July 8, 2005
Review: ‘Fantastic Four’ Is a Freak Show
"Fantastic Four" got there first, developing the concept of superheroes as a dysfunctional family four decades ago. But "The Incredibles" did it far, far better on the big screen.
That animated smash owes an enormous debt to its predecessor, appropriating specific superpowers from the Marvel Comics quartet and the essential theme that life on the homestead goes smoother when kinfolk all row together.
Now the original foursome must flounder in the wake of "The Incredibles, which makes "Fantastic Four" look like a dim, dismal affair by comparison. Even if the cartoon hit had not stolen its thunder, though, "Fantastic Four" would weigh in as a featherweight, feather-headed flick, a low point in the current wave of comic-book adaptations.
Unlike the sometimes ponderous self-importance of "Batman Begins," the themes of racism and alienation in the "X-Men" movies or the notion of personal sacrifice in the "Spider-Man" films, "Fantastic Four" aims for a good old goofy time.
It succeeds on the goofy part, presenting a shallow tale that has a few laughs but no real drama. Less a movie than an anecdotal collection of slapstick action, "Fantastic Four" carries the silliness to such a degree you practically expect campy flashes of "Thwap!" and "Kapow!" a la the 1960s "Batman" TV show.
The movie starts at the beginning, explaining how four astronauts encountered a nasty space storm whose radiation turned them into a merry band of mutants.
Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), a weeny egghead who has to go begging arrogant old school chum Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) to back an expedition to study the storm, is turned into human Silly Putty, able to stretch and contort his body any way he wants.
Reed's former squeeze Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), now Von Doom's girlfriend, finds she can turn invisible and create force fields. Her brother, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), gains the power to fly and engulf himself in flames. Reed's buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is transformed into a rocklike hulk with amazing strength.
Unlike the usual superhero alter egos, the foursome's identities and powers become widely known after a public spectacle of heroics on the Brooklyn Bridge. In the media, Reed becomes known as Mr. Fantastic, Sue the Invisible Woman, Johnny the Human Torch, and Ben the Thing.
Meantime, Victor has been quietly mutating himself, taking on metallic and electromagnetic properties that make him the virtually indestructible megalomaniac Dr. Doom, whose first order of business is to eliminate the Fantastic Four. He doesn't seem to have any plans beyond that.
Tim Story, who made an admirable debut with "Barbershop" but followed with last year's feeble action comedy "Taxi," was a curious choice to direct. As "Taxi" showed, he is not very adept at handling action, and the far more elaborate stunt sequences in "Fantastic Four" look choppy and ill-defined.
The visual effects are cartoonish. Again, the movie suffers from comparisons to "The Incredibles," which had the benefit of being a real cartoon, its heroes' abilities wilder yet still more believable because of their animated context.
The screenplay by Mark Frost and Michael France presents a miserly little personal battle between the good guys and Doom, leaving no sense that anything is at stake other than these sideshow freaks themselves.
Relationships among the groups are thin and corny, and the movie's endless gatherings of gawking onlookers continually distract. The background crowds ham it up so much they collectively deserve a worst-actor prize for non-speaking extras.
After the Brooklyn Bridge incident, a mess they indirectly caused, the Fantastic Four spent much of the movie squabbling like a family in group therapy gone horribly wrong. They knock each other about with no regard to the safety of others, begging the question, are these superheroes more trouble than they're worth?
Of course, the movie has the obligatory set up for a sequel. Let's hope this misfit family decides to part company before it comes to that.
"Fantastic Four," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some suggestive content. Running time: 106 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G - General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG - Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 - Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R - Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 - No one under 17 admitted.