'Fantastic': The Powers To Charm
Friday, July 8, 2005
Bicker, bicker, bicker, that's all they do.
Like any dysfunctional family -- wouldn't that be any family, really? -- the Fantastic Four snipe and carp and huff and puff and pout and mope and wheeze and sigh, when they're not attacking each other directly.
And that's the charm of "Fantastic Four," a funky, fun film version of the famous Marvel superhero concoction, one of the earliest of the revisionist wave of supes and in some ways the most lovable or at least the most knowable. Unlike Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, against whom in some form they were a reaction, they weren't idealized. No square-jawed ubermensch with zero ego and id and muscles like weisswurst. Instead, they were reluctant superheroes who, when you came down to it, weren't that super. Their powers were kind of strange. Mostly what they did was try and get along, even if getting along wasn't any easier for them than for the rest of us. They were the least super of superheroes. They were the superheroes next door and you could hear their shouts coming through the wall.
Tim Story's "Fantastic Four" features exactly that sense of squabble and snippityness as it produces a great deal of comic energy in a movie more based on character than plot. It finally does get a little plot at the end, but not much of one. You have to say, gee, there was so much plot left over after "Batman Begins," maybe they could have borrowed a little. Could we have a couple of nice inciting incidents, please, maybe a motive or two, even a caper or a mission? Nope: That's not "FF."
The movie, therefore, is mostly an origins tale. It tells how four more or less (actually a lot more less than more) "normal" people became, you know, whatever, I'm not sure what. I guess the word would be, uh, "different." The weird ambivalence toward the superheroic -- gee, it's a great way to meet chicks and get tables, but you can't go to the 7-Eleven for a Slurpee without massive agonies -- that runs through the characters and the story is one of the movie's most lovable qualities.
Anyhow, it all begins with superbillionaire Victor Von Doom, played by a square-jawed block of granite named Julian McMahon, who sees in DNA research yet more billions. Acting on the theories of square-jawed block of limestone Reed Richards (Welshman Ioan Gruffudd, a former Brit TV Horatio Hornblower), he decides to send a ship into space to examine a cloud of . . . I'm not sure what: energy? debris? magic rays? movie special effects? . . . which may have started life on Earth the last time it blew through the neighborhood 5 billion years ago. He puts together a team, or rather he has the brilliant but self-doubting Dr. Richards put it together: Reed's old girlfriend (and Victor's current one) Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Brooklyn astronaut Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Sue's brother, madcap flyboy and race driver Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). All head out to space, where the cloud suddenly accelerates, catches them unshielded and bathes them in . . . a severe dosage of movie special effects.
They make it back to Earth but now they're kind of different.
Dr. Richards now knows how to stretch a point, bend an argument, slip out the back, Jack. He's elastic.
Sue, also a scientist even behind Alba's pouty, sultry, pillowy, not-a-chance-Fido face, now can turn invisible. She also has some kind of bonus deal going, a "force" of some sort that can stop or contain other forces.
Johnny Storm can now burst into flame. But he doesn't burn. No, I don't quite see the point of this one either. Reed at least could stick a hand under a door and steal loose change. Sue could get into the New York Giants' locker room, every American girl's dream. But what can Johnny do, exactly? Oh, toast marshmallows anywhere, anytime ! That's a great super talent.
Evans is the most negligible of the FF; he resembles one of those ESPN or Fox sports talk-show guys; 28, too old to be cute anymore, too much attitude, not enough knowledge, not nearly as interesting as he thinks he is.
As for poor Ben, he's at the same time the most super-ized and the most cursed: He turns into the Hulk. No wait, the Hulk is green. He's brown. I don't think marketing would approve "The Hulk only brown" as a title, so he goes by the moniker "The Thing." It's not fair, of course, because he remains entirely human even if he now weighs 600 pounds and has a complexion that looks like the floor of the Mojave.
Actually, of the various illusions the movie deploys, the Thing is the least satisfactory. It's just a costume. Like, big deal. It's also a bad costume: It's so thick and unyielding, so un-nuanced and unsupple, it could be tin foil. Chiklis can use none of his talents as an actor except voice and eyes, neither of which are particularly well developed. Somehow you never believe in him; you just think, gee, that's John Belushi caked in mud. What's he doing here?
The climax of the film comes about the three-quarters mark, which is the first time the FF work together as a team and recognize how useful their somewhat weird package of skills can be. This is also the movie's single best sequence, a kind of accident-prevention action on one of New York's many bridges, which involves a lot of well-crafted legerdemain, the upshot of which is that nobody falls into the river below and the Thing single-handedly pulls an errant fire engine and several clinging firefighters back from the edge.
Then, finally, the "story" begins. It seems to turn on the fact that Von Doom also has been zapped by the cloud. He's turning metal. He's in a bad mood because his vast business is on the skids after the fiasco of the cloud mission. So he decides to kill the FF.
Not much, is it? No plot against the world, no plan to extort the Fort Knox supply of gold out of Army hands or bio-attack Manhattan or kidnap Paris Hilton. He just wants to mess with our pals, who by this time have set up a communal barracks in an art moderne skyscraper. The movie shunts through this ploy rather perfunctorily, leaving the unfortunate residue that the last 20 minutes are the movie's worst.
Fantastic Four (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for intense action and suggestive themes.