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July 10, 2005

Fantastic Four Review

Very minor "spoilers," in the sense that I give away the Fantastic Four are transformed into superheroes, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm don't get along well, and Victor Von Doom likes metal masks and hates Reed Richards.

Not quite so fantastic two-and-a-half star effort. Trouble is, you've seen virtually all (and I do mean "virtually all") the cool fighting and special effects and humor in the trailers; the rest -- what you're paying your money for -- is fairly low-budget filler material. It's unobjectionable stuff, but it's not really the big-bang roller-coaster one expects from a summer superhero "blockbuster."

A creditable and inoffensive attempt to bring the Fanstastic Four -- the world's greatest and most popular super-hero team for, like, you know, three months back in 1961 -- to the big screen, but lacking much in the way of drama and wow due to budget cuts.

I'd followed, a bit, the development of this project, and I knew the plug was almost pulled serveral times due to the high estimated costs of making the film. In the earliest conception (I believe) The Thing was to be a CGI character like the Hulk, and the estimated budget was set at around $150 million.

Far too much for what is now (at best) a second-tier superhero franchise.

They made some adjustments. They cut their ideas about big name stars (like George Clooney for Mr. Fantastic), shot in Vancouver (like half of all movies supposedly set in New York), and made The Thing a guy in a foam-rubber suit rather than a pricey CGI effect.

Actually, all those changes were positive. Ioan Gruffold (or whatever his name is) is just fine as Mr. Fantastic, a couple of skyline shots of New York are enough for the illusion this takes place in New York (are street-level scenes in Vancouver so different from Manhattan?), and the guy in the suit looks halfway decent. Actually, most of the time, it looks pretty good -- sufficiently rocky and somewhat realistic -- which was an unexpected surprise, since the trailers made The Thing look worse than he seems to in the movie. Only a couple of times -- such as when he turns his head -- can you see the soft foam rubber stretching and puckering. Otherwise, he looks pretty much like you'd expect The Thing to look.

Whatever minor problems there are in the rock-suit have to be balanced against the problems with a CGI character, which generally look worse than dudes in rubber suits.

The budget cuts result in a one big problem in the movie -- a nearly fatal one -- which I'll get to in a moment.

So, the story: Reed Richards, super-scientist, wants to study the possible effect of cosmic radiation on the creation of life and its subsequent evolution. Bankrupt for reasons never quite made clear, he enlists old college (post-grad?) friend/rival Victor Von Doom to fund his project and let him use Doom's rather HUGE space station laboratory for this purpose. Tagging along is astronaut buddy Ben Grimm -- a telling name, as the guy's a depressive sourpuss, although likable -- and old flame Sue Storm, now working for Doom.

And of course Sue's irrepressible hot-head hot-shot brother Johnny Storm, also on the Doom payroll.

Richards' calculations are wrong, and the coming cosmic-ray storm is just nine minutes from hitting the station rather than the calculated seven hours. They're not able to get to the safely shielded observation deck of the station in time, and all are buffetted by DNA-morphin' radiation.

Radiation-- the magic pixie dust of the Marvel Universe.

Anyway. All this happens in the first ten minutes or so. It's suprisingly light and economical storytelling -- it hits its plot bits quickly and smoothly and with a little bit of humor and character development along the way.

In medical quarantine on earth, the four begin to realize they've been altered. As usual in superhero movies, this is one of the best bits of the movie. Ben Grimm turns into the ugly, solid-rock monster nicknamed "The Thing," gets very depressed, sits on a bridge contemplating his strange fate, and attempts to rescue the inveitable bridge jumper that shows up.

The rescue attempt results in a lot of mayhem and crashing cars and truck about to explode into flame and a firetruck that smashes off the bridge and very nearly falls off, but the Four save the day.

This is one of the only two genuine action sequences in the movie. That's right-- one of only two genuine action sequences in the movie. The other one's at the end.

Budget cuts.

The scene is fun, if not quite thrilling or anything you haven't seen before (it is cool when the semi-truck crashes into The Thing, but the The Thing's mighty stoney shoulder just stops it cold and crumples it, but you've seen that in the commercials dozens of times). So, enjoy the brief bit of action heroics, because the limited budget means you're not seeing anything like that for another hour.

The middle of the film consists of Reed Richards' attempt to construct a Magic DNA Reverserator or something -- a machine that will transform them back into normal humans (more of an issue for the monstrous Thing, not an issue at all for Johnny Storm, who loves having his powers and is therefore the most fun character in the script), Reed's and Susan's halting attempts to rekindle their lost romance, Ben Grimm and Johnny feudin' and fightin', and Dr. Doom slolwly tranforming into, well, a combination of Magneto, Colossus, and Electro.

Every once in a while Mr. Fantastic stretches, and Susan turns invisible, and Johnny turns on a few licks of flame, but basically the entire middle act is just the Fantastic Four sitting around in Reed's lab complex fucking around.

This entire act would be mind-numblingly boring if not for the over-the-top egotism and childish antics of Johnny Storm.

And also-- Von Doom's investors tell him they're pulling the plug on his company, for reasons that aren't really clear. (Bad PR from the space-station fiasco? I guess. ) For a super-duper filthy rich billionaire, this guy sure seems to rely upon short-term debt. Because the bankers or investors or board (whoever they are) are pretty much able to wipe him out financially after giving him a week (three days!) to get his loose shit straighted out.

Of course he doesn't bother getting his financial house in order; he just glowers, learns to love his new powers, kills a banker, and convinces The Thing to turn his back on the rest of the Fantastic Four.

Why? Who knows.

What's also unclear is why Von Doom hates Richards so much. He says he blames Richards for his plight -- but that's a bit absurd, even according to superhero logic, because Von Doom 1) knew the risks, 2) was warned about the approaching storm by Richards and chose to continue the experiment anyhow, and 3) really seems to like what the transformation has done to him. So, um, why hate Reed?

Again, who knows. Just because the plot requires him to be Reed's adversary.

Now, the villain's big scheme is to destroy the world. Wait-- no it's not. That's the usual big scheme. Here, budget cuts -- I assume -- have made Victor Von Doom's scheme not to take over/destroy the world, but merely to... kill the Fantastic Four.

Why? Not really sure. But he's got super-amazing powers, and this megalomaniac sets his sites not on taking over the United States (like Lex Luthor) but merely getting back at his old college rival.

I've thought before that the destroy-the-world contrivance was cliched and unnecessary -- after all, no one really expects the world to be destroyed; and the conflict is really a personal one between heroes and villains anyhow -- but I have to admit I did miss the idea of something bigger going on here. There's no great peril to defeat, no machinations to thwart. Bascially, the Fantastic Four just have to go down to a city intersection and fight Von Doom, for about seven or eight minutes or so.

That's the second "big" action sequence, and it's not even that big. True to the comics, Mr. Fantastic has nothing really to do -- what the hell good is "stretchiness" anyhow? -- and he does all the dumb things from the comics, like turning himself into a big blanket to blind Von Doom, and shaping his body into a a sort of hose/water slide to direct a firehose's water at Doom. Wowsers.

And the Invisible Girl doesn't do much either, except throw a few of her weak force-field blasts.

True to the comics, only Johnny Storm and The Thing can really kick any sort of genuine ass, and they do a little bit of that, but they're hampered a bit by the need to act "as a team" and give Mr. Fantastic and the Invisble Girl something useful to do.

And then, shockingly, the movie is over, except for a little party on a cruise boat in which everyone's happy to be a hero, and a useless little epliogue in which Von Doom is shipped back to his native country of "Latveria" (just south of "Bullshitistan").

Not only is the final fight truncated and underwhelming, but they cut, I imagine, the usual sequence that happens before the final fight-- the fight against all the villain's minions, all his machine-gun toting armor-plated goons, sneaking and fighting through his Impregnable Fortress of Evil before finally getting a chance to take on the Head Mutant in Charge himself.

It's just not there. Not in the movie at all. Half of the fun of a superhero movie is seeing our super-powered protagonists take on normal human beings. The fights are usually sort of one sided (unless the normal human beings are really well armed or somehow trap/disadvantage the hero), but a superhero movie needs that sequence where we see the full power of the heroes, easily mopping up entire squadrons of Evil Troop Minions.

Again, not here. The movie had budget cuts, and so apparently did Victor Von Doom, who must have the fewest resources and loyal evil minions of any major billionaire malefactor in movie history.

So, after a promising start, an amusing but underwhelming middle, comes perhaps one of the slightest and quickest Grand Finale Duke-Outs in superhero movie history. Anyone expecting a Superman II sort of battle is just asking to cry on the way home.

All that said-- the movie did move, light on its feet and always inoffensive and never really stupid (at least by superhero movie standards). I enjoyed it, overall, partly because my expectations were so severely lowered by the savage reviews the film has garnered.

It's not that bad. Not that bad at all. However, it's also not terrific, and if you go in expecting anything more than a moderately diverting fantasy romp (with far less "romp" than would normally be expected), you'll think you got at least seven dollars' worth of your ten dollar price of admission.

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posted by Ace at 06:19 PM

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