The Theory of Chaos

Monday, December 24, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Originally posted 7/5/07
Full review behind the jump

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

: Tim Story
: Screen story by John Turman and Mark Frost, Screenplay by Don Payne and Mark Frost, based on the Marvel comic book created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
: Avi Arad, Bernd Eichinger, Ralph Winter
: Ioan Gruffud, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis, Julian McMahon, Andre Braugher, Doug Jones, and featuring the voice of Laurence Fishburne

A movie franchise that is purported to be about super-enhanced human beings seems to bank an awful lot on low expectations in
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. It is a movie that I can honestly say exceeds its predecessor, but that is saying crushingly little. With franchises like Batman and Spider-Man thriving under the care of filmmakers who see directly to the universal longings of their heroes and, successfully or not, swing for the fences every time, here is a franchise that still hasn’t found its tone, but coasts on the hope its audience will be satisfied that enough money was spent, and passively un-offended enough to stay until the end. It considers an indifferent shrug and a popcorn receipt to be a triumph of the form.

Although the first movie climaxed with a most underwhelming, non-apocalyptic dust-up, at least they have the decency to put the entire planet in jeopardy this time around. The filmmakers provide a variation on one of the Marvel Universe’s most powerful nemeses, Galactus. What form this being takes, and how it may or may not conform with his various guises in comic book-dom over the years, I’ll leave be – what matters is that a) he sends forth a cosmically-powered herald to find suitable planets and prepare them for his arrival, b) on arriving, he eats the planets, and c) he’s heading for Earth.

So how do you take a brilliant scientist with a stretchable body (Ioan Gruffud as “Mr. Fantastic” Reed Richards), a woman who can project forcefields and become invisible (Jessica Alba as his “Inivisible Girl” fiancée Sue Storm), a flying, flammable egotist (Chris Evans as “Human Torch” Johnny Storm), and a super-strong pile of living rock (Michael Chiklis as “The Thing” Ben Grimm), and conjure up a scenario where they can believably fight something that eats planets? Sadly, the movie has no interest in sorting that problem out, and hopes to buy its way out of trouble with a light show.

It could be that the screenwriters have no motivation to do anything beyond conjuring up a few perils and gags to get us from one product-placement scene to another. Writers in both film and television have made increasing noise in recent years about having to shoehorn advertisements in the most abrasively unsubtle ways into their scenarios – I only wish the rebellion had kicked off before the Fantastic Four’s flying car showed up with Dodge logos and a HEMI motor.

When we’re not looking at name-brand logos, we get sitcom situations enhanced by lackluster special effects. Reed Richards and Sue Storm finally intend to tie the knot, but keep getting interrupted by global calamity. Can they ever achieve normalcy with such responsibilities? Will The Fantastic Four survive their wanting to enjoy wedded bliss? If the movie felt like exploring these issues with slightly more substantive tools than snarky dialogue and contrived misunderstandings, then we might be getting somewhere.

But why do that when there’s a spin-off to set-up? Galactus’ herald, everybody who’s anybody knows, is The Silver Surfer, whose shiny screen debut has been destined since the appearance of the liquid metal T-1000 back in Terminator 2. The Surfer possesses seemingly limitless powers of matter/energy conversion and he flies around the Earth, boring big holes in the ground and making ominous pronouncements that create a lot of general panic. How all this “prepares” the Earth for Galactus I’m not certain. The Surfer is performed physically by Doug Jones but voiced by Laurence Fishburne. This is the same fate Jones suffered in Hellboy, performing the movements of Abe Sapien only to be re-dubbed by David Hyde Pierce. It appears to be his destiny to create a character for animators and then watch a celebrity who spent a day in a recording studio get all the credit.

So while the Fantastics (it is an act of willpower to withhold a “K”, dear reader) try to hold off bickering with each other long enough to knock Surfer off his board so he can explain the plot to them, I should also mention, for no reason other than thoroughness, that previous arch-nemesis Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) is back. This is an improbability he keeps threatening to explain but never does. As before he is lacking anywhere near appropriate levels of both menace and diabolicalness, and is satisfied that simply sauntering in, smirking, and being evil will annoy everyone and tickle his fancy. His visage is un-threatening, his voice thin and whiny, and he could suffer the same criticism as Bowler Hat Guy in Disney’s Meet the Robinsons: his plans just aren’t very well thought through. The wasted potential here is staggering – it’s like turning Lex Luthor into a serial litterbug.

Of the acting I can say little except that the actors don't have much to work with, and have all been more compelling elsewhere. I’m not one to demand that all directors be auteurs, I know that some are simply shooters with enough endurance, technical know-how and people skills to see that millions and millions of dollars are spent in their intended ways. There’s a need for that in Hollywood, and I don’t at all fault director Tim Story (Barbershop, Taxi), who has no discernible aesthetic or need to communicate through this medium, for wanting to keep earning such fat paychecks as a movie of this size provide.

So instead, my accusing eye falls on the gang of producers for Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. As is increasingly common, there’s over a dozen of them. Between the ones who arranged for financing and tax credits in exchange for some prettily bland Canadian locations, the ones who just get their names up there for contractual reasons or ego, and the ones who busied themselves selling screen space to fast food restaurants, I wonder which one’s job it was to actually produce a movie, and if he or she ever had a moment’s passion about what to do with this movie besides advertise it?


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