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Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer (2007)
Director: Tim Story

review by Patrick Hudson

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched The Fantastic Four in 1961, they looked a lot more like a super-science pulp comic than costumed do-gooders. The basic idea is strikingly similar to The Challengers Of The Unknown, another heroic quartet who met the strangest challenges on behalf of humanity that Kirby created for DC in 1957. Like the Challengers, the F4 have never had Clark Kent-style secret identities, their uniforms are more like the efficient jumpsuits worn by the Challengers than the patchwork symbolism of superhero costumes, and they don't spend much time considering the activities of bank robbers or crime lords, but on the more pressing problems of giant monsters, solitary evil geniuses and malevolent aliens. For nearly ten years under Kirby and Lee, the F4 never left its pulp roots far behind, and every problem in the universe could be solved with a mixture of super-science and clobbering time, and it's this atmosphere that the two F4 movies aim to generate.

These are slick, glossy Hollywood movies with terrific visual effects and spectacular action set-pieces - the traffic pile-up that ensues when Thing tries to save a suicide on the Brooklyn Bridge in the first movie is beautifully handled, and the trick is repeated in a well-realised rescue scene at the London Eye in the second. They have a very light touch compared to the doom and gloom presented by Spider-Man and Batman. This is partly a result of the economical running time, which encourages the producers to keep the story moving and not dwell too much on Ben's disturbance at his transformation (subplot in movie one) or Johnny's gradual self-awareness of how much he needs his friends (subplot in movie two), but the producers have clearly made a decision to buck the present trend of the gothic or the noir in superhero films.

This approach isn't without its pitfalls, however. While the movie plots are no sillier than the comics, they do end up underlining the fact that when you start saying this stuff out loud it drifts inevitably towards parody. Under a surer directorial hand this might have been avoided, but here cast seems unsure how to approach the material. Ioan Griffith is a little flippant as Reed Richards, while Michael Chiklis' Ben Grimm seems overly needy; Chris Evans as the hotheaded Johnny Storm shouts a lot, and Jessica Alba as Sue Storm is as glossy and imperturbable as a computer animation. In fact, the Silver Surfer emotes more effectively than she does, and he is mostly a computer animation (modelled on actor Doug Jones, who fills in occasionally as a stunt double). She's not even convincing when she's dead.

The first movie covered the origin of the Fantastic Four's superpowers and the second, 4: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, retells the story of Galactus and the Silver Surfer. The title is significant - in the comics, the story is known as The Coming Of Galactus, but here the focus is very much on the Surfer - for the uninitiated, the planet-eater's gourmet talent scout. In the comics, Galactus is a giant man in a weird helmet and purple shorts, but the movie eschews that image - possibly too difficult to pull off convincingly - in favour of something a little more low-key. While the magic combo of the Internet and poor impulse control prepared me for this, I was still disappointed that the classic figure didn't appear at all (although he's hinted at in a blink and you'll miss it shadow cast on a planet).
Silver Surfer dodges rocket science what's that on the world crisis monitor?
In the original Galactus story, the Watcher comes to Earth and tells Reed Richards the location of the Ultimate Nullifier and Johnny Storm is sent on the perilous journey through the negative zone to find it. One whiff of this - although the precise nature of the Ultimate Nullifier is never entirely clear, one must assume that it does what it says on the tin - and Galactus packs up and leaves. The movie takes its own route, however, including Doctor Doom and putting the responsibility of destroying Galactus with the Surfer. Doom's inclusion works quite well, but he spends too much time out of his mask. This was a problem with the first movie, where we were teased and teased until Doom finally came on at the very end, and one could say something similar about the Surfer in this film, as a matter of fact, who spends a lot of time on the creepy scientist's slab, and not quite enough zooming around on his board. A great deal of the appeal of Doom and the Surfer comes from their distinctive, iconic looks - the hooded cape and grimacing metal mask; the glittering impassive figure whizzing by on his board. We are used to seeing them in comics, and the coyness with which they are used here gets frustrating eventually, and however hard Julian McMahon works, he just isn't Doom without the mask and armour.

The F4 themselves, on the other hand, are brilliantly realised and generously showcased. The elastic Mr Fantastic twists and stretches as frequently as he does in the comics, and gets flattened and mangled as well. It's done with style, even if it's not entirely convincing, although I'm not sure that Reed's flexible limbs could be convincingly portrayed - his dance routine on his stag night, for example, is like a Terry Gilliam cartoon, a bit disturbing and funny for all the wrong reasons. The Human Torch looks great in action, but the Thing is a little smaller than I'd like, and not really cartoony enough. The classic Kirby Thing has no teeth and weird, piggy eyes, and looks like he's made out of broken bricks; Chiklis is more like the smaller, lumpy Thing from the first few comics. Personally, I'd have preferred a big, craggy Thing created with CGI. The Invisible Woman's powers aren't quite as cinematic as the others', but they do find another excuse to get her out of her clothes in a moment of rather tawdry titillation.

By sticking to the Fantastic Four's pulp roots the producers provide a superhero franchise that is quite distinct from other comics blockbusters, but due to an accretion of small things - stiff performances, not enough villain time, a dissatisfying Thing - nothing quite gels. The lightness of touch comes off as slightly insipid, and the dialogue is lumpy and dull where it needs wit and flair. The impressive visuals and respectful approach do a lot to save these movies, and they are better than we could have hoped for as recently as half a decade ago, but the problems are sufficient to make one consider the film that might have been.
Fantastic Four 2 poster

fantasticar debut

hothead meets spaceman

powers trade

F4 heroes line-up

DVD special edition



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