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Fantastic Four

2004fantastic4Movie review by Greg Carlson

Given the end result, 20th Century Fox might have saved plenty of time and energy had it merely dusted off the ill-fated 1994 version of “Fantastic Four” and slipped that into theatres this week. Widely bootlegged, Oley Sassone’s low-budget disaster has kept FF fans’ hopes alive for a decade that a lavish, major studio treatment of the legendary Marvel Comics superhero team would erase the memory of a colossally inept misfire. No such luck. Tim Story’s splashy version, crammed with special effects, flops hard. The new “Fantastic Four” has the texture and vibe of a corny television series, and considering the backgrounds of its actors, it will play much better on the small screen than the large one.

Tinkering with the mythology that hardcore fans cherish as sacred text, the Mark Frost and Michael France script sends the quartet of future champions into space along with soon-to-be nemesis Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who has agreed to finance the mission in exchange for a wicked cut of the potential spoils. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) abort the odyssey following a cosmic tempest that blasts the space station with radiation. Upon their return to terra firma, the gang discovers that they have been blessed – or cursed – with superhuman powers.

At one end of the spectrum is the flashy Johnny, whose ability to combust into flames (and eventually fly) triggers his understanding that shouting “Flame On!” will, contrary to expectations, serve as a magnet to gorgeous young women. At the other end is Ben, whose appearance takes on the external properties of a collection of orange rocks. In one jaw-dropping demonstration of the film’s foolishness, Ben’s fiancée rejects him by placing her engagement ring on the ground immediately following an unprecedented act of heroism and self-sacrifice on his part. Apparently to some people looks really matter.

Johnny’s sister Sue turns invisible – especially when her emotions get the better of her. Reed discovers he can stretch his body like rubber, which comes in handy when he needs to reach a roll of toilet paper across the hall. Story spends so much time explaining the origins of the group members, nothing of interest is left over for the development of the narrative. Victor, whose vanity leads him to don an iron mask as Dr. Doom, is so underplayed by McMahon (in a performance that often calls to mind Kevin Spacey), the dull villain feels like an afterthought.

Arguably the only thing the movie has going for it is the devil-may-care attitude of Evans’ Human Torch. Endowed with a head full of air and insouciance to spare, Johnny provides just the tiniest bit of relief from the dreadful, thudding mechanics that lurch and sputter to keep the film moving. Story might like to think that the movie has its tongue planted in cheek, but the audience spends more time laughing at the film than with it. Alba, who has become every fanboy’s dream girl following her gyrations in “Sin City,” has yet to prove she can really carry a movie, and the dialogue in “Fantastic Four” doesn’t do her any favors. Chiklis struggles mightily against the layers of prosthetics that only serve to bury him, and Gruffudd is thoroughly forgettable as Richards. There is little doubt that the filmmakers were betting on “Fantastic Four” as a franchise, but here is hoping that we don’t see the Baxter Building for at least another ten years.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/11/05.

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