Tuesday, July 5, 2005

Review: Fantastic Four (2005)

Fantastic Four
98 minutes
Rated PG-13 (for one brief, nasty murder whose sole purpose was to help the film get that PG-13 and not a more suitable PG)

by Scott Mendelson

I went into Fantastic Four expecting the worst, as the buzz and initial clips were not promising. I was wrong. All hype and fan boy complaints about casting (it works well enough, with one exception) and general concerns about similarities to The Incredibles aside (Pixar, glorious streak of quality notwithstanding, has a habit of ripping off old ideas and making them better… Monsters Inc is to Little Monsters as Finding Nemo is to An American Tail), Fantastic Four is just a pretty darn entertaining comic book adventure film for the whole family. There’s very little profanity, and no real sexual content. There is only one major scene of real violence; an encounter in a parking garage that’s briefly shocking and violent, but not bloody or gory. And, content aside, it is about family, friendship, and loyalty (just like the original comic book).

Comparing the previews to the film, it’s obvious that Fox was trying to hide what a character driven and NOT action drenched movie it was. Quibbles of faithfulness to the comics (and there are things to quibble about), it is very faithful to the spirit and tone of the original books. The original book was basically a sci-fi adventure as family melodrama. Can four DNA-altered mutants live together and save the world together without driving each other crazy? And, gosh darn it, that’s what the movie eventually shapes into as well. The film is flawed; the dialogue is often ‘on the nose’, and the film feels chopped in places, leaving plot holes late in the film. But, glaring problems aside (the biggest of which I’ll go into below), the film works. It’s a close call, and I might not have been impressed, but I was entertained and I enjoyed the emphasis on drama rather than action.

The plot, for the eight of you who missed the trailers and have never ever seen a comic book… Five people go into space on an experimental journey involving DNA. Mistakes are made, ship goes boom, and the five are exposed to scary rays that resemble the Nexus from Star Trek: Generations (ya know, the one where they end up in the Nexus and, by the film’s logic, they never ever leave which means every Star Trek adventure from then on it takes place in that non-reality). Rather than being tossed into a time ribbon with Malcolm McDowell, their DNA is altered in differing ways.

Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffard, terrifically low key as the patriarch) becomes able to stretch his limbs any which way but lose. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, not quite motherly enough, but not as bad as you fear) becomes occasionally invisible. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, acceptable as a womanizing hotshot) gets the ability to catch aflame. And Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, full of regret and bitterness, giving easily the best performance in the film with the best material to boot) suffers as his entire body turns to stone.

Oh, and Victor Van Doom discovers that his skin is turning to metal, and he is able to control electricity. Just by those names, take a guess which one turns out to be the bad guy? You guessed the guy with Doom in his name? Can’t fool you! Of course, in the comics, his origin was a bit different. After scarring his face is a poorly thought out scheme to travel to heaven and talk to his dead mother (don’t ask, it was the 60’s dude!), he eventually took the name Dr. Doom because Dr. Doom is a really really cool name for a bad guy, and one of the main reasons for the guy’s 45 years of popularity among the geeks.

Alas, the film’s handling of Doom is easily the chief weakness and biggest disappointment. Sure, Alba isn’t great as Sue, but she is good enough. And yes, the special effects aren’t very realistic, but the cheesy FX actually gave the film a charming, old-fashioned feel. And the action scenes aren’t very riveting, but it’s always refreshing when more emphasis is placed on character than action. But, Julian McMahon is perfectly dreadful as Doom, spending most of the second half isolated and thus forced to poorly talk to himself in evil monologues. The other reasons for the character’s popularity, his rich background and cool caped costume, are sadly lacking in this film. His new quasi Lex Luthor-ish back story is lazy and boring. Truth be told, the film would have been far stronger to remove Doom from the plot, to concentrate even more on the readjustment of the Fantastic Family and to then have Victor Van Doom show himself in the final scene, ready to earn that PG-13 in the inevitable sequel.

In the end, the long awaited Fantastic Four is a solid B-level entry into the comic book genre. It’s fun, it’s well acted by most of the cast, and, in this summer of dark, gloomy spectacles, it’s a light bouncy adventure story that is faithful in tone and spirit to the classic comic book series from which it’s based. It’s surely not ‘Incredible’, nor is it even ‘Fantastic’. But, to use a little known comic book spoof from 2000, it is just barely ‘Special’.

Grade: B-

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