Review: “Fantastic Four”

There is a rule that you have to take the good with the bad, and oh boy has that rule applied ever so aptly with the recent wave of comic adaptations. As a person with little real interest in comics myself, I’ve been more surprised than anyone at how good some of these movies have been since the new century began.

Whether it be the solid ensemble adventures of the “X-Men”, the upbeat spectacles of “Spider-Man”, the sheer wide eyed inventive fun of “The Incredibles”, or the almost operatically beautiful psychological study that was “Batman Begins” – we’ve had it quite good for the most part.

Of course nothing is perfect and we’ve seen our share of not so greats – “Hulk” was a fascinating but failed experiment; “Constantine” & “Hellboy” were beautifully creative but somewhat cold cult flicks; “Daredevil” & “The Punisher” were laughably bland revenge pieces; and the less said about the terrible duo of “Catwoman” & “Elektra”, the better. Now comes along “Fantastic Four” which ultimately sits towards the bottom of the scale. In a time when our hero movies are dark and realistic affairs, “Fantastic Four” stands as anything but.

There’s been many dark and serious subject mattered films in recent weeks which has resulted in the general quality of pictures being better but leaving little for those after something lighter and more escapist in tone to opt for – especially for the kids.

One compliment I can concede about “Fantastic Four” is that it is good counterprogramming that is perfectly fine for the pre-teens. Is it as big a turkey as the aggressive marketing campaign from Fox would seem to hint at? Thankfully no.

That doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken to task for what it is – D.O.A.. Blockbusters around this time of year are notable for being fun but empty headed action vehicles that cobble together the best effects money can buy, hack scripts, moderate directing, a few good laughs and a general sense of fun spirit. “Fantasic” does have its odd moment of humour and a refreshing sense of inter-personal relationships between these four characters. However its all dragged down by some of the most inept filmmaking since the aforementioned “Catwoman”.

The blame can be quite evenly shared. Director Tim Story’s work is servicable but uninspired – the action comes in fleeting glimpses and the dramatic scenes have absolutely no weight. Admittedly juggling many decades worth of material into a two hour film is a hard task for anyone, but there’s an obvious feel here of those involved being pressured into delivering a product on budget and on schedule with little regard of the creative output.

The result is a rushed piece that lacks not only the energy but the obvious love and strong creative drive that made Marvel’s “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” franchises into the powerhouses they currently are. Criticise them however you want but at least helmers like Raimi (and to a lesser extent Singer) leave an indelible stamp on their films – “Fantastic” is pure studio controlled manufacture and it shows.

A far bigger culprit is the shoddy writing. From the utterly terrible B-Grade origin story that kicks off the film, its all sprinkled with poorly constructed character back stories, some truly awful and unfunny attempts at humour, and most dull of all – the lack of a strong central storyline once the characters abilties have been discovered.

At times by accident it seems, the script manages to make a few elements click. For all its cheesiness, the Johnny/Ben comic rivalry is played ok. The two moments with Ben’s wife (Laurie Holden) are actually quite well done and almost poignant. Yet for each bit gotten right there’s a hell of a lot that’s wrong ranging from the god awful love triangle/reunion subplot, the laughably bad Victor’s failed fortune storyline, and just plain dumb moments such as the FF’s big bridge rescue sequence – saving people’s lives despite the fact that they’re really the ones responsible for putting everyone in jeopardy.

The actors, with the notable exception of Evans, are more known for their TV work than their film careers and judging by this it should stay that way. The angularly chiseled Gruffudd is great as the young learning the ropes Hornblower but a somehwat bland dead weight in an utterly thankless role as the stretchable geekish scientist Reed Richards.

Alba can play a tough biker chick in the future with ease in “Dark Angel, but she makes for as credbile a geneticist as Denise Richards did a nuclear physicist in “The World is Not Enough”. Richards at least was stupidly fun, Alba on the other hand is a dourpuss whose only job it seems is to either pout or get caught nearly naked as often as she can. Chiklis makes the most convincing crossover as The Thing, but armed in a bad rubber suit he struggles around with little to do even if his character is the most developed of the four.

Evans is the only one who comes out unscathed. Getting the best lines and most fun character, Evans has those college boy meets West Hollywood good looks and likable appeal that makes what is essentially a cocky arrogant young asshole into a likable if high maintenance fun-loving guy.

He at least seems to have fun with his powers, something sadly lacking in the other characters or the last all too dour albeit superbly crafted “Spider-Man” film. Yet short of making quips or showing off his deliciously buff bod, the character is actually the least interesting and a scene or two that would humanise him more would have actually been of much greater benefit to the film.

Comic book movies, especially ‘origin’ ones which kick off a franchise, always have a need to put the world in mortal danger with a rushed ‘crazy scheme’ and a usually disappointing villain. Whether it be “X-Men” with its mutate the world’s leaders scheme, the rather silly machinations of Lex Luthor in “Superman”, the gas/microwaving Gotham scheme in “Batman Begins” or “Spider-Man” with the god awful Green Goblin scenes – these always come off half-assed no matter how good the rest of the film is. What makes them work though depends a lot upon the conviction of the actor and both Supes and Bats had great actors to do that with.

“Fantastic Four” however only has the very plain Julian McMahon. If you’ve only seen his “Nip/Tuck” work you’ve been spoiled – as Dr. Christian Troy he’s admittedly great as it’s a role that plays entirely to his strength and is well-written. Those who’ve looked outside the FX channel however are more than familiar with the plastic-looking man’s unique ability to overact in a way that has made him the Aussie equivalent of David Hasselhoff – ie. a joke known around the world (with the notable exception of the US). Even Hasselhoff at least has a good sense of humour, something McMahon lacks in spades. Doom is played as blandly over the top in a way that makes John Lone’s unforgettably trashy part as Shiwan Khan in the eccentric dud “The Shadow” look understated. When the mask finally comes on and the real Dr. Doom appears, he lacks menace or interest.

One of the things that thrilled me about “Batman Begins” was its ‘analogue’ approach which avoided the often boring elements of wire fu and computer animation. Real life stunts and sequences were done with CG used at a bare minimum and even then only to enhance more than anything else – exactly the way it should be used. By contrast FF relies entirely on computer effects, and subpar ones at that.

At times the visuals such as some of Johnny’s flying effects look pretty good. Others though ranging from Victor’s lightining bolts, Reed’s strechability, Sue’s invisibility trick, the space station origin and lots of ‘people being thrown distances by a punch’ tricks are all on a level about equal to the poor CG that plagued early-mid 90’s television.

We’ve had it lucky so far this Summer. Despite their assorted problems, most of the major films so far have been not only above expectation but in a few cases wildly exceeded them. “Fantastic Four” brings us back to reality with a thudding crash. I love my dumb Summer flicks as much as the next guy but the definition of good trash cinema is films that despite their problems, manage to overcome them to deliver entertaining escapist fun (“Mr and Mrs Smith” & “The Longest Yard” are great examples of this).

“Fantastic Four” is both poorly made and only intermittently entertaining. I’m happy to be an apologist for all kinds of bad movies so long as I enjoyed them. Even though I was rarely bored during “Fantastic Four”, to say the biggest compliment one can give a film being it ‘doesn’t suck’ is not a compliment at all really. After the recent crop of enjoyable superhero movies, this is just an embarassment.