By Steve Biodrowski
This is the kind of movie that you like in spite of your own better judgment: it is so good-natured and eager to please that you almost want to overlook the amateur-hour acting, second-rate scripting, and second-hand action sequences. For all of its big-budget production values, FANTASTIC FOUR does not feel much removed from the little low-budget version that Roger Corman produced back in 1994. In fact, the most fantastic thing about the new movie is not the copious special effects but the way Jessica Alba fills out (and in some cases, spills over) her costume.
The great thing about the original comic book characters was that they didn't necessarily get along the way you expect superheroes to; Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made them into something of a dysfunctional family, at odds with each other and (at least in the case of Ben Grimm) with themselves. The film version picks up on this idea, but the contretemps of this querulous quartet hardly reaches Edward Albee levels of dramatic intensity ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf" it's not). The result feels mostly like pointless bickering, mixed in with typical smart aleck "banter" that passes for comedy in Hollywood.
The script is a hodge-podge mess, a sort of Frankensteinian creation cobbled together from numerous previous drafts. Some of it is funny; some of it is dull; and a few bits are even movingly heart-felt. But little of it ties together; in fact, the plot barely even makes the attempt.
If you're familiar with the comic, you know the basic set-up: the titular double two-some goes on a research mission in space, where they are exposed to radiation that alters them, giving them special powers: Richard Richards becomes Mr. Fantastic, capable of stretching like rubber; Johnny Storm becomes the Human Torch, who can fly and blast things with heat; Sue Storm becomes the Invisible Woman (at least in the advertising -- in the film she is called "Invisible Girl," as in the comics), who can disappear and project a force field; and Ben Grimm becomes the super-strong, rock-encrusted Thing. Once that's happened, the characters pretty much go into quarantine while Richards, the brains of the operation, tries to find a cure. Of course, this plot thread is completely dull, because we don't want the Fantastic Four to be cured; we want them to go out and use their powers. Meanwhile, Victor Doom (also exposed to radiation) is in the process of transforming into Dr. Doom, arch nemesis of the FF.
Fortunately, the film breaks out of its rut just often enough to goose up flagging interest. A rescue of a fire truck hanging halfway off a bridge, midway way through, is a genuine highlight not only of action and special effects but also of good all-around filmmaking that creates some genuine suspense. And the final confrontation between the Fearless Foursome and Dr. Doom delivers an effectively spectacular climax (even if it is no match for Superman's fight with the three super villains in SUPERMAN II).
In contrast to these scenes, many of the other special effects are not very good. Especially, Mr. Fantastic's stretching of his body is accomplished with unconvincing CGI work that is far less impressive than similar scenes in THE INCREDIBLES -- and that movie was supposed to be a cartoon!
As for the drama, the romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Girl never heats up, and Johnny Storm supposedly infectious enthusiasm for his new powers is actually overbear and obnoxious. At least Ben Grimm's despair at becoming a monstrous-looking freak is reasonably well handled, but even here the script undercuts itself. First, Ben's plight is quickly blunted by the introduction of an attractive blind woman who cannot see his ugliness. Then Mr. Fantastic finds a way to cure him -- the cost of his super-strength of course. You can guess how this plays out at the climax: the dilemma of being both blessed and cursed turns into a revolving door, quick-change operation, about as emotionally involving as putting on a uniform. (And isn't this plot device getting a little old: Superman gave up his powers to become human in SUPERMAN II, way back in 1980, and Peter Parker did the same in SPIDER-MAN II last year. FANTASTIC FOUR didn't even wait until the sequel to trot this out this cliche!)
The cast is appealing not particularly convincing. Except for Michael Chiklis as Grimm, they seem like enthusiastic amateurs thrilled to have landed a role in a major movie. In particular, Julian McMahon (as Doom) has a slightly campy air that inspires more bemused giggles than fear. At least in the case of Johnny Storm, who is supposed to be a thoughtless hot-head, Chris Evans's one-dimensional youthful exuberance becomes part of the thoughtless character's personality.
In the end, FANTASTIC FOUR is good enough for a light-hearted, summer popcorn movie, as long as you go in with reasonably low expectations. But in terms of action, suspense, and sophistication, it comes nowhere near to being a match for last year's THE INCREDIBLES, a far more convincing -- and exciting -- portrait of the trials and tribulations of being a superhero family.
The film apparently struggled to walk a fine line in its depiction of Sue Storm, who sometimes came off as rather pathetic in the comic book -- the weak member of the group, who on occasion stayed home in bed (pregnant!) while the men went out to take care of business. In the film Sue Storm bristles at being called "The Invisible Girl," and there seems to have been an effort to make her come across as more competent, an equal member of the group. And yet...when she uses her force field power, it clearly drains her energy, making her look weak; the film even resorts to a FIRESTARTER-type nosebleed to underline the point -- making her the only one of the group who seems to suffer exhaustion from using her new-found powers.
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