Fantastic Four (2005) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, mild language, and suggestive content
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, Chris Evans, Julian McMahon, Hamish Linklater, Kerry Washington, Laurie Holden, Stan Lee (cameo)
Director: Tim Story
Screenplay: Michael France, Mark Frost
Fantastic Four is probably the movie that would have been made, and everyone would have expected, had it been released during the era of the original Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman cycle, except that it wouldn't have gotten anywhere near this high of budget or this advanced in CGI. In fact, there was one made (a cheapo 1994 Roger Corman production) but never released, mostly because no one wanted to waste a big name franchise like this without having the necessary budget to support good quality. Back then, after the highly comedic Superman series had run out of steam, the thought was that you had to make stories that stem from the "funny books" funny, or they won't appeal to all demographics. Movie companies feared dishing out stacks of money to a film too dark, nerdy, or narrow to draw a big audience, and this meant barebones plotting, lots of silly jokes, and as many special effects laden action scenes as possible.
Sam Raimi's Spider-Man changed all of this. That film proved that if time is taken to set up the origin and make the character and his powers believable (to a point), everyone will be fascinated by the turns of events, and will be rooting for the hero to prevail during the action scenes later in the movie. Spider-Man became one of the biggest worldwide movie blockbusters of all-time, eclipsing the seemingly insurmountable box office intake of Batman. The second X-Men movie would follow, X2, and Bryan Singer and his crew now knew they could take their characters more seriously than they had the first time around, resulting in a more sophisticated plot, and even bigger box office success. Batman then would get a darker reboot of its own in Batman Begins, and brought back disgruntled fans and earned new ones with lots of back story and explanation of his life and motivations, and that film revitalized a huge franchise that would keep people flocking for more.
Apparently Tim Story still remembers and reminisces about the superhero era of the 1980s and 90s, because his version of the Fantastic Four is a throwback to that broad-stroke way of thinking, with lots of jokes, special effects, action, and about the least amount of character development and plotting one could deliver without the entire project making absolutely no sense to anyone. It is also revealing to find that his previous big projects were comedies (Taxi and Barbershop), and fairly broad ones at that. His predisposed inclination is try to set up a punch-line for each scene. While Fantastic Four has its share of clever one-liners, so did the Schumacher Batman movies, and people stopped wanting to see those. Fantastic Four isn't the one your daddy grew up reading, but it is the one your older brother probably would have watched back in the 1990s. Anyone looking for a story here won't see much of one after the director's name appears in the opening credits.
Here's the scant plot: Reed Richards (Gruffudd, King Arthur) is one of the world's premier scientists, but the bulk of his work has resulted in great expenses in research and almost no profit at all for those funding his ideas. Victor Von Doom (McMahon, "Nip/Tuck") is also a great scientist in his own right, but unlike Reed, he has made billions for himself and his investors. A cosmic storm is approaching that would prove too dangerous to study in almost any capacity save for a space station Von Doom has in the direct path of the storm, and Reed Richards convinces Von Doom to send a scientific party up to analyze it. Reed and Victor are joined by Reed's friend and pilot Ben Grimm (Chiklis, "The Shield"), Von Doom's assistant Susan Storm (Alba, Sin City), and Susan's hotshot younger brother, Johnny (Evans, Cellular). When the storm engulfs the space station, strange things occur, although the effects don't begin to really show until the five have come back to Earth. Reed has begun to show a rubber-like ability to stretch and modify his body into various forms, Susan can turn herself invisible and create force fields, Johnny can turn himself into fire and fly, Ben becomes a man of stone and strength, and Victor is slowly turning into a metallic man of great power to absorb and transform electricity. While the quartet of Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben become national heroes after they save many residents of New York with their powers, Von Doom begins to show darker traits, exacerbated by his business going down the toilet, and he plans on making guinea pigs out of the other four to take their power for his own purposes.
Before I get into the specific negatives, I do have a compliment of sorts. Fantastic Four may not be a good film, but it is always entertaining. Although the story is wafer-thin, the dialogue laughable, the acting wooden, and the events of the film contrived as can be, the movie is nevertheless amusing in its juvenile way, and there is plenty of eye-candy on display, not only from the special effects, but those generated by the stars themselves. You may not be able to buy Jessica Alba as a serious scientist, but that doesn't mean you won't be entertained when she strips off her clothes to become invisible. Yes, it is a movie on that level, goofy and childish, but never really in a way that is boring. While it's no Spider-Man or Batman Begins, at least it's not a pretentious snoozer like Elektra or The Hulk.
However, it does go against the grain of the comic book that inspired it by quite a bit. The Stan Lee/Jack Kirby creation came from a time when science, space exploration, and nuclear power were fascinating, right at the forefront of cutting edge thinking, and the possibilities seemed endless in what we, as humans, could do, where we could go, and what we might encounter. "The Fantastic Four", unlike many other comic books, had a firm foundation in science and inherent intelligence that set it apart, even though it did still meet the conventions of the genre. It is also about a family of lifelong friends, and about duty, honor, and heroism. You'd never know this from watching this adaptation, though. The characters don't seem to like one another very much, and with the exception of Johnny, they don't seem to like their powers or roles as saviors of humanity, since they are so eager for a way to get rid of them. One gets the sense that screenwriters Michael France (The Punisher, The Hulk) and Mark Frost ("Twin Peaks") put in just enough of the essential ingredients and character touches to keep in line with the "Fantastic Four" mythos, but they didn't understand the overriding vision and mission of the comic as a whole -- to be the "World's Greatest Comic Magazine", as is emblazoned on the cover of many issues of that comic, as designed by Stan Lee from the early days.
The film's failure is a result of imbalance. Not enough time is spent introducing us to the characters, as the film seems to start off with the heavy stuff, as if the background and origin were something that needed to get out of the way ASAP so the fun can begin. While Story has little patience with dishing out plot necessities, he also seems to think that all the time in the world could be spent on completely sexy tangential aspects of the film, some of which don't really push forward the plot at all. One full minute is spent watching Johnny give the Thing the old shaving-cream-in-the-hand-while-sleeping trick. Five minutes are spent watching Johnny snowboard or motocross. The amount of time spent on what the Baxter Building is, how and why Reed would get such a prestigious and advantageous location, and why he is bankrupt? None. How about Victor Von Doom's days growing up in the struggling (fictitious) country of Latveria and how it shaped who he is today, and why he would turn evil? Well, the fact that he is Latverian is alluded to a couple of times late in the film, but no explanation of his childhood or why he becomes such a megalomaniac. Lots of important pieces to the puzzle are absent, and all we're left with are assumptions as to what's really going on, while material meant strictly for laughs or titillation are explored long after their relative worth in time or importance have elapsed.
This brings us to the cast, which is another of the really big problems. Ioan Gruffudd, successful as a supporting player in other films, shows little reason why he should be given the chance to be the top guy in a big budget major motion picture. His co-star and potential love interest in the film, Jessica Alba, is far more of a name than he is, and even she isn't worthy of second billing in this kind of movie. Never mind the fact that we are supposed to believe that Richards and Storm were once lovers in their school days despite almost a decade of difference between them in age. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are cast well, but they also seem as feather-weight as the rest in terms of screen presence. Perhaps worst of all, Julian McMahon is the person they cast to play one of the greatest villains the comic book world has ever produced, Dr. Doom; you can begin to see that budgeting for actors was never given any consideration at all. Did it really take fifteen years for this project to finally get off the ground only to have the movie studio not care about putting this in the hands of a bad comedy film director and a cast of no-names and/or TV stars?
While Fantastic Four is nearly impossible to enjoy as a good movie, it is rather enjoyable as a bad one. In fact, it may be the most enjoyable bad film I've seen this year. It's the kind of movie that makes you cringe at first, but then you can't help but enjoy the square way they put it together, and you wonder if they ever bothered taking it seriously for a minute. Even dramatic scenes, such as Ben Grimm's lover meeting him in the streets with a sexy negligee on or dumping him in from of millions of people right after he has saved lives, come off as hilarious. For a film that barely spends time exploring its characters, it is amusing at what Story does consider to be worthy character touches -- Reed elongates his arm when taking a dump to get a roll of toilet paper from another room, Sue makes sure her suit is revealing enough to show her generous cleavage, Johnny heats up a bad of Jiffy Pop without need of an oven, and the Thing struggles with dainty items like dining room utensils meant for smaller hands and mouths. It's obvious that this film is not made by fans of the characters, but rather, ones that find them to be alternately funny or pathetic. How can we love these characters if the makers of the film find them worthy of lampooning them into simpletons and clowns? The only simpletons and clowns are the ones off screen calling the shots.
For all of the considerable flaws, admittedly, Fantastic Four is campy fun in a modestly appealing way. Yet, it's not really the direction a potentially big franchise like this should go in order to have any staying power in terms of sequels. Perhaps with lesser known superheroes like Blade or The Punisher it might work, but this is one of Marvel's premier titles, and at least worthy of something we should respect and admire. The original comic book is about exploring the infinite possibilities of the universe, but the creators of the movie would rather spend more time exploring changes in sex or bathroom functions and other ways to cope banalities of life for a newfound superhero.
While there is never a moment of genuine tension or a sense of wonder, I suppose it might meet well for those looking for little more than a mindless popcorn film. These less cynical viewers will spend lots of time laughing, both with it and at it, while fanboys (like myself) bemoan the fact that the "filet mignon" of superhero comics has been packaged as disposable junk food entertainment.
-- Followed by Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)
©2005 Vince Leo