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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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[rating:2.5]
Director: Tim Story
Starring: Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis

The second Fantastic Four movie is definitely better than the stitched-together near-disaster that was its predecessor, but where it succeeds, it succeeds only as a comic-book movie, not as a film in its own right.

“Superman: The Movie,” the first two “Spider-Man” flicks and at least the first “X-Men” installment managed to have broad appeal beyond comics fans. All of those films succeeded on the strength of top-notch directors and brilliant casting in key roles, two weaknesses that hobble this film.

The short answer to the question, “Is it any good?” is best expressed not as a single rating but as a range. Are you a Fantastic Four fan with, particularly, an affection for the old Stan Lee/Jack Kirby stories? You may really like this film. If you just like superhero flicks in general and can enjoy popcorn flicks, you won’t love it, but you’ll get your money’s worth. Don’t care much for comics but like action films? You’ll find it sorta adequate but also kinda dumb. If you answer “none of the above,” you might’ve still been drawn in to “Spider-Man” or Christopher Reeve’s Superman debut, but you will not like the new FF at all.

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In praise of the writers and director Tim Story, it’s clear that they digested the comic books, particularly the madcap brilliance of Fantastic Four 48-50, on which this film is based. That they get those comics and love them is evident. But this story — a strange alien called the Silver Surfer comes to Earth as the herald of the planet-devouring demigod Galactus — was artist Jack Kirby on full cosmic freakout, and adapting that kind of visionary magic to another medium would be a tough challenge for the best of filmmakers. Unfortunately, this group just isn’t up to the task.

Part of that problem is what Story inherited as a latecomer to the first film’s confused production odyssey: his cast. Jessica Alba just cannot act, and with big fake blue eyes and long blonde hair, the jaw-dropping beauty she was hired for sorta becomes an uneasily fascinating weirdness. That Sue Storm’s love interest is played by Ioan Gruffudd, an equally flat actor, at least makes a good match, but sure doesn’t help the film. Alba’s problem is that she never seems to bring emotions up from somewhere real, inside herself. She seems to put on expressions with the subtlety a teenager puts on makeup. She dresses her face for the emotion she has to convey rather than really feel it. Gruffudd’s problem I can’t figure out.

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The other two are good, but Chris Evans’ Human Torch is obnoxious, and Michael Chiklis has to act inside a rocky orange bodysuit, and since this film also revolves around Reed and Sue’s marriage, we really needed Gruffudd and Alba to carry more of the emotional weight. Or to deliver a joke with anything approaching comic timing. The humor in this film is pretty flat on the page, it’s true, but the cast doesn’t do it any favors, either.

The pacing is a bit off, too. In the first movie, the plot moves lightning-quick to get the team its powers, then slows down to make comedy and melodrama out of the consequences. This film also starts at a fast clip, and all the way through, its obvious that Story is striving to go as full-tilt as the source material, but sometimes it feels rushed, and scenes seem slightly out of place, or they end a couple seconds too soon or too late.

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Ultimately, the reach of the movie exceeds the filmmakers’ grasp. The writers have taken a story too grand for them to squeeze into a film. They’ve again screwed up the villainous Dr. Doom—actor Julian McMahon spends most of the flick out of the iron mask. Why use Dr. Doom at all, then? Also, the writers utterly fail to explain Doom. The film never explains his history with the group and any motivations other than being such a big jerk he’s willing to, um, doom Earth for no reason (well, it is right there in the name, I guess “¦). It’s simply assumed everyone in the theater saw the first movie and remembers who Doom is. That’s sloppy, and it hurts the film. Story, who’d never directed an adventure film on this scale before the first FF, still isn’t quite up to keeping this kind of circus under control.

In the comic, as our companion piece (obsessively) details, Kirby threw off one wild idea and over-the-top image after another, and before you can really consider how half-baked or insane one bit is, you’re on to the next. Story’s film definitely duplicates that — especially in the film’s second half, as the whole gonna-eat-the-Earth thing picks up speed. For instance, no one knows who this silver guy buzzing around the earth even is, but superscientist Reed Richards sits down at his way-cool computer console and determines that every planet visited by the Surfer is destroyed eight days later. Even if you take into account that in the movie’s world, maybe science can detect distant planets that closely, there’s just no way Reed could’ve put together that specific package of information. But the film needs it, and needs it right now, so that’s what happens. And that is dead-on Lee/Kirby pseudo-science.

Story also throws on the wacky gizmos, and a major prop familiar from the comics drew a few fanboy cheers at our screening. The way he cuts through, say, global reaction shots to the Surfer’s antics at about twice the clip of any other film suggests the compacted storytelling of the comics, where one panel would communicate what ought to be a minute or two of film time. Story gives us that panel not in five seconds but in two. So the comic-book feel is there, moreso than in any comic film I can think of besides “Sin City.” If only so much of the film didn’t just fall flat.

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The effects are pretty damned good—the Surfer himself is a perfectly realized piece of CG, with exactly the weird, detached and disturbing vibe the four-color version had. Galactus, wisely, is presented not as a 50-foot white guy in purple armor, but as a cloudlike mass larger than planets, as presented in Marvel’s Ultimate Galactus trilogy, and not unlike the remote antagonist V’ger from the first Star Trek movie. (Clever nod—as the shadow of the amorphous Galactus passes over Saturn, it casts a shadow like the comic version’s distinctive helmet.)

Story and Co. do manage to convey the sheer fun that is meant to be part of the Fantastic Four vibe. This is mostly done through Evans’ torch, the character who most revels in the powers. The willingness to use the cheesy “Flame on!” cry whenever Evans blazes into action (even when he could be argued to be out of voice range of the camera), and the old trick of skywriting the circle-4 logo will make some viewers cringe, but it shows that the filmmakers weren’t afraid to embrace the material. See for contrast the leather bondage costumes of Bryan Singer’s X-Men, and the darker, needlessly “updated” costume he brought to “Superman Returns.”

The film is interesting from a certain perspective. What makes comics great is that they require reader participation. However good the artists and writers, the story doesn’t move unless you make it move. As with straight prose, you put on the show in your mind. Story’s movie is much the same. If you approach it as a comic book that requires your effort to breathe it life, you can see the skeleton of a great story in here. Your participation is required, mostly, to overlook the rough edges and fill in the emotional weight—to expand the shorthand of a single scene, just as you would while reading a Jack Kirby page. That’s a fun exercise for a comics fan, but you can’t call it a successful movie.