FANTASY ISLAND teaser poster | ©2020 Sony Pictures

FANTASY ISLAND teaser poster | ©2020 Sony Pictures

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Michael Pena, Maggie Q, Lucy Hale, Austin Stowell, Jimmy O. Yang, Portia Doubleday, Ryan Hansen, Michael Rooker, Parisa Fitz-Henley
Writers: Jeff Wadlow & Chris Roach & Jillian Jacobs, based on the TV series created by Gene Levitt
Director: Jeff Wadlow
Distributor: Sony/Columbia
Release Date: February 14, 2020

FANTASY ISLAND spends most of its running time urging viewers to try to figure out what’s going on here. This isn’t a problem of coherence, but rather setting up a mystery of how four seemingly unconnected plot strands will come together, and how exactly the island works. Consequently, FANTASY ISLAND largely lives or dies on its payoff. This turns out to be solid, if not inspired.

As one might guess from the title, FANTASY ISLAND is based on the TV series, created by Gene Levitt, that ran on ABC from 1977 through 1984 (there was a brief 1998 attempt at a revival). Ricardo Montalban starred as the wise Mr. Roarke, host of the tropical paradise where people were invited to live out their most cherished dreams. There was a supernatural bent to the place – and to Roarke – but neither were explained in any depth.

This FANTASY ISLAND eventually becomes a little more explicit about what’s happening, and why. Since virtually all of the characters wind up as curious about how any of this is possible as they are invested in their fantasies, it’s necessary to answer this.

The initial set-up is much the same as it was in the TV show. Mr. Roarke, played here by Michael Pena, greets a number of contest-winning guests as they disembark from a private plane. Roarke explains the rules: each guest gets one fantasy, and once they embark on it, they must let it play out through its natural conclusion.

This batch of guests includes Gwen (Maggie Q), who wants to revisit a choice she made that she feels ruined her life; Melanie (Lucy Hale), who wants revenge on her high school tormentor; Randall (Austin Stowell), who wants to be a soldier; and devoted stepbrothers J.D. (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang), who just want to “have it all,” which for them means partying like rich people.

FANTASY ISLAND movie poster | ©2020 Sony Pictures

FANTASY ISLAND movie poster | ©2020 Sony Pictures

Director Jeff Wadlow and his fellow screenwriters Chris Roach & Jillian Jacobs come up with some clever reversals of expectations, planting little depth charges early on that detonate later. Wadlow also makes nice use of production design and eerie background movement. He also has the benefit of a strong cast, particularly Maggie Q as a woman whose untapped force we believe, Portia Doubleday as a significant figure to one of the guests, and Michael Rooker as an unnerving person stalking the woods.

There is some trouble with tone. While this FANTASY ISLAND is certainly gorier than its TV predecessor, it’s seldom actually scary. The film wants to keep its sequel options open so much that it can’t seem to make up its mind about where its sympathies really are. This presents us less with a moral conundrum than a sense that the filmmakers didn’t want to make a philosophical commitment.

Little flashes suggesting what’s really going on pay off more intellectually than viscerally. We’re so busy puzzle-solving that dread doesn’t get much chance to rise. Elements meant to be emotionally resonant don’t get the set-up they need to be effective. On FANTASY ISLAND, we wind up diverted, but not frightened or moved.

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