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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 15 June 2007
Twentieth Century-Fox has taken a somewhat unusual approach to this particular super-hero franchise: it’s aimed—or “skewed” in Hollywoodese—just a bit younger than, say, the “Spider-Man” or “X-Men” movies. The storylines of both this and the first “Fantastic Four” movie are a little more juvenile, with more jokes, less adult material and very simple storylines. Neither the first film nor this one are exactly world-beaters in any regard, but they’re entertaining, good-looking films, with limited aspirations and relatively small casts. Many comic book fans deplored the first (or rather second, but we won’t go into that) “Fantastic Four” movie, but it did well enough at the boxoffice to generate this sequel. Both this and the first film are much more like the comic books they’re derived from than most other super-hero adventures.

Now the Fantastic Four—Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed’s long-time friend Ben Grimm, alias The Thing (Michael Chiklis)—are settled into their Manhattan headquarters, the Baxter Building. As Reed and Sue get ready for their upcoming wedding, we see a meteoric shape enter Earth’s skies and zip around the world. In Japan, the passing shape turns water stiff enough to walk on; as it passes over Giza, in Egypt, the landscape is covered in snow; finally it arrives over Manhattan, and turns off all the power. Meanwhile, we occasionally see scenes set in Latvaria; the identity of the figure we see is concealed, but anyone who’s read more than three “Fantastic Four” comics will know that it’s genius but black-hearted scientist Dr. Victor Von Doom.

There’s some typical Fantastic Four goofing around—Reed all involved in his scientific stuff, Johnny and The Thing insulting each other, etc. Johnny wants to make money, peevishly asking his sister “Don’t you like capitalism?” Later, he insists on being called John. “Testing showed Johnny skewed a little young.” He throws Reed a bachelor party at a night club, where Reed—Mr. Fantastic to his fans—gets down and boogies, using his body-stretching powers to have fun. This doesn’t sit well with Sue when she arrives, with stern General Hager (Andre Braugher) in tow. The General, who’s crossed swords with Reed before, wants him to invent something to study this strange flashing object in the skies. But Reed turns him down, says he’s getting married.

At the lavish wedding of Reed and Sue—Stan Lee is seen being turned away—the passing of the silvery fireball disrupts everything so Johnny flames on and zips after the figure, now revealed as the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones, transformed by motion capture). He looks essentially like a silver-colored Oscar with more detailed features, and rides about on a flying surfboard. When he’s confronted by Johnny in Human Torch form, the surfer informs him (in Laurence Fishburne’s voice) “All that you know is at an end.” We have reason to believe this, as the film opens with a planet slowly exploding. For reasons unfathomable to me, the Surfer changes the Torch so that when he touches one of the other Fantastic Four, he switches powers with them. Maybe this was so Michael Chiklis could be on screen with his own face for a while, instead of being covered in orange foam appliances. However, this does have an modestly impressive payoff at the end of the film.
The Surfer travels about the planet, creating vast and seemingly bottomless craters, perfectly round, with vertical walls. When he begins opening up a hole in the Thames, the Fantastic Four arrives to save the day, as when the giant Ferris wheel called the Eye of London almost capsizes. But the Surfer does make the hole, and the Thames vanishes down the hole.

Hager now really needs Mr. Fantastic’s help, and has recruited Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to help out. Reed has learned that wherever the Silver Surfer goes (Reed gives him that name), planets die eight days later. And now he’s here on Earth. Von Doom and Richards are both scientific geniuses, and put their talents together to try to stop whatever it is that the Surfer is causing, or helping to cause.

A trap is laid to catch the Surfer; the FF circle a lake and wait for him to show up. And here he comes, flying slowly, bending trees to make his way. Sue tries to learn why planets die in his wake, but though the Surfer is not responsible, he says he’s powerless to change things. General Hager impatiently fires a missile at the Surfer, who shields Sue from its impact. Reed now knows the Surfer isn’t evil, but needs to find out what’s up. The Surfer is separated from his board, which Reed has learned gives him his power; the Surfer turns lead-gray and is imprisoned. He reveals he was Norrin Radd, and is now the herald of an interplanetary force or being called Galactus. It travels the universe sucking power from planets and their populations; to save his own planet and the woman he loved, Radd agreed to become the Silver Surfer, riding the spaceways to warn planets that Galactus is coming. (In this movie, Galactus is a vast space cloud; faint details suggesting Jack Kirby’s design for the very humanoid Galactus of the comic books can be glimpsed.) Just why Galactus NEEDS to warn these planets isn’t made very clear.

Victor Von Doom, meanwhile, dons his Dr. Doom duds—dark green cloak, steel mask, the works—and steals the Surfer’s board. Just what he has in mind isn’t very clear, but the Fantastic Four, with the help of the Surfer, have to stop him. Reed has been working on a new invention that will be very useful in their showdown with the flying surfboard-bound Dr. Doom, as they clash in the skies above China. (The new invention is the Fantasticar, a flying vehicle that can break up into three parts—the Torch can fly on his own.)

Until he directed “Fantastic Four,” Tim Story had mostly made comedies; putting him in charge of this series was an unusual choice on the part of 20th Century-Fox management, but so far, it’s working out okay. The films don’t have much visual flair or style, but they zip along, showcasing their heroes, with enough action and effects to satisfy (primarily) children. This second film, however, is likely to be more widely embraced by comic book fans, as the Silver Surfer has long been a fan favorite. Here, he’s presented very much as in the comic books, a reluctant herald for a force much more powerful than he, a human being trapped in a silver skin that gives him great power. He’s vaguely tragic, the sort who stares off into space murmuring the name of his lost love. The physical work of Doug Jones and the voice of Laurence Fishburne meld perfectly in bringing the Silver Surfer to at least something approaching life.

One of the main differences between Marvel Comics and the DC line is that Stan Lee shrewdly blended standard superhero tropes with elements lifted from romance comics. This was not perceived by the fans who eventually made Marvel the most popular line of comic books; most of those teenage and younger boys would have been aghast to realize that they were falling for the same narrative and character hooks that had worked well in (yuck!) romance comics. But they did, and that’s the primary source of the Silver Surfer’s vaguely Christ-like tortured nobility. Still, it did work in the comics (and still does), and now works pretty well in this movie.

When the Silver Surfer first came along, some comics fans laughed out loud—surfers were widely held in a certain degree of scorn. He might has well have been called the Metal Meathead as far as those comics fans were concerned. But younger fans, and those who regarded real-life surfers as emblems of freedom firmly embraced the Silver Surfer, pompous “romantic” dialogue and all. His great sacrifice touched these kids, and quite probably will do the same for movie audiences.

There’s a bit of the somewhat oafish comedy of the early issues of the Fantastic Four comic book, with The Thing and Johnny Storm firing off one-liners at each other. And Reed’s brainy nerdishness is emphasized a bit more than in the first film, even though he does get to put down General Hager, standing in for all thick-necked jocks, with a few wry words. Sue has more to do involving her ability to create invisible force fields than with merely making herself invisible. The Thing gets a few scenes with his blind sculptor girlfriend, Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington). All the actors are agreeable and fun to be with, particularly Chris Evans as the Human Torch, and Julian McMahon as Doctor Doom (though his voice is a bit high-pitched for such a formidable bad guy).

The special effects are plentiful, though not as well-done as in, say, the “Spider-Man” or “X-Men” movies of recent vintage. But the aspirations of these FF movies are a bit lower than the awesome aims of those films. This is practically a cuddly superhero adventure; nobody’s life ever seems to be in danger, and we never once think that maybe the Fantastic Four won’t be able to pull the Earth’s fat out of Galactus’s fire. It’s even kind of relaxed for an action movie, likeable instead of awesome. It’s the kind of superhero movie your mom and dad might like.

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