Fantasy Island (United States, 2020)

February 14, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fantasy Island Poster

The television series Fantasy Island was a TV staple in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Paired with The Love Boat, it ran for seven seasons from 1978 (when it arrived as a mid-season replacement) until 1984. The high-concept, low-intelligence show is best remembered as a starring vehicle for the suave Ricardo Montalban, who was best known for three things in the early 1980s: Mr. Roarke, Khan, and rich Corinthian leather. Re-making Fantasy Island without Montalban would seem to be a dubious prospect at best and “at best” doesn’t come close to applying when considering director Jeff Wadlow’s vision.

The sad thing about Fantasy Island is that the premise has promise in a Westworld-y fashion. One of the most pressing questions asked by almost any thinking person watching the TV show is why no one had darker or racier fantasies. The movie addresses that oversight by taking the Fantasy Island concept and making it the basis of a “horror” movie. Alas, it appears that this is yet another of those nostalgia-based concepts that should have been left on the drawing board. Instead of wondering what might have been, we’re forced to endure the agony of what is.

Played by Michael Pena, not only is this incarnation of Mr. Roarke completely lacking in his predecessor’s charm but he’s missing Tattoo. (I guess Peter Dinklage was beyond the film’s budget.) The movie finds numerous little ways to pay homage to the TV series but that’s hardly a good reason to mount a motion picture. The writing is the worst part of a bad package. In addition to attempting to present a supernatural explanation for the Island’s fantasy-granting abilities, the screenplay becomes increasingly confusing and confounding with every new development. The big “reveal,” when it happens, is so dumb that it will stupefy even the most inattentive viewer. On principle, patrons should be offered their money back at this point in the proceedings. Not doing so should be considered theft.

As with the television show, multiple storylines unfold, each showing a different guest’s fantasy. The TV series’ hallmark “unintended consequences” are given a Blumhouse makeover, which translates into a body count. There are zombie-like creatures that bleed from the eyes and various other grotesqueries. None of this makes much sense; the whole thing might have worked if it had been presented as a parody or an outright comedy but there are indications the movie wants to be taken at least semi-seriously (or as semi-seriously as any PG-13 Blumhouse horror movie can be taken).

When they disembark from a sea-plane (no one rings a bell to announce its arrival), the five guests are welcomed by smiling Tattoo stand-in Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley). Brothers JD (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) have come for the ultimate pool party, although what we see of it is neutered to PG-13 acceptability. Melanie (Lucy Hale, who previously appeared in Wadlow’s equally atrocious Truth or Dare) has come to live out a revenge fantasy by torturing her high school nemesis, Sonja (Portia Doubleday), although she balks when she realizes the object of her torment is the real person, not a hologram. Elena (Maggie Q) wants to turn back the clock five years and change the worst decision in her life. And Patrick (Austin Stowell) yearns to be a soldier and prove that he’s as brave as his heroic daddy. Meanwhile, Michael Rooker is hiding out in the jungle, making us wonder whether his fantasy is to see how long he can last without taking a shower.

As one might suspect, there’s more going on than meets the eye. Despite his dapper white suit, Mr. Roarke isn’t the benign granter of wishes he initially seems to be. There’s a mystery here and as the intellectually ill-equipped characters begin to unravel it, viewers may decide it’s time to check out of this luxury hotel. Even by standards of ‘70s television, Fantasy Island was pretty bad fare (its Saturday night timeslot, when low ratings were expected, helped keep it on the air for so long). The biggest shock of this new movie re-imagination is that it makes the original seem fresh and smart by comparison. Perhaps that makes this whole endeavor nothing more than TV producer Aaron Spelling’s posthumous fantasy.

Fantasy Island (United States, 2020)

Director: Jeff Wadlow
Cast: Michael Pena, Lucy Hale, Maggie Q, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Jimmy O. Yang, Austin Stowell, Parisa Fitz-Henley, Michael Rooker
Home Release Date: 2020-05-12
Screenplay: Jillian Jacobs, Christopher Roach, Jeff Wadlow
Cinematography: Toby Oliver
Music: Bear McCreary
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2020-02-14
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1