adherence to the morality play model – is completely lacking. Moreover, this Fantasy Island's biggest blunder is that the script by Wadlow and his Truth or Dare cowriters Jillian Jacobs and Christopher Roach has no clear sense of direction. The original series, because it was episodic, had the space to be everything from broad slapstick to a full-blown supernatural thriller (not kidding: the literal Devil turns up twice). The film tries to cram all those elements in, plus a sub-Saw torture sequence, leaving it overstuffed and tonally chaotic. To make matters worse, they add an origin story for Roarke that removes any sense of mystery, then add a MacGuffin explaining the power of the island, and finally try to tie the guests together through a fundamentally uninteresting piece of backstory shenanigans. Then they tie them together again, and again, leaving the audience to wonder whether the trio rewrote the final act a few times but forgot to delete the old scenes. The cast try their best, but all end up acting in different films. Redemption arcs falter and fail, plots are rehashed, and everyone is drowned in an unsatisfying mush of a mythology. Meanwhile Peña – completely wasted in an underwritten part – just glowers and pouts, making it impossible to believe him as the welcoming master of ceremonies.
The original show is such a simple, robust conceit that there was plenty of space and opportunity to do a contemporary reboot, but this Fantasy Island is no narrative dream destination. Instead, it fills in the parts of the story that were best left ambiguous, and the one memento that it's supposed to gift you - the idea of a lesson learned - is completely missing. If you're supposed to be traveling to this island, you're best rebooking your trip.