[Review] Fantasy Island (2020)

For a movie set on a gorgeous tropical island where the host has guaranteed to make your greatest desire come true, Fantasy Island sure does start off in a dark way by showing us a young woman being chased through a jungle by armed thugs. She makes it to the safety of the main resort house, finds a phone and calls for help.

Only the voice on the other end of the line, a certain Mr. Roarke, doesn’t offer any hope or solace, just the notion that what is about to happen to her is meant to be and there is nothing she can do about it. Then the thugs close in.

Welcome, as they say, to Fantasy Island. And while it may be hell on earth for the people Mr. Roarke has invited, it’s certainly a trip worth taking for the audience, even if they have no memories of the original 70s TV show, the smooth style of the original Mr. Roarke (Ricardo Montalban) or the grating voice of his sidekick, Tattoo (Hervé Villechaize) announcing new guests with the chant of “De Plane, Boss. De Plane.”

In fact, if you have any of those memories, leave them at the door. The film may share a title, a few character names and a basic plot device with the TV show, but the similarities end there. Thank goodness.

After it’s dark start, Fantasy Island seems to settle down into the story as expected, with the guests all gathering in the resort bar to share a drink and some chit-chat as they await their host. Their forced friendliness feels just fake enough to be believable as you try to sift through their words to find nuggets of exposition. The brassy blonde, Melanie (Lucy Hale) is certainly overcompensating for something while the hunky choir boy, Randall (Austin Stowell) is acting too naive to be true. The two brothers, Bradley (Ryan Hansen) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) are trying way too hard — and are way too old — to be party animals. The sad beauty Elena (Maggie Q) all but wears a sign saying “Sad and Mysterious, but Don’t Ask Why”. And then there is the Island Greeter Julia (Parisa Fitz-Henley) who, when she isn’t greeting guests, turns away from them looking both terrified and heartbroken.

Mr. Roarke (Michael Peña) hasn’t even entered and there is already a room full of suspects gathered in the bar.

Or is there?

While it may hit more than a few bumps along the way to its conclusion, there is a real sense of mystery and tension that underscores just about every scene in Fantasy Island. Sometimes it’s playful, sometimes it’s shocking. Sometimes it’s a red herring and sometimes the only thing red on the screen is blood.

Director Jeff Wadlow (Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare) does a pretty good job of keeping the audience guessing as the story moves along. Ok, make that stories because once the introductions are over, the cast quickly divides up to follow their own fantasy. Melanie gets a chance to get her revenge on the girl who treated her badly in high school. Randall gets to play soldier. Bradley and Brax dive into the ultimate spring break fantasy. Elena gets to relive the night she said ‘no’ to the love of her life, hoping that saying ‘yes’ will change her life for the better. It’s a balancing act, particularly when Wadlow has to start showing the audience not only the cracks in the guests’ stories but also reveal hints at how the lives of these supposed strangers may actually be tangled together. Sure, not all of it works but that may be down to personal tastes; what doesn’t work for you could very well be a real “AHA!” moment for the person sitting next to you. That’s all part of the fun.

Unfortunately, all the audience baiting in the world won’t add up to anything if the ultimate solution to the mystery doesn’t work and in Fantasy Island, it just doesn’t. The final reveal of who — or what — is behind everything that has happened just doesn’t feel right, even after Wadlow spends the last 20 minutes of the film helping the audience connect the dots. The final picture all those dots create for us is certainly legible and, to a great extent, makes sense, but then they somehow lay the blame for it all at the feet of the island itself and it just mangles the mystery. Sure, Mr. Roarke has been saying “It’s the island” throughout the movie whenever anybody asks him for an explanation of what’s happening, but it still feels cheap when it turns out to be true.

Even if it isn’t satisfying, though, maybe that’s the way Fantasy Island has to end. Although there are also hints sprinkled throughout the film that the island is also just big revenge for hire resort run by Mr. Roarke and his henchmen, the production value of the fantasies is just too high to be man-made. Mr. Roarke and staff might be able to cobble together a spring break party complete with dozens of supermodels, male and female, in skimpy swimwear but conjuring up the dead from some guest’s past is probably beyond their power. So if Fantasy Island makes enough money to garner a sequel, here’s hoping it takes more time to tell us the source of the island’s power and does a better job of explaining why it does what it does. Like the first Fantasy Island, that should be a trip worth taking, too.

  • John Black, Blumhouse's Fantasy Island
John Black
John Black still remembers his first horror movie, sneaking in to a double-feature of Horror House with Frankie Avalon and a Boris Karloff film he can’t remember the name of but will always remember for giving him his first glimpse of cinematic nudity as one of the actresses moved from the bed to the door without putting on any underwear! (Fond family memory: That glimpse, when discovered by his parents, cased John’s mom to call the theater and yelling at the manager for letting her son see ‘such filth’.) Luckily, John was more impressed by the blood and horror than the bare haunches and quickly became a devotee of the genre.

John has been a professional movie reviewer since 1987, when his first review – of a Robert De Niro film called Angel Heart – appeared in the entertainment section of The Cape Codder newspaper. He’s been writing about film ever since, primarily now as the entertainment editor at Boston Event Guide. Hardly a day goes by when he doesn’t watch at least one movie, which is how he thinks life was meant to be.