Tuesday, August 11, 2009

REVIEW: Fantastic Four

I think the marketing department decided that this movie's key demographic was more interested in the Terrific Two.

I never read comic books very much, but I’ve definitely always been aware of the major superheroes, and even if I didn’t pay much attention to them, I’m always kind of excited to see iconic characters brought to the big screen. As a comics outsider, the Fantastic Four didn’t excite me all that much because I didn’t know as much about them as Batman, Spider-Man, or the X-Men, but still…

Oh, who are we kidding. Screw the self-indulgent introduction. This movie sucks. Its sequel sucks even more, and maybe I’ll cover it later, but for now, I’ll just deal with the first movie.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's cousin, Denny Ahmadinejad

From what I can gather, most of the background story has been severely truncated from the comics to have it make more sense in a 90-minute movie. Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) is a brilliant, but timid scientist who wants to organize a space expedition to study cosmic rays. Apparently he’s not so brilliant that NASA wants to work with him (or does that mean he’s too brilliant?), so his pilot friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, the object of Eagle Eye’s affection) gets him to pitch his little expedition to the CEO of Von Doom Industries, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). Now, I know this is based on a tongue-in-cheek comic book, so I’m not going to rip the movie for having a character a with the unfortunate surname of “Von Doom” not naming his company “Optimax” or “DynaTech” or something. As you might expect, Von Doom’s a bit of a snob, rubbing it in Richards’ face that he’s boinking his ex-girlfriend, geneticist Susan Storm (Jessica Alba, who prepared for her role by learning to pronounce a handful of really big words, like “microscope“). But still, he agrees to finance the study, organizing a jaunt up to his own private space station (as he calls it, the Me-r; oh, do I crack myself up) with himself, Reed, Ben, Susan, and Susan’s hotshot pilot brother, Johnny (Chris Evans).

And now, the one scene in the movie where it's not Jessica Alba with the stiff acting.

Up at the space station, the Fabulous Five are waiting for the cloud of cosmic radiation to come by so they can… study it. Which would be really boring to watch. So instead, the focus is on Johnny irritating grumpy Ben by being a brash smartass (definitely a quality you want in an astronaut), and on Von Doom asking Susan for her hand in holy doomship, which she answers with a confidence-inspiring, “Eh, we’ll give you a call if anything opens up.” Reed, meanwhile, is the only one who gives a rat’s ass about space exploration or scientific discovery, and is therefore too boring to pay attention to.

These Scientology weddings are weird.

Until it turns out he forgot to carry the one in his calculations or something, and the cloud of cosmic radiation comes up on them faster than expected! Damn those rays taking gaseous form in a vacuum! They’re so unpredictable! Suffice to say they’re royally screwed. The cloud comes upon them before they can get their shields up or get Ben in from his spacewalk, so the whole station gets blasted with glowing orange light stuff, penetrating the station’s hull and frying the astronauts directly. This is very traumatic, but fortunately, a violent attack by cosmic energy doesn’t damage anything whatsoever except to knock everybody out for a little while. That’s a relief. I’ve heard that space is generally considered a bad place in which to have mechanical problems.

Introducing Revlon's Fury of Hell collection

The team is rescued, and they’re taken to some kind of spa in the mountains to recuperate. Hey, Von Doom’s so rich that a devastating space accident is just another excuse for a ski holiday. But as they’re recovering, the quintet discovers that the radiation had a strange effect on them. No, not cancer, silly. Rather, as you’d expect from the same energy hitting five people at the same time, their DNA is mutated in five utterly unrelated ways:

Reed Richards, AKA Mr. Fantastic
POWER: Can stretch out his body like rubber, much like that woman from The Incredibles.
TEAM ROLE: Leader. Brilliant scientist who spends the entire movie working on a device to undo all the characters’ powers, a mission that we know will end with great success.
REJECTED SUPERHERO NAMES: Stretch Armslong, Condoman, Mr. Epic-Fail-at-Calculating-Cosmic-Thingy-Velocity.

Um, I'm hoping I didn't just accidentally rent the gay porn parody (Fantastic Fornication?) by mistake.

Susan Storm, AKA The Invisible Woman
POWER: Can turn invisible and generate force fields, much like that girl from The Incredibles. Hey, wait a minute! Somebody’s clearly ripping somebody off here! I can just hear the Fantastic Four fanboys claiming that their precious comic book preceded the Pixar movie by several decades, but I fail to see the logic of that argument.
TEAM ROLE: Naughty bits, which turn invisible just as they’re about to face the camera. Stealth (she’s detectable only by the diminishing box office potential of any film she comes near).
REJECTED SUPERHEROINE NAMES: The Unnatural Blonde, The “Talent.”

"Oh. Sorry, ma'am. It's just part of the mutation. That wasn't a reaction to you or anything."

Ben Grimm, AKA The Thing
POWER: Is a big friggin’ rock. But he’s the only one of the group who wasn’t too good looking to begin with, so not a big deal.
TEAM ROLE: Representative of “Before” on the Revlon commercials in which Jessica Alba plays, “After.”
REJECTED SUPERHERO NAMES: Inhuman Horror, Putridman, Worthless Mutant Garbage, Abomination (major contender, but taken).

Johnny Storm, AKA The Human Torch
POWER: Can surround himself in flame and fly like a rocket. Curiously enough, this means he’ll have scenes on a snowboard and a motorcycle, because flying while on fire is not eXtReMe!!! enough.
TEAM ROLE: Good-natured tormenter of the man whose accident has destroyed any chance he’ll ever have of intimate human contact.
REJECTED SUPERHERO NAMES: Hindenburg, Crusader Rabbit (you’d have to have been there), The Torch (deemed potentially confusing after test audiences remarked, “I needed a frame of reference for his original species.”).

"Incredibly hot? Obnoxious? Appeals only to brain-dead high-school dropouts? I've just become the perfect spokesman for Taco Bell!"

Doom also gets some powers, but he initially seems fine, and keeps his transformation a secret for the time being.

As you might expect, the reactions to these superpowers are mixed. Reed and Susan are moderately alarmed. Ben declares “I am not an animal! I am… more of a mineral! Nineteen questions left!”, sneaks off in the night under the brilliant disguise of a hat and long coat, and has his heart broken when his fiancee decides she can’t make her relationship with a walking hunk of limestone work. Racist! Johnny, meanwhile, is in seventh heaven*. He’s incredibly confident in his abilities, and apparently all the ladies are equally confident that he won’t lose control for a split second and incinerate them. To be honest, though, it’s nice to have a character who immediately recognizes that having superpowers is AWESOME, rather than immediately getting all hissy about it. Although naming his hideous, loveless co-pilot The Thing might be in slightly poor taste.

This really is a science fiction movie if A-Rod isn't on the cover of the Post.

The four of them bicker over the fact that they’re now publicly outed as freaks until, about six hours into the movie, we finally get a superhero action scene. Ben’s getting all emo, sitting like a gargoyle on the Brooklyn Bridge (because all the best bridges have gargoyles) when he inadvertently frightens a would-be jumper back onto the street. Which means he has to smash a truck to keep it from running him over, which causes more traffic accidents, and before you know it, fire trucks are teetering over the East River. But all four fantastic people rally and they all save the day in their own super-special ways! Johnny shields someone from a fireball, Susan contains an explosion with a force field, Ben uses his super-strength to pull the firetruck back on the bridge, and Reed stretches to catch some people mid-fall. It’s a scene ripped straight out of Spider-Man. By which, I of course mean the ‘70s live-action TV show.

I hope you enjoyed that action scene, because it’s going to have to tide you over for a while. In fact, it’s going to be a while before we have an actual villain interacting with our heroes in any threatening way. Most of the movie’s remainder focuses on Reed and Susan building a machine that can reverse the effects of the cosmic radiation and strip themselves of their powers. And he actually succeeds, sort of. His task is made easier by the conspicuous absence of any predatory military-industrial complex representative trying to replicate their powers and create an army of super-soldiers. But although Ben has spent his time getting to know the lovely Alicia Masters (Kerry Washington)--a blind artist, which of course means she is wise and accepting of the ugly freak--he still wants to go back to his old life as an only moderately-ugly, profoundly weaker man.

Yes, I definitely rented the wrong movie.

While all of this is happening, Vic is having his own transformation, despite initially appearing to have been unaffected by the cosmic radiation. His skin starts peeling away to reveal metal, and he can shoot electricity from his hands. With his board of executives punting him from his company after the space mission fiasco, Doom consults with the Green Goblin, who had the exact same friggin’ thing happen in his movie, and decides the only rational thing to do is start killing off the people who wronged him. When electrocuting generic executives in parking garages can’t fill the void in his heart, he decides one night to get revenge on the Fantastic Four.

"Damn the risks! I will get my bagel out if it's the last thing I do!"

His plan is kind of all over the place. He starts by tricking Ben into using Reed’s machine to de-power himself, taking all of Ben’s cosmic radioactive goodness for himself and making him stronger than ever. Tossing aside the now-human Ben, he immediately takes Reed prisoner and freezes him, preventing him from stretching to escape. Doom then fires a heat-seeking missile at the F4’s base, the Baxter Building, and Johnny of course saves the day by covering himself in flame and flying away, drawing the missile away from the nearly-empty building and through the densely-populated city streets. What a guy! While Johnny’s out there spending the movie’s scant special effects budget like it’s bailout money, Susan confronts Doom--now clad in a robe and metallic mask for no particular reason except to look like the “Dr. Doom” character from the comics this one’s extremely vaguely based on--at his office. And let me tell you, the interrogation room scene between Batman and the Joker in The Dark Knight just wishes it could match the gravitas of Jessica Alba trading harsh words with Julian McMahon. If it were in black and white, I would think this were a cologne ad; it’s that intense.

Well, there's definitely four of them. The movie gets that much right.

When Doom overpowers Susan, it’s none other than a newly re-rockified Ben who smashes through the wall to save the day. I guess that despite Doom having supposedly absorbed Ben’s powers into himself, that hasn’t prevented Ben from doing the heroic thing and flipping the “Reverse” switch to give himself his powers back. When he announces, “It’s clobbering time!” my response is, “It’s almost credits time, jerk!” He rassles with Doom and their fight spills out onto the streets below, where Doom’s too much for old Ben, who’s clearly led too much of a sedentary lifestyle. Hardy-har-har. I’ve been waiting all review to make that joke, and let me tell you, it was worth it.

"Aw, man. We're going to need a LOT of carbon offsets after this."

But a recovered Susan, thawed Reed, and maybe-sorta-more mature Johnny join him in the fight, and a whole ten minutes before the movie’s end, we finally have the Fantastic Four fighting together against their iconic arch-nemesis. The four have to work together to disable him. Susan creates a force field around Doom. Johnny gets inside the force field and heats it up. Ben knocks over a fire hydrant, and Reed shapes himself to direct the rushing water at Doom, which rapidly cools him after Johnny breaks off, hardening his metal body into a statue. And that’s that. And I’m glad it’s over, because I hate all those other superhero movies that have multiple scenes of superheroes fighting super villains. This one gets back to basics, alternating wacky sitcom humor and scientific study/experimentation straight out of Family Matters. Which is, uh, a sitcom.

This is JESSICA ALBA, people. They should have made her into the Unhearable Woman instead.

In the epilogue, the Fantastic Four all decide to keep their powers and continue living as super-powered celebrities. Reed and Susan get engaged, Ben and Alicia continue to be cozy (remember, if you can’t see him, you can’t be repulsed by the rock-skinned monster man with the, ahem, gravelly voice), and Johnny continues to flirt with hot babes. I think his character learned responsibility or something. Which amounts to him continuing to show off and pull crazy stunts, but with a more determined expression on his face as he does it. For the big finish, he closes the film by flying into the sky and forming the ‘4’ logo with his fire trail, apparently relying on the high concentration of extremely still nitrogen in the atmosphere to keep the burning air visible long enough before the whole thing is just a smoky ’#’ and everyone on the ground wonders what the hell he’s trying to do.

Obviously, this isn’t supposed to be a particularly serious film. It’s trying to be schlocky, but stylish and funny the way Spider-Man is. But really, it feels like a mega-budget pilot for a Fantastic Four TV series, not a complete movie that’s supposed to work all by itself. I’ll give it some credit: for all my joking, Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis are pretty good in their roles, and their banter would be decent comic relief if there was more of a villainous plot they needed to relieve us from. The rest of the cast and characters? Not so great. Ioan Gruffud is capable of being better than this, but playing the brilliant scientist leader of the group as the guy with the perpetual deer-in-the-headlights look was not a good showing. Jessica Alba’s a good enough actress to play someone who dances or strips and has no lines; if she really studies the role, maybe she could pull off Nova in any future Planet of the Apes remake. Julian McMahon should work as an Armani model, not an oppressive lord of evil. And finally, director Tim Story has obviously demonstrated that his surname was a cruel mistake of fate, and he’s better off applying his technical skills at making really nice wedding videos, or perhaps being the guy who films people on roller coasters and then sells them $10 tapes as souvenirs.


Be Four-warned: the sequel doesn’t get any better. After its failure, it looks like the Fantastic Four series is going to go where all failed superhero franchises do: straight into a reboot with a different director and cast. What a world.

*Speaking of which, it must be good to be an actor where the one movie he makes without Jessica Biel stars Jessica Alba.

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