[27 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s important to remember a film’s intended demographic. A gross-out slacker comedy to some will be a realistic look at a life among one’s peers to another. It’s the same with comic book adaptations. While the genre was always geared toward post-adolescent audiences with a healthy nostalgia for their collections and the characters, there remains an equally thriving underage contingent that doesn’t respond well to all the introspection and brooding.
So when the initial Fantastic Four film decided to drop the existentialism and go for the grade schooler, the obsessive reacted like someone had dismantled and played with their limited edition action figures. What they failed to recognize was that not every movie has to be focused directly toward their mentality. Sometimes, a family-friendly approach can find a payday, as well.
Of course, this doesn’t excuse the first installment in the proposed franchise. It was a tripe trifle, forged out of the flimsiest of scripts and topped with the most awkward of casting considerations. For those who couldn’t imagine a worse take on the material than the 1994 Roger Corman reject (made to settle a rights issue), the update was equally awful – what with it’s reliance on cornball humor and blatant Hollywood hokum. Yet even with the inconsistent acting – Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis just can’t make the superhero thing work, period – and less than impressive F/X (especially in connection with Reed Richards’ shoddy CGI shape shifting), the movie made a profit. And if there is one constant in the motion picture biz, is that success demands a sequel. Equally important is remembering to copy exactly what made the first effort fiscally viable.
Our new saga (now on DVD from Fox) starts when a planet in a nearby galaxy suddenly implodes and splits apart. From the chaos comes a silver streak of light, its path marked directly for the Earth. In the meantime, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are trying, once again, to get married. They’ve failed four times before, and they’re hoping that the fifth times the charm. During this stressful time, brother Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) has been living it up, womanizing and trading on the Four’s good name for his own fame whoring needs. Old pal Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), on the other hand, has finally settled into his all rock persona, and is even enjoying a romance with blind gal pal Alicia Masters. When the Army contacts Reed about building a machine to track the cosmic radiation generated by some newly discovered holes in the planet’s surface, the bad news is discovered – The Silver Surfer has come to our world. And eight days after he arrives, the occupied planet simply dies.
With director Tim Story back behind the lens (a call many feel belies the franchise’s biggest flaw) and a new character to carry us past the problems, The Rise of the Silver Surfer is definitely better than you’d expect. It’s also a popcorn flick full of the same old slop. For everything it gets right (the reverence toward the title entity, the epic arrival of Galactus) is provides even more fuel for the faithfuls’ ire. Granted, Stan Lee never intended this quartet to be taken too seriously. Unlike other comic avengers, the Four were a dysfunctional family that actually catered to and basked in the limelight. But with Alba’s Sue Storm even drippier as the narrative’s main wet blanket, and superficial supermodel Julian McMahon’s dreadfully dull take on Dr. Doom, our newly introduced chrome conqueror has a lot to countermand. For the most part, the metal man succeeds.
Indeed, after seeing this outing, there is hope for the planned Silver Surfer spin-off project, thanks in part to the stellar reading Laurence Fishbourne brings to the role. When combined with the state of the art computer animation (it’s a Weta level of realism that the first film avoided), and some old fashioned stand it work, our interstellar sentry with the planet prepping mandate definitely comes alive. Although he’s hardly a main character – The Thing’s blind babe gets about as much screen time – his impact is such that we actually anticipate his next appearance. Thanks in part to a broadening of scope (we’re dealing with a world killer here), the accompanying action that surrounds the part, and the last act change of heart, we get a well rounded, three dimensional star who is stuck as a supporting player in a meandering mess.
This makes the main foursome seem all the more minor. Chiklis cannot overcome his man in a costume conceit, and every time The Thing interacts with the others, it’s like stepping back in time to the less convincing era of pre-‘80s make-up work. Richards’ stretch skills are more believable this time around, though they almost always wind up part of some slapstick gag. One of the main narrative elements in the film – the Surfer interaction side effect of Johnny Storm switching powers with his fellow crime fighters – makes for some interesting sequences, especially during a midpoint problem in London. Yet the firestarter character remains a cloying card, the kind of slick, look at me loudmouth that can grow annoying very easily. Luckily, actor Chris Evans has little to worry about when it comes to grating. Jessica Alba’s whiny, wounded Sue Storm is enough to drive any sane superhero lover to irritation.
Still, you can sense Story’s fascination and love of the material, and it’s an opinion seconded by the bonus features found on the new two disc digital edition. The director’s commentary is especially enlightening, since we learn of his outright geek love for the Four, as well as his desire to stay as true to the comics as possible (who knew). Even in the documentary featurettes provided on the making of the movie, Story is a stone cold nerd. Creating and controlling the world that these beloved icons exist in seems to bring out his inner child. Among the rest of the cast and crew, it appears to be nothing more than business as usual. A second alternate narrative track (featuring a producer, writer, and editor) is a dour, overly technical affair that saps any possible enjoyment out of the project. Similarly, the F/X and design overviews often provide little more than electronic press shilling. The only legitimate look behind the scenes comes from a near hour long backstage glimpse. It’s great stuff.
It’s just too bad then that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, plays to such a specific demographic. This is the kind of movie that requires a viewer who’s still open to the magic of movies while not being so dense that they miss some of the more satiric bits. Be a little too lost and Tim Story’s take on this title will seem like advanced trigonometry. Know a little too much about the comic in question and the many liberties taken with the characters, and you’re going to be angry at every single frame. Viewed with the proper eyes and processed by the necessary mentality, this plaintive blockbuster wannabe really rocks. Any other critical consideration argues for its slightly average amusements. Figuring out where you stand on the subject will end up being the best guide for your potential pleasure