...there is little sense of wonder or excitement in Fantastic Four. It's merely a middling contender among a surplus of superhero movies.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

I've said it before but it bears repeating: Never trust a film that can't make up its mind about its own title. The front of the keep case calls it "Fantastic 4," with an Arabic numeral; the back of the keep case calls it "Fantastic Four," spelled out; and the movie's title screen has it both ways. I figure if the filmmakers couldn't decide on something as simple as that, what else did they have trouble deciding. Blame it on the comic book, if you will.

Either I completely missed something in this 2005 live-action movie version of the famous comic-book heroes, or the movie is a testament to the enduring popularity of the printed page. Certainly, there is nothing about the film to warrant the immense profits it generated at the box office.

Like the first entries in most series of live-action comic-book adaptations, "Fantastic Four" spends the opening half of its running time explaining how the heroes get their super powers and the second half describing how the heroes thwart an evil genius. Unfortunately, the development of the characters' super powers is pretty bland and the later conflict is even blander.

To make up for the lack of plot and characterization, director Tim Story uses a plethora of CGI special effects and raucous music, apparently hoping to hide the film's flaws. It only accentuates the problem and when they're combined, they're deadly. Tim Story, incidentally, is the fellow whose two most notable previous movies were "Barbershop" and "Taxi." Now, he's one for three, and if he were a baseball player, hitting .333 wouldn't be too bad.

You are probably already familiar with the four main characters; most people are. I confess, though, that because I have not read a comic book in fifty years, I was only vaguely aware of them. Anyway, the leader of the group is Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), a scientist down to his last dime who approaches an old schoolmate, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), a superrich and utterly unscrupulous technology industrialist, with a scheme to enhance Mankind. Richards tells Doom that a high-energy cosmic storm might have triggered the evolution of all planetary life and that such a storm cloud is heading for Earth's orbit any minute. Then he gets Doom to fund a research project out in space, using one of Doom's space stations. You know what happens. Richards takes Doom and some pals along, and they all get radiated, their DNA altered, and acquire super powers. Always happens.

Richards gets the power to stretch to incredible proportions and gains the nickname Mr. Fantastic. His ex-girlfriend Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), who is Doom's current love interest, can become invisible and create force fields, becoming The Invisible Girl. Sue's brother, the hotshot Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), can turn himself on fire, bursting into flames, and fly; he calls himself The Human Torch. And Reed's best friend, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), turns into stone and Johnny calls him The Thing. They become the Fab Four, called the Fantastic 4, or whatever, while their so-called friend Victor turns into a metallic being with electrical powers strong enough to zap people to death. They call him bad.

The best comic-book superheroes transcend the genre when they're adapted to the screen--Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, even Hellboy. The heroes of "Fantastic Four," however, remain bound up in two-dimensional, comic-book conventions and personalities. Nothing they do or say is in the least bit inspired, unusual, arresting, stirring, thought-provoking, or engrossing. They simply do and say exactly what we expect them to do and say, everything according to formula.

The actors are without exception attractive people, Gruffudd and McMahon looking like soap-opera stars, Alba beautiful but innocuous, and Evans annoying, leaving only Chiklis to carry the show with his good humor and touching vulnerability. If the other characters had been scripted as well as The Thing, the show might have been more watchable. Because The Thing is the only one of the main characters permanently altered in the space accident, he's the only one in the picture a viewer can even remotely care about.

Yet even The Thing finds himself in frustratingly outlandish situations. At one point he decides to rescue a jumper on a busy bridge, only to endanger the lives of about eight hundred other people driving the route. Somehow, he is then applauded when he subsequently saves the lives of the very people he put in danger. I'm reminded of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men." George tells Lenny to jump in the Sacramento River, but Lenny can't swim so George has to rescue him. Lenny, being slow, is totally grateful to George for saving his life, completely forgetting it was George who told him to jump in the river in the first place. I don't know what excuse the people in "Fantastic Four" have.

Supposedly, the movie's main characters are adults, but they act like children, especially the foolhardy Johnny. The characters fight and play around and fight some more among themselves, while the audience waits patiently for some sort of story line to kick in. When Victor finally turns murderous (and what would you expect him to do with a name like Von Doom?), he is never evil enough to represent a serious threat to anyone, so who cares?

Despite all the fancy special effects (and a lot of it is less than convincing, Mr. Fantastic's rubbery arms looking like something out of "Toy Story" or "The Polar Express"), there is little sense of wonder or excitement in "Fantastic Four." It's merely a middling contender among a surplus of superhero movies.

The image quality is probably pretty good, but Fox's new antipiracy policy of defacing their review copies with a "Property of 20th Century Fox" message running constantly at the bottom of the screen makes a definitive judgment rather difficult. From what I could see, the movie's 2.35:1 original aspect ratio is largely preserved in a high-bit rate, anamorphic transfer that measures about 2.13:1 across my television. The picture is a little bright and a touch glassy, but it's pretty good in most other respects. Definition and detail are sharp, colors are solid, black levels are deep, and grain is mostly absent. The only distractions I noticed were some minor moiré effects, rippling lines, that intruded on the image from time to time.

The audio tracks are available in Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, with the DD 5.1 that I listened to sounding loud and noisy almost every moment. It's not a fault of the audio, mind you, but a conscious decision by the filmmakers to fill almost every moment of audiovisual space with something garish, flashy, or blaring. There is some decent bass response, and, of course, there are the anticipated helicopter flybys, explosions, rocket blasts, and water splashes in the surrounds. The soundtrack does everything one expects it to do in a modern, comic-book, action-adventure movie.

There is a surprising number of extras on the disc, given the reasonably high bit rate of the movie, but not so surprising is that they are all so uninteresting. First up, we have a cast commentary with Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis, and Ioan Gruffudd, which I listened to for a few minutes before getting tired. The keep case says that Julian McMahon is also involved, so maybe he joins the others later on and spices things up. I didn't care to find out. After that is a brief Inside Look at "X-Men 3," followed by four deleted scenes, the only thing clever being a Wolverine insert.

Next up is a nineteen-minute "Fantastic Four Video Diary," which follows the actors around on a press tour. I have no idea why anybody would be interested in this stuff, but fans probably can't get enough of it. Then there are three behind-the-scenes featurettes: "Making of Fantastic Four," five minutes of promotional material disguised as information; "Fantastic Four: Making a Scene," eight minutes describing the filming of the bridge sequence; and "Fantastic Four: Casting Session," eight minutes of talk from the filmmakers, the most enjoyable being Stan Lee, the creator of the characters.

Finally, there are a couple of music videos, "Everything Burns," performed by Ben Moody and Anastacia, and "Come On, Come In," performed by Velvet Revolver; a music soundtrack spot; a widescreen theatrical teaser and trailer for "Fantastic Four" and one for a straight-to-video animation called "Marvel Avengers." In addition, there are thirty-two scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
If you can put up with its virtual lack of plot, its constant barrage of CGI special effects, and its loud blaring music, "Fantastic Four" may work for you as a middle-of-the-road comic-book adventure. It is never entirely boring, but it never attains any memorable heights, either. I suppose that makes it mediocre. Maybe they should retitle it "Mediocre Four." I dunno, but it's not quite so depressing as the theatrical version of "Daredevil" nor so spiritless as "Elektra" or "Cat Woman." It's just sort of out there hanging on by a thread, hoping to catch our attention. If the rest of the movie's characters had been as fascinating as the Ben Grimm character, it might have worked a lot better.

Not as bad as it could have been; not as good as it should have been.


Film Value