The nature of contemporary Hollywood is such that the stakes are constantly being raised. The major studios’ dependence upon the box-office receipts and ancillary merchandise tied to their tentpole movies has created a world in which the opening weekend take decides not only the film’s success or failure, but can be a major factor in the futures of cast, crew, and studio. With hundreds of millions at stake, there’s tremendous pressure on everyone involved, yet often the major decisions seem to have been made by the toss of a coin — selecting a first-time director known only for music videos or 30-second TV spots, revising a sitcom that’s little remembered or revered by the film’s target audience, casting a volatile young starlet with a hard-partying reputation but little box-office clout. Still, this summer’s presumptive blockbusters have satisfied more than disappointed; Lucas and Spielberg, the inventors of the form, delivered on their promises, and newer talents such as Doug Liman and Christopher Nolan offered inspired spins on tired genres. In short, I’ve felt pretty lucky as I whiled away the last couple of months in the cineplex, but I knew it couldn’t last forever. Which brings us to Fantastic Four.
After a dozen years in turnaround and at least 10 screenwriters, director Tim Story (Barbershop, Taxi) has at last brought the widely loved Stan Lee/Jack Kirby icons to the screen, but he’s done it with so little wit or inventiveness that I would have been happy to see the film postponed another decade or two. The film’s screenplay — which has all the hallmarks of material written by committee but ultimately is credited only to Michael France (who previously worked on scripts for comic book-to-movie duds Hulk and The Punisher) and Mark Frost (best known for co-creating “Twin Peaks” with David Lynch) — walks a strange line between trying to make some of the comics’ more ridiculous situations plausible (Johnny Storm is no longer a high school student with no business on a spacecraft; sister Sue has been upgraded from an actress to a genetic researcher) and playing up the comic book hokum (Victor Von Doom has maintained his ridiculously villainous surname and is still a Latverian, but now his famous metal mask has been given to him as a trophy for his “humanitarian contribution” to the people of the mythical nation).
The film takes some liberties with the origin story, but the bare bones remain the same: brilliant scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and his paramour Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) fly off into space with her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) and Reed’s pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) to conduct some verrry important research, but they get caught in a storm of cosmic rays that give them super powers. This time, though, Von Doom (Julian McMahon) is along for the ride — he’s funded the mission for the bankrupt Richards so that he can profit from his more gifted colleague’s discoveries. Von Doom also throws another monkeywrench into the story by being Sue’s employer/boyfriend, though how she could stomach him is beyond me. McMahon has taken the preening, arrogant creep he plays on “Nip/Tuck” and ratcheted the smarm up a few notches so that he comes off like a young C. Montgomery Burns. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he has no redeeming qualities, and Alba’s Sue is such a sweet little bunny rabbit of a character that there’s no romantic tension between them, just cognitive dissonance. If anyone had thought to give Von Doom another side, or to simply for Chrissakes make him a phony who acted all peaches and cream when Sue is around, or to make her a post-feminist careerist willing to sleep her way to the top, this might make a little bit of sense. They didn’t, though, and it doesn’t, and when she abruptly drops him for acting the exact same way he acted for the previous half-hour, it’s such a relief that it doesn’t matter that it’s unmotivated.
It might help if Alba could act, though I doubt her horny legion of fans will complain. She spends a fair amount of the film in a state of dishabille, which is the only reason they need to buy their tickets. Fans of Chris Evans’ physique will be even more satisfied, as the only times he isn’t nearly naked are those in which he’s wearing a skintight leotard. While I enjoy a little skin-baring as much as the next red-blooded American whatever, there’s something a bit discomfiting about a PG-13 movie that parades its stars physical assets around so much you wonder if the projectionist has accidentally slipped in a reel from a late-night Skinemax flick.
Enjoy the T and A while you can though, because aside from that and some nifty special effects, Fantastic Four is pretty hard slogging. With dialogue so overwrought it seems ripped directly from Stan Lee’s cerebral cortex and plot developments that make “Passions” look like a Maysles Brothers documentary, the camp factor is dangerously high yet rarely amusing. The deliberate attempts at humor — most of which center around Richards as the absent-minded professor who can talk quantum physics in his sleep but can’t figure out the most obvious situations around him — almost all fall flat. But what I really enjoy is when the filmmakers marry a bad joke with the film’s superabundant product placement, as when the Human Torch crashes into a Burger King billboard reading “Fire-Grilled Perfection.” Like the makers of Herbie: Fully Loaded, the geniuses behind Fantastic Four have figured out that the best way to include dozens of brand names in their movie is to delve into the world of professional sports, so we get an unnecessary scene of Johnny Storm dropping in at a motorcycle stunt exhibition in an arena that’s literally wallpapered with ads. The nice thing about this scene is the way it dovetails with the earlier snowboarding scene, neither of which was included, I’m sure, so that the movie could be marketed to the extreme sports crowd. It’s all for art.
Caught up in such a crass, cynical project, the cast would merit some sympathy if they were actually any fun to watch (partial nudity aside), but they’re dull as dishwater, there only to keep the screen busy in between action shots. Ioan Gruffudd plays Richards as stolid and dull; Alba plays Sue as sexy, vacant, and dull; Evans plays Johnny as callow, impetuous, and dull; and Chiklis plays Grimm as inarticulately self-pitying and dull. It’s difficult to imagine any audience that will enjoy Fantastic Four; the fanboys (and —girls) will be offended by the bad casting, narrative liberties, and excessive exposition; while the uninitiated, not having already formed a vested interest, will have a hard time caring about anyone or anything in the film. In short, we now have this year’s Daredevil.
Jeremy C. Fox is a founding critic of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society.You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film Reviews | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()