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Saturday, July 9, 2005

Fantastic Four (*1/2)

Fantastic Four is like a bunch of six year olds trying to cook themselves breakfast. They have the basic idea of what they want to do, their hearts are in the right place, but they don’t have the skills to do it right, they make a big fucking mess, and the breakfast ends up looking and tasting like shit. Fortunately they manage not to start a fire and burn the whole house down.

Sometime during the interminable middle act of Fantastic Four, Susan Storm/The Invisible Girl/Woman/Jessica Alba scolds her hotheaded younger brother Johnny Storm/The Human Torch/Chris Evans.

Sue Storm: What's wrong with you? Why don’t you think?!

Great take. Cut and print that. Now, Jessica, do me a favor: why don’t you turn around and with the same tone of disappointment, say that exact line to your director Tim Story, your writers, your producers and whoever else makes the decisions around here.

Scene after scene until the movie grinds to a halt there is constant, illogical bone headedness. Take the first major action set piece in the movie… Wait, before I can get to that, I have to mention this: All right, so Ben Grimm/Michael Chiklis is transformed into The Thing and escapes the quarantine the Fantastic Four and Victor Von Doom/(Dr.) Doom/Julian McMahon were placed in after their whatever-they-were-doing in space went wrong ---

Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic/Ioan Gruffudd: We were trying to help mankind’s DNA by studying a magnetic cloud in space that accelerated, bombarded us with cosmic rays and fundamentally altered our DNA.

I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about and neither do you. And I’m not the one who claims to be a genetic scientist so what’s Reed’s excuse? Jesus, where was I? Right, the Thing.

The Thing escaped the quarantine lab in the middle of the night and ran through the woods of wherever the lab is. He’s heading home to Yancy Street in New York City to see his wife. Whereever the lab surrounded by forest is, it’s easy enough distance for the Thing to make it into Manhattan without anyone noticing him; he makes it home before his wife has gone to bed. The Thing calls her from a payphone after some goofy comedy about how his orange rock fingers are too big to press the buttons on the payphone. He tells her to come outside.

Despite the fact that her husband was in outer space, was in an accident, has been quarantined for days and this is the first she’s heard from him, the fact that he happens to suddenly be outside, his voice is gravely, and he wants her to mysteriously go outside in the middle of the night when he could just come through the door of his own apartment doesn’t concern her in the least. Instead, she says she has “a surprise” for him and then runs out the door of their apartment in the middle of the night, onto a New York City street, in her negligee. What kind of idiot does that? Then she sees that her husband has turned into an orange rock man, screams and runs off.

The next day, the Thing is sitting on the Brooklyn Bridge feeling sorry for himself. At that exact spot, in that exact moment, someone shows up next to him planning on committing suicide. He freaks out when he sees the Thing, falls into traffic and the Thing heroically rams a semi-truck to stop it from colliding into the man. A neat little comic book moment.

Okay, but then, coincidentally, at that exact moment, the rest of the Fantastic Four happen to be on the Brooklyn Bridge looking for the Thing. By the time they get out of their car (not the Fantasticar), a traffic jam has piled up on the Bridge and there are dozens of gawkers separating the FF from the Thing. Reed Richards, who is supposed to be a genius, tells Susan Storm that she’s the only one who can get them to the Thing. Huh? Howzat? Reed can stretch and the Human Torch can fly so they could reach the Thing a lot easier than the Invisible Girl/Woman can. But okay, at this point the FF don’t want to attract attention (even though that’s exactly what they’ll get anyway once they reach the Thing. If we’re thinking.)

Reed, the genius’s plan: “Sue get naked and turn invisible, then get us past all these people.” Okay, naked Jessica Alba jostling past people, invisible or not, is a pretty hot idea. Despite the fact that there are people all around the FF, behind and beside them as well as in front, Sue Storm complies, turns invisible and strips off all her clothes right there in front of everyone. So much for not attracting attention.. But she can’t control her powers yet, turns visible again and then yells at Reed. Then she tries it again and somehow gets past some of the people blocking the way, but by the time she reaches the Thing, the cops have agitated him and the Thing goes berserk, knocking a fire truck halfway over the bridge. The Fantastic Four make their move and get in the middle of the action, so all that stuff about Sue needing to get naked and invisible didn’t need to happen since the crowd parted for the FF anyway. The only reason to even do any of that is to tease Jessica Alba getting naked, which they can’t deliver and have no intention of delivering.

The Thing pulls the fire truck back onto the bridge, Mr. Fantastic stretches and saves a falling fireman. More nice comic book moments. The crowd applauds them and hails them as heroes for saving the fire fighters. Apparently no one stopped to think that none of this would have happened if the Thing didn’t ram a semi-truck, then go berserk and almost send a fire truck flying off the bridge.

The clincher is the Thing’s wife suddenly appears through the same crowd the Fantastic Four couldn’t get through five minutes ago. She sees the Thing in broad daylight, takes off her wedding ring, leaves it on the ground and runs off. The Thing’s enormous fingers can’t pick the ring up (a runner they beat to death – he can’t pick up tiny objects or hold a glass without smashing it) and it’s supposed to be sad. The wife is never seen or mentioned again. That’s it? The wife leaves the ring on the ground and then it’s over? No divorce papers to sign, no lawyers. Who keeps the apartment? The money in the joint back account? And happened to the guy who tried to commit suicide, the catalyst for the entire sequence to even happen? Is he grateful? Frightened? Angry? Under arrest? I dunno. He just disappeared.

The entire movie is like this, ideas set up and not followed through, half-assed characters, no logic, no story. That last thing didn’t really hit me until about half way through the movie – there is nothing going on. This movie has no spine. Ostensibly, Reed is building a machine in his lab atop the Baxter Building to recreate the accident in space so he can return everyone to normal out of guilt for what happened to Ben. For this, cue the music from South Park – we need a montage! A genetic research montage!

Meanwhile Victor Von Doom is discovering he’s slowly turning metallic and can absorb and conduct electricity. He is completely oblivious to the fact that for a billionaire who runs a multi-national conglomerate, he doesn’t do anything. He doesn’t go to meetings, make telephone calls, host a reality show or anything famous high-powered billionaire businessmen do. He just sits around frowning and gets more metallic.

Unfortunately for Von Doom, his board of directors noticed he doesn’t do anything and they take his company away from him. They apparently never watched Spider-Man, but Von Doom has so he does what Green Goblin did and kills his board members, only Doom does it in a parking lot and not in the middle of Times Square while Macy Gray is performing. After that, Doom decides he wants to kill the Fantastic Four. How does killing them help him? It doesn’t really, but it couldn’t hurt.

Doom decides the best way to go about this is to somehow off screen plant cameras all around the FF’s headquarters so he can watch them on TV. (He doesn’t seem to put a camera in the only place I would: Sue Storm’s bedroom and shower. Who gives a shit what the Thing is doing?) Doom then sits around his headquarters and watches his hated arch-enemies on his TV screens, which takes on the same basic tone as when The Simpsons had satellite TV installed and Homer could watch Bart and Lisa at Springfield Elementary.

Homer: (gasps) Bart and Lisa in the same grade?! (changes channel – gasps) An old army buddy is visiting Mannix?!

It’s just non-stop, how retarded this stuff is. Early in the movie, Johnny Storm breaks quarantine and gets his hot nurse Maria Menounos to go skiing with him. (This quarantine lab is located next to mountains and forests and is within running distance from Manhattan.) While skiing, Johnny bursts into flame, flies for a moment and crashes into the snow, his heat burning off his clothes and melting the ice around him so that he’s sitting naked in a wading pool, bewildered at what just happened. Maria Menounos shows up. He’s horny and invites her into the pool.

It’s suggested she consented and had sex with him because he shows up at the lab later completely naked with only her ski jacket wrapped around his crotch. What kind of a woman, a medical nurse no less, watches her patient suddenly burst into flame and then immediately consents to have sex with him? She’s not at all alarmed or frightened that he might burst into flame again, God forbid while they’re fucking, and he’ll burn her to death? Apparently not. And maybe the Human Torch did kill her and buried her body in the snow – he has her jacket and she’s never, ever seen or mentioned again. Fucking stupid.

Now, it’s not all bad. I liked the swaggering Johnny Storm character and his desire to use his powers to impress women and make money. The Thing came off effectively on screen and they competently touched on his pathos at being turned into a monster. The display of the Fantastic Four’s powers were done pretty well, especially Mr. Fantastic’s fighting style when he stretches, fully utilizing the variables of his powers. I liked when the Thing went berserk (for the 14th time) and Mr. Fantastic stretched around him to subdue him, placing the Thing in the Masterlock. (The Thing failed the Masterlock Challenge.) There were fleeting moments that worked, mostly involving the practical jokes the Human Torch played on the Thing, the physical confrontations between the two, and Sue mediating them.

There is a point in the third act when the Fantastic Four come together to face off against Dr. Doom and my pulse quickened somewhat in anticipation of the big showdown we sat through this entire movie to see. But instead of a knockdown, drag-out fight with the fate of the world at stake, it’s over in a couple of minutes with not a scratch on any of the heroes, and the fight wasn't really about anything.

Those are the good parts, the stuff I liked. Then there’s all the other the bad stuff:

The lack of chemistry between Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd. They’re not believable together as lovers, or even as acquaintances who chat when they run into each other at the bus stop.

The lack of genuine tension in the rivalry turned hatred between Reed Richards and Dr. Doom.

The blind black girl who sometimes forgets to act blind that gets crammed into the story as the Thing’s love interest, which begs all sorts of explanations that are never given.

The fact that three out of the five characters (Reed, Sue, and Doom) are introduced in the first scene as brilliant genetic scientists and not one of them acts like it, speaks like it, or is convincing in any way shape or form. What is it about Marvel when they make their movies that they refuse to hire technical consultants? The Fantastic Four writers know as much about genetic science (even fake comic book genetic science) as Daredevil writer-director Mark Steven Johnson knows about how a trial works.

All of the terrible sitcom dialogue and situations slapped together instead of real character moments that could deepen who these people are and what they feel about what’s happened to them beyond what’s superficial.

The wildly inconsistent tone of the movie, which is also reflected by the wildly inconsistent soundtrack, veering from lousy pop rock to a lousy score to soul music(!) with no rhyme or reason. 

Stan Lee, who makes his most obnoxious cameo in a Marvel movie yet.

This material has potential and Fantastic Four should have been a lot better than it turned out. The movie isn’t as terrible as the worst of its critics are suggesting. Fantastic Four is not worthless, but it’s not good, either. At its best, it’s pleasant. Every now and then it hits a funny or exciting note, but not nearly often enough. Most of all, it’s just really dumb and a waste of the material. You can see a better movie in the corners of this one, and it wouldn’t have been so hard to make it with just a few minor changes: Rewrite it, reshoot it, and hire a better director.

The first time Reed stretches his video game quality CGI arm under a doorway, a very dumb girl two seats from me who talked through the entire movie complained, “Ew, that’s nasty.” Seconds later, Johnny Storm delivers the punchline to Reed’s feat: “That’s gross.” Big laugh, especially from the dumb girl who was proud of herself because she broke the joke first. Congratulations, Tim Story, you’ve directed the movie to the remedial level of audience comprehension. Care to try for the next level up or even higher, for those of us watching who aren’t complete morons? No, you didn’t. What a fucking shame.

To bring all this to full circle, the scene I referenced at the start where Sue scolds Johnny comes about because he has disobeyed the team’s instructions to remain out of the public eye. Instead he has turned himself into a teen idol, soaking up the fame and the adoration of hot women. Sue tells him that he’s just a fad to them, but he scoffs, “These people love me!”

In a better movie, or even a sitcom like The Brady Bunch or Growing Pains, Johnny would then learn that he is just an amusing sideshow to the masses and the people that truly care about him are his invisible sister, the elastic guy who’s in love with his sister, and that orange rock man, no relation. Fantastic Four failed to even follow up on that subplot. It gets dropped entirely. If the filmmakers are expecting to pick that story thread up in a sequel, they just might be the most deluded of true believers.