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Fantastic Four (2005) Print E-mail
Friday, 08 July 2005
It’s baffling to try to understand the reasoning that led 20th Century-Fox to hire Tim Story as the director of what they clearly hoped would be a “tentpole” movie—a film so successful that it supports the studio’s other product. Story directed the pretty good “Barbershop” and the badly-received “Taxi.” But little else. Did Fox simply run out of possible directors? Were they working their way through the DGA catalog alphabetically?

Story doesn’t do a bad job with “Fantastic Four”—he hardly seems to do a job at all. The movie is very simple, very straightforward, very unimaginative. It’s not that there is anything especially objectionable, and it’s not that the movie lacks the required extravagant action sequences that enliven all superhero movies. It’s that there’s no life in the telling, little energy in the scenes. The cast is acceptable, with Jessica Alba (TV’s “Dark Angel,” here very blonde) and Chris Evans much better than that. The special effects are state-of-the-art; in depicting the Human Torch, they’re even better.

But the Marvel comic “The Fantastic Four” is one of the company’s true centerpieces—that title and “Spider-Man” are what gave the company its early reputation, and which began building their reputation to the point they finally surpassed in fame and sales their major competitor DC Comics. Isn’t it reasonable to expect the movie version to be among the best of the superhero films?

In a way, no, it’s not. Although the FF was an early successful Marvel title, the quartet of heroes is a mixed bag. Stan Lee had the idea of combining DC-like superhero action with romance comics, an idea that comic book readers readily embraced. (Although the 14-year-old boys who made up Marvel’s major readership back in the day would have been aghast to learn they were falling for romance-comic ideas.) But over the course of the years, this approach began to limit the Fantastic Four. The comic began to seem stodgy and old-fashioned, not nearly as much fun as “The X-Men,” “Spider-Man” and other Marvel titles.

That old-fashioned quality is replicated in the movie; the result is a film that’s oddly comforting and yet lacking in the drive and excitement of other superhero movies. There has been little or no buzz about the film. Press screenings for other superhero movies have been jammed; the press screening audience for “Fantastic Four” was about the same as for any other studio movie, there was scant applause at the end—but there WAS applause.
A lot of different scripts representing a lot of different approaches have been written down through the years. A movie, “The Fantastic Four,” was even made—with the rare, probably unique requirement that it never be released. (It all had to do with ownership of the movie rights to the characters. The movie is available online, at conventions and some video stores. It’s not very good, but manages to evade actual badness.) The screenplay for the finished film is, say the credits, by Mark Frost and Michael France, although in truth (according to a Los Angeles Times article), director Story ended up mining many previous drafts to come up with his story.

Brilliant scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) meets with college rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) in an attempt to get backing for a research project; he’s accompanied by his long-time, streetwise pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, from TV’s “The Shield.”) Von Doom is a corporate bigwig, ice-cold and arrogant, but he sees value in Reed’s project. Reed is uncomfortable when he learns Von Doom is assigning Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), his main assistant, to be his representative on the project. Reed and Sue were once sweethearts. Her cocky younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans) is going along as the pilot, and the boss of his longtime verbal sparring partner/nemesis Ben.

The five head for Von Doom’s space station, where he’s obviously solved the conundrum of artificial gravity. A big swirling cosmic storm of some variety is headed their way, and Reed’s project is to analyze it. But it comes much sooner than expected; Reed, Johnny, Sue and Ben (outside in a space suit) are all blasted by the cosmic energy in a visually-impressive scene. So is Von Doom, but not so spectacularly.

Back on Earth, it’s not long before they discover that the cosmic storm has changed them, probably irrevocably: Reed can now stretch, bend and malform his body as though it were Silly Putty. When emotionally aroused, Sue becomes invisible and can project equally invisible forcefields. Johnny gradually discovers that he can generate fire from his whole body, and near the end of the film he can fly, too. Ben ends up looking like he’s made of orange rocks, and has become extremely strong (and heavy). Just what happens to Von Doom is more gradual, and more sinister. (This is new to the movie; the comic book’s Dr. Doom was just a metal-clad warped scientific genius, the ruler of Latveria, a comic-opera European principality.)

The story thereafter is how they learn to use these powers and to cooperate in doing so. Von Doom, meanwhile, goes slowly bonkers; as his powers increase, sections of his body become metallic. I thought eventually his face would end up looking like the mask he wears in the comic books, but nope, that turns out to be, of all things, a Latverian Peace Prize.

In other words, there really isn’t a lot of story. Instead, it’s a series of interlocked incidents. There’s the matter of Reed trying desperately to invent a way to reverse their powers. Then there’s the bit about his being in love with Sue, but unable to tell her so, partly because of his overweening nerdishness, partly because he thinks she’s sweet on Von Doom. And Ben finds out his girlfriend doesn’t want to be engaged to a guy who looks like a collapsed brick building. Meanwhile, Johnny continues his daredevil activities, really full of himself over becoming the Human Torch. (Evans is terrific.)

Not only is Von Doom becoming stronger, but nasty corporate weasels are taking all his money away. No wonder his mind goes all wonky on him.

The movie is sprinkled with big-scale action scenes, the best being a chaotic sequence on a bridge involving Ben (in Thing form), Reed, Sue and Johnny. Each demonstrates their powers in spectacular manners; there’s a great shot of a huge truck slamming into—but not moving—Ben, and another in which he pulls a fire truck back from the brink of falling into the river. Much to the quartet’s astonishment—and Johnny’s delight—they’re treated as heroes by amazed New Yorkers and dubbed the “Fantastic Four” by the media. One reporter asks them which one is the leader. Brash Johnny claims, “That would be me!” The reporter pauses, replies, “No, seriously…” and turns to Reed.

Von Doom considers Ben—now dubbed “The Thing” by Johnny—to be the Fantastic Four’s weak link, and tries to get him to turn against Reed, with the payoff being a return to his human self. Naturally, there’s a big battle at the climax.

The whole movie plays like an origin story that probably should have been skipped. The action scenes and special effects are fun and exciting, but the stuff in between big scale scenes is so standardized and predictable as to drain the energy from the film. And this despite good acting all around. Jessica Alba is especially winning as Sue Storm (the Invisible Woman, whom Johnny insists on calling the Invisible Girl). She’s bright, sexy, beautiful and has good comic timing; she’s completely credible in an unlikely role.

So is Chris Evans. He manages the not-so-easy stunt of making Johnny Storm both infuriating and likeable. He’s just so damned full of himself and yet so energetic and cheerful that he wins you over. The movie is much like an early issue of the comic book, with Johnny constantly razzing Ben, constantly making him the butt of jokes. Evans is so jazzed with ego and energy that it’s entirely believable that he can burst into flames. (And yes, he does say “Flame on!”)

Michael Chiklis spends much of the movie buried under an all-encompassing suit of orange rock—or foam. A lot of care was given to his face, and despite the thick makeup, Chiklis’ emotions and expressions come through clearly. Some fun is had with his clumsiness, and it’s occasionally poignant as well. One of the corniest ideas in the comic—that this big ugly lump has a BLIND girlfriend—turns up here, too, still corny.

Ioan Gruffudd, TV’s Horatio Hornblower and Lancelot in last year’s “King Arthur,” has the hardest role to play. Writer Stan Lee hadn’t any idea about how scientists talk, and so gave Reed the most stilted, jargon-crammed speeches in comic book history. Reed rarely got angry, rarely laughed; his is the most absurd power, the least representative of his personality. But Gruffudd sails through the film atop all this; he can’t quite make this ill-conceived character real, but he does make him agreeable, and he does seem actually intelligent.

Unfortunately, Julian McMahon is a walking stereotype as Dr. Doom, though he does get some good moments toward the end of the film. He’s big money arrogance, very little else. He’s cold and calculating, never showing a single sympathetic trait. He might as well have a cape, opera hat and long mustache, threatening to tie Sue to the railroad tracks. The role is badly written, and McMahon can’t rise above it.

No one else, not even attractive Kerry Washington as Ben’s blind girlfriend, has enough footage to establish a character. However, comic book fans will be amused and delighted to see who plays the mailman at Reed’s Baxter Building.

Dialogue is perfunctory, rarely witty, rarely colorful. There’s entirely too much of the kind of ironic prefiguring that passes for good writing among, say, sophomores. Before they go into space, Von Doom describes Reed as “always stretching, reaching for the stars.” And gosh all hemlock, isn’t it amazing that that is just what happens to Reed. It’s like destiny or something. Each of the characters who make up the Fantastic Four is treated in the same unimaginative manner. One that does work is when on the space station, Reed realizes something has gone wrong; at the same moment, Von Doom is talking to Sue about their future, and refers to “the four little words that can change our lives”—just as Reed says “The cloud is accelerating.”

The design of the film is very standard and unimaginative—but it’s certainly lush. The Baxter Building is laden with art deco designs (much like the Empire State Building), even inside the elevators. But Reed’s lab is sprawling and shapeless. Von Doom’s space station, with that nifty artificial gravity, looks like something from one of the lesser James Bond movies.

The marketing strategy for the movie has been very peculiar. My phone bill arrived with a circle-four as a cancellation—my PHONE bill? Sure, almost everyone gets one, but is this the best means of promoting the movie? It’s as if 20th Century Fox firmly believed that audiences are so eager to see “Fantastic Four” they concluded “if you build it, they will come.” There was a lot of excitement about “Batman Begins,” and I’m sure there will be a lot next year for “Superman Returns.” Here is the first (released) movie about one of the most famous teams in comic book history, and Fox is treating it with no imagination.

But that’s been how the studio handled the property all along. Instead of getting a director who’s savvy about superheroes, like Bryan Singer or Sam Raimi, they got just the next guy down the line. Instead of loading up supporting roles with major actors, as with “Batman Begins,” they cast it with affordable actors. Instead of matching comic books while moving beyond them at the same time, as with the “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” movies, Fox has been content to make a movie that’s entirely too much like a standard early issue of the comic book.

It’s entertaining with particularly good acting, but it’s a long way from what it should have been. And for that reason, it’s going to get more unfavorable reviews than it really deserves, and is likely to be a boxoffice disappointment.

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