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Flame Out

Fantastic Four: not so fantastic.

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In 1961, Marvel rejuvenated itself with a revolutionary comic that, not to allude to the contemporary religious semi-cult, "focused on the family." A dysfunctional one at that. Scientist Reed Richards was the father figure, with Sue Storm as the matriarch. Sue's younger brother Johnny was the child (though in his 20s), and Ben Grimm was like a rough but lovable uncle. When papa Reed took them all up into space, they became irradiated by mysterious cosmic energy, and they crashed to Earth - with super powers. Reed (aka Mr. Fantastic) could stretch his body to seemingly any length or shape. Sue (the Invisible Girl) could become invisible. (When this power became too limited and tiresome, she gained the power to create force fields.) Johnny (the Human Torch) could catch and shoot fire. Ben (the Thing) grew into a massive, rocky hulk. They became: the Fantastic Four.

The FF's chief nemesis: Dr. Doom, ruler of the mysterious European country Latveria. (Think Romania meets Bavaria meets pre-WWII Germany.) Once a friend and college roommate of Reed, he suffered a scar on his face from an experiment gone awry and, being vain, decided to become a masked villain and rule the world. This was during the Cold War, before it was fashionable to try and take over the world through diplomacy or commerce, don't ya know.

A fantastic 44 years later, 20th Century Fox has cooked up an hour and 46 minutes of constant nonsense unworthy of its simplistic source material which, incidentally, was a childhood favorite of mine. Alas, a series of miscalculations has made this endeavor a terrible failure. Foremost, unproven director Tim Story is at the wheel. Story is known primarily for the flaccid action comedy Taxi and the endearing situational comedy Barbershop. Whatever the producers saw in his previous work that led them to select Story is baffling.

Likewise, what's up with this cast of TV people? Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic), known chiefly as A&E's Horatio Hornblower and Lancelot in the recent King Arthur, is a fine actor but with no marquee value. That would be left to Michael Chiklis (the Thing), if by marquee value you mean "star of F/X's The Shield," and Jessica Alba, whose talents seem more apropos a Maxim magazine cover than as legitimate scientist Sue Storm. Torch-y Chris Evans at least had a film success with the recent Cellular, but does anyone even know who he is? Dr. Doom is played by Julian McMahon of F/X's Nip/Tuck. Darth Vader, he ain't. I guess I am not criticizing the film and the acting (though that is to come) as much as I am chastising the marketing and the producing end. It would have benefited the endeavor to have a George Clooney attached (and he was, at one time, interested in Mr. Fantastic) or, hell, Meg Ryan as the Invisible Girl. She could use a career rev-up.

But what name star would have said yes to this tripe? The plot, which approximates the original, relies on the nefarious villainy of Dr. Doom, but there is no motive for his attempted destructions of the team. In one scene, he sits in a diner trying to trick the self-pitying Thing (looking like a clumpy mound of melted cheddar cheese) into changing back into Ben Grimm and getting even with Reed for his disfigurement. But why? To what end? He has no aim beyond the "Bwah-ha-ha"-ing of revenge. This is no "super" villain. At least Lex Luthor has an exit plan.

If there are joys to be found here, they are gratuitous. Alba (24, but looking 12) creates force fields by sticking her chest way out, and she can only be invisible at first while naked. (Hoot! Holler!) Evans has about nine minutes on screen wearing nothing but a pink ski jacket around his shame (drop the jacket!), and we are to believe he was a NASA hotshot. Gruffudd and Chiklis acquit themselves best with some real acting, though the Thing would have been better served by CGI effects than the latex Halloween costume they have him in. McMahon acts really, really hard (as evidenced by many painfully earnest close-ups) but, like Dr. Doom, to no apparent end.

Though the film sets itself up for a sequel, I wouldn't expect one. While it raked in an astonishing $56 million in its opening weekend, I predict that word-of-mouth will sour its subsequent weeks.

Looking for some "fantastic" entertainment about a superhero family? I suggest something incredible: The Incredibles. n

More Four

Eleven years ago, another Fantastic Four was made.

In 1994, shlockmeister Roger Corman produced a film version of Fantastic Four. As legend has it, the production company had long ago purchased the rights to make an FF film and would lose said rights if they didn't make a film by 1995. Unable to cough up the dough for a big-budget blockbuster, they hired Corman to make a cheap Fantastic Four, so that they could hold onto the rights for a later, real movie, never intending to release the cheap-o version ... unbeknownst to the entire production team! The budget? A measly $2 million, which sounds like a lot to me and you but in Hollywood terms is nothing.

Eleven years later, 20th Century Fox has a Fantastic Four - this one budgeted at $100 million. No better than the first, one wonders how the $98 million difference could have been better spent. Regardless, the 1994 film is a cult classic, with bootleg copies available on eBay and other Internet sin dens that proffer illegal, copyrighted material. (Shame on you, eBay, but thanks for the copy!) The plot approximates the comic book and the 2005 film, though the accident that gives the team its superpowers is caused by the nebbish "Jeweler," who replaces the power gem in Reed Richards' spaceship with ... Folgers Crystals. (Just kidding ... I don't remember what it was.)

The biggest name in this FF was Jay Underwood, who was not bad in 1986's The Boy Who Could Fly but is terrible here as the Human Torch - all yelling and whooping. His trademark battle cry "Flame on!" seems better suited for a Gay Pride march than a comic book. The cheese of his smile could crack glass. Better acting is provided by soap actress Rebecca Staab, whose wholesomeness is so over-the-top she looks like a porn actress cleaned up for serious "acting." The Thing's outfit doesn't look much worse than Michael Chiklis' suit, though an inferior actor is inside it. (I bet it wasn't air-conditioned like Chiklis' duds.) Speaking of duds, the best moment in the film is when Ben's blind girlfriend Alicia is chloroformed. We see a point-of-view shot of her world going hazy until she blacks out. But she's blind! Blind, I tell you!

Terrible but fun, this FF makes Daredevil look like Citizen Kane, but it's oh so good to watch and mock. n - BL

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