Thursday, June 7, 2007

from the Archive: Summer Movie Flashback Series - "Fantastic Four" Review

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here. 

In the summer of 2007, I ran a special feature column where – due to the large number of sequels released that year – I revisited the original films from many ongoing franchises.  Here’s an excerpt from the article I wrote to introduce the feature:

“Well, the summer movie season has arrived … many, including myself, have dubbed this as the summer of sequels, because there are lots and lots of sequels coming out. To name a few, there's “Shrek the Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End,” “Ocean's Thirteen,” “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” “Live Free or Die Hard,” “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Rush Hour 3,” and many more. I'm personally on the edge of my seat waiting for all these sequels, and excited to start reviewing them. And once I get excited about reviewing stuff, it's hard to stop. So, until the sequels to these franchises come out, I'll be revisiting their predecessors with brand new reviews to bring everybody up to speed!”

Continue reading after the jump to access Summer Movie Flashback review of “Fantastic Four.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
"Fantastic Four”
Summer Movie Flashback originally published June 7th, 2007

The problem in reviewing this movie is that I have to ponder if I would rate it on the level of normal movies, or on the level of superhero movies.  Superhero movies allow for a certain leniency in the camp department, while if I grade it on a scale of all genres, I have to take more points off for camp.  But even if I do decide to go ahead and grade it like a superhero film, I have to remember films like Spider-Man 2, which is technically a superhero films, but it one of my all time favorite movies.  Hmm.  The dilemma here could go on, but the bottom line is that no matter how I grade it, Fantastic Four is just a very mediocre film.  It doesn’t work as a regular film, and it doesn’t work as a superhero film. 

Reed Richards and Ben Grimm, partners in science, requests that millionaire Victor Von Doom (ooh....he sounds evil, don’t he?) to fund a trip in to space to monitor solar winds...or something like that.  The film never attempts to make it clear what these guys are really after.  It’s not like it’s too smart for me or anything; it’s that the film tries to be smart but is too dumb to be smart, and just ends up awkward.  Anyway, Von Doom, after shamelessly ridiculing them, decides to fund the trip, and they bring along Reed’s old girlfriend Sue Storm (normally that’d be considered a “conflict of interest”) and Sue’s brother Johnny.  Johnny’s a hot-shot, smug punk who doesn’t seem like he’d even know how to open the internet on his computer, and we’re expected to believe he’s an astronaut. 

Anyway, they get into space, Reed’s calculations were off (or something like that) and they all are hit by these solar winds, which somehow changes their “fundamental DNA” so that they all have special powers.  Reed can stretch himself to any length, Johnny can turn into fire and fly, Sue can become invisible and make force fields (because, you know, those things naturally go together) and Ben becomes a giant...thing.             

And now they all have to live together under one roof!  Sounds like a great sitcom, right?  Well, no, not exactly, but that’s how Fantastic Four approaches its source material.  It quickly sets up that these characters must stay in the same “laboratory” at all times so they aren’t hounded by the media, and the vast majority of the film is these four trying to deal with their issues about themselves and each other.  Maybe they were trying to do a character study piece like the Spider-Man films, and I suspect Sam Raimi and his team could have pulled it off.  But with Fantastic Four, it just feels like a bad sitcom, or a relatively good soap opera.  I really expected a cheesy, 60’s theme song to start playing in the middle, introducing the title as “Life With the Fantastics.”

The thing is, under a competent filmmaking team, this could have been really cool, and fairly deep, like the Spider-Man films.  But sadly, the writing is awful, the acting is beyond wooden (with one exception) and the pacing is atrocious (it’s 98 minutes without credits, and feels close to two and a half hours).  Pairing bad acting with bad writing is like mixing Mentos and Diet Coke...the result is pretty messy.  Ioan Gruffudd portrays Reed Richards, and doesn’t exactly do a bad job in his role; it’s just feels very uninspired.  It’s very bland, very monotone.  He suits the role well enough I suppose, but often the written dialogue is so bad that even De Niro couldn’t make it sound good, and it makes the viewer cringe.

At least Gruffudd doesn’t try to impress us like Jessica Alba does with her role as Sue Storm.  Alba must really thinks she’s a great actress; she plays the role like someone who knows what they’re doing on screen, but sadly, she doesn’t.  The result is simply painful to watch, especially when she’s interacting with Reed.  As for the other two fantastics, Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm, they’re actually kind of fun to watch.  Chris Evans plays Johnny Storm, and does an adequate job, certainly, but the character is such a big jerk and is so cocky that Evans seems to have trouble making it feel spontaneous.  Jerks don’t think about their comments before voicing them, but in this movie, Johnny always seems to have his lines thought out well in advance.  It’s not spontaneous enough to be funny.

But Michael Chiklis (the star of the TV show “The Shield”) really does a great job as Ben Grimm.  Grimm becomes the Thing, and due to his horribly disfigured appearance, he is abandoned by his wife and can’t go out in public without inducing fear and ridicule.  You really feel this guy’s pain due to Chiklis’ performance.  If the rest of the acting had been this good, the film probably would have worked.

But the worst acting is Julian McMahon as Dr. Doom, the villain.  Even the most die hard comic book fans must have found problems with this performance.  He isn’t menacing in the slightest due to the completely wooden performance, and combine that with the total lack of motivation, he’s one of the least frightening villains in superhero film history. 

Yet, the film’s biggest problem is not its mediocre acting; it’s the fact that there is no action until the very end of the film, and when it finally happens, it’s really, really, really, really lame.  The Spider-Man trilogy showed that you can easily balance great character development with oodles of edge-of-your-seat action.  Superhero films need to be one thing if nothing else: exciting.  The lack of action makes Fantastic Four lose this crucial component.

Then there’s the special effects.  Wow.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say this was made in 1992.  This is some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen.  The anamatics for Peter Jackson’s King Kong looked better than this.  When Mr. Fantastic stretches himself like rubber, the switch to CGI would be visible to a blind man.  The problem is the lack of texture.  When you look at early versions of some CGI films, texture and lighting hasn’t been added; this is just like that.  It never looks like the body part it’s supposed to.  When Johnny turns to fire, it looks pretty darn good, until you see his face.  Once you see the parts of him as fire that are supposed to look like real body parts, it hardly looks like fire at all.  I could go on and on.  This movie came out in 2005, and its not like there’s been huge technological jumps in these two years.  It’s unacceptable.

I don’t know if it counts as a special effect, but I also have to say that the costume Chiklis wears as The Thing only looks real in some shots.  The rest of the time, it looks like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costumes from the eighties live action films.  It’s just too fake looking in some shots.         

To be fair, this isn’t an awful film.  I can’t honestly call it bad either.  It makes a real honest effort at character development, but the problem is, if I’m going to see a Fantastic Four movie, I expect to see tons of butt-kicking action scenes, not silly soap opera stuff.  The whole thing is just one big missed opportunity, which makes me really sad.  This could have been classic.  Oh well.

There is lots of stuff that does work in this movie.  The Thing, as portrayed by Michael Chiklis, is an unforgettable character, and Johnny Storm’s antics, when they aren’t over the top, are fun.  There’s other stuff too, though I can’t think of it off the top of my head.  If the creators cut the sappy soap opera stuff in favor of more (lots more) action for the sequel, then Rise of the Silver Surfer could be a great action movie.  Now that they don’t have to worry about origin, maybe they can really channel the spirit of the comics in the sequel.  I hope they do. 

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