Thursday, July 07, 2005

REVIEW: Fantastic Four (2005)

Minor spoilers follow.

Some things are harder than they look.

For evidence, I offer up the case of "The Fantastic Four," the celebrated comic-book series that, when launched in the early 60s, put Marvel Comics on the map, made names for Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, ressurected the mass-market appeal of the superhero genre and generally gets the credit for launching the "Silver Age" of comics. With that sort of pedigree, you'd expect a movie version to be a slam-dunk, an easy score especially in the current wave of comic-based blockbusters.

Instead, it's a project who's inifinite troubles date back to the early 1990s, an infamous "troubled production" thats been through more scripts, directors, starts and stops than any similar property... even the notoriously litigious buildup to "Spider-Man" went easier. In one of the more well-reported oddball stories of film production on record, it took so long to get this project moving that an original rights-holder had to produce and then shelve a quickie version just to avoid losing control of the franchise. Simply put, making a movie out of this property has been a tough nut to crack.

I think the reason for that is, the concept is a little hard to get one's head around. The setup, a "family" of four differently-powered superheroes, is deceptively simple cover for one of the most offbeat corners of the Marvel Universe: It's tone a one-of-a-kind melding of superheroics, pulp-scifi and of-the-moment pre-Vietnam family dynamics. The heroes themselves have reveled in a kind of stubbornly-unhip retro-cool even when they were NEW: Mr. Fantastic, the square-jawed super-scientist, was an anachronism of B monster movies upon his inception, ditto for the bruiser man-monster "The Thing." Young readers may have identified more immediately with the teenaged Human Torch, but from early on the stories were more concerned with the relationship of Mr. Fantastic and The Invisible Girl, who were the age and presumed temperment of most fans' parents. This is to say nothing of the team's appropriately bizzare gallery of enemies: a succession of pulp-made-new threats with names like "Doctor Doom," "The Red Ghost" and "The Mole Man."

Whenever these comics or adaptations thereof have worked, it's been when the respective creators have allowed themselves to accept and roll with the outre strangeness inherent in the material. Attempts toward making these particular characters "cooler" or "more realistic" have usually backfired. In fact, come to think of it, lets make that always backfired.

So, then, it's sad to have to report that "cooler" and "more realistic" seem to be the chief thoughts in the minds of most of those working on this movie. The result is, to my mind, the first major stumble by Marvel in turning one of it's major franchises into a major film. "The Fantastic Four" is, overall, a stubbornly self-conscious exercise in poor pacing, bad characterization and palpable embarassment by too many of those involved with the material they've been given. A ton of attention has been given to making everything look very slick and "Armageddon"-ish in the production design, and the cast is very attractive and clipped in their performances, and none of it is really any fun. This is a property that has always lived and died on it's own peculiar wavelength, and trying to shoehorn the material into the mold of a generic summer superhero pic has neutered it of the gee-whiz jolliness that should be it's greatest strength. And if ONLY that were the only problem...

This is a film with no real idea where to go or how to get there, the only thing on it's mind seems to be getting a feature's worth of obligatory scenes out of the way, often with only the thinest tissue to connect them. Nothing happens organically. It opens with fast, blunt, poorly-disguised expository dialogue and keeps up that basic pattern for all of it's running time: Bankrupt scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) and his NASA pilot buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) reluctantly seek the financial aid of billionaire industrialist Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) for a space experiment, which Von Doom agrees to mostly so he can travel to space with them and gloat over his newfound romance with Reed's ex, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) who brings along her younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans) who has an old an contentious relationship with Ben. All of this coincidence and complication is, believe it or not, supposed to make the story SIMPLER by conflating all five character origins into one.

In a nutshell, a cosmic radiation storm hits while they're in space, and gives them all superpowers: Reed gets a stretchy rubber body, Sue turns invisible, Johnny controls fire and Ben becomes a superstrong monster made of orange rock. As a bonus, Von Doom gets metal skin and electricity powers, eliminating the need to characterize the villian beyond yet another eeeeevil greedy billionaire who gets powers and goes wacko in the 3rd act (In fact, Doom's substory is almost a beat-for-beat rehashing of Willem Dafoe's Norman Osbourne arc from "Spiderman." )

From there, the film degenerates into a series of episodic "scenes you NEED in a Fantastic Four movie." Powers are discovered, explained and demonstrated. Story points are raised (Johnny is a showoff, Ben wants to change back, the four are celebrities) and then quickly pushed to the side. Reed's lab, the Baxter Building, The Thing's blind love interest Alicia Masters and even mailman Willy Lumpkin (a cameoing Stan Lee) all get franchise-establishing bit moments, and the film even squeezes in some labored fandom face-saving references to Von Doom's homeland of Latveria (the "businessman" Dr. Doom is a creation of the film in deferance to 'realism', as the comic book Dr. Doom is a third-world despot threatening the West with weapons of mass destruction which of course is not realistic at all, right?)

The less said about the screenplay itself, outside of the outright bad structure and pace, the better. The dialogue is awkward, too heavy on exposition and given to truly terrible puns and foreshadowing. Evans in particular gets saddled with some of the worst "funny" lines in recent memory, made all the more painful by a strange disconnect between his performance and the film: The dialogue, such as it is, and Evans seem to lean in the direction of Johnny Storm being an irritating, aren't-I-cool jerk, but the pace of the film in his scenes seem to want us to actually regard him as cool. Also coming out looking bad is Alba, here saddled with more than her share of the psuedo-scientific exposition. To be polite about it... this isn't AS big a disaster as handing similar chores to the similarly-"talented" Tara Reid in "Alone in The Dark," but thats not the same as saying it's a good idea.

All the characters seem to be making their decisions at the whim of a screenplay, and nothing connects one scene or motivation to another. What should be major character arcs over the course of the film, like Thing's self-loathing and gradual acceptance of his new form, his meeting and wooing of Alicia or even Reed and Sue's rekindled romance are done away with in single scenes with almost no thought to narrative cohesion.

The film can't even think of some grand evil scheme by Dr. Doom to tie the story together: This supposed "supervillian" mainly grouses about his stock portfolio, picks at his slowly-metalizing scabs, dons a rather sorry-looking variant on his comic costume and seeks the power to throw bigger and bigger lightning bolts because "he's always wanted power." Whatever. By the end, his "evil deeds" are little more than zapping some expendable extras, a single kidnapping, some property damage and firing a missle; followed by a big final smackdown that marks the weakest attempt yet to mimic the big super-power-showdown from "Superman 2."

Everything also winds up looking shockingly cheap, given the amount of time and money reportedly spent: The CGI and greenscreen work are uniformly sloppy and unfinished-looking, especially in regards to the (admittedly tricky) visualization of Mr. Fantastic. The rest of the effects are a mixed bag: Invisible Girl and Human Torch look passable, and while The Thing never rises above looking like an actor covered in Nerf the filmmakers wisely don't try to hide the creature at all, and eventually you just kind of "accept it" like Chewbacca or the original Yoda. We get only two major action scenes, (save for a series of out of place Warren Miller-style extreme sports sequences with The Torch that stop the film COLD each time) both overly slapsticky and noticeably smaller in scale than we are obviously intended to regard them.

Most of the actors are doing what they can with all this, and overall much of the blame can probably be lain at the feet of the producers: Forcing a (widely-reported) hurried production schedule onto the project, endlessly rewriting the script (a process the finished film REEKS of) and assigning directorial chores to the woefully underqualified Tim Story ("Barbershop" and "Taxi") appear to have resulted in a film that looks and plays at it's best moments like a higher-end Golan & Globus production from the mid-80s.

Cheap-looking, unfocused, badly-written and unmemorable are the order of the day here. Yes, I'm aware I was among those who weren't really expecting much from this, but I sit here honestly surprised by just how big of a misfire "The Fantastic Four" has really turned out to be. This isn't merely a case of a dissapointing adaptation, and it'd be a blessing if the biggest problems were merely Jessica Alba's miscasting or the uninteresting-by-comparison "new" Doctor Doom. No, the problems run deeper and more basic: Script, direction, production are ALL functioning at a seriously lax level here.

This is a plain old fashioned dud, a badly-made film, top-to-bottom, and with it Marvel Films now has a REAL problem on it's hands, particularly coming as it does in the same summer as "Batman Begins." The arrival of original "Fantastic Four" books began Marvel's stature as a driving-force in comics, and now it's wholly possible that the arrival of the "Fantastic Four" movie could well signal the end of their stature as THE driving-force of comic-based films.

FINAL RATING: 4/10