Monday, June 25, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer --- "Excelsior!" or "Meh ..." ?!?!

- Well, it was a crazy weekend as expected, as the 48 Hour Film Festival shifted into high gear. Friday night, I worked on the script for our film into the wee hours of the morning. Since it was a somewhat collaborative process, there were moments of slow-going, but mostly, I worked pretty quickly and settled on the main characters without too much problem. The genre we were assigned was "fantasy," never an easy topic for a no-budget short film, but luckily we had worked out in advance a pretty clever little idea that would subvert fairy-tale characters and satirize their stories into a kind of mock-Real World / Judd Apatow-ish comedy - think the comic book Fables meets Family Guy. So the writing part went as smoothly as can be expected for this type of shotgun script writing. Then, Saturday I attended the shoot, which was a lot of fun, since there wasn't much pressure on me to do much at that point excapt to observe and lend a comment or two. The real fun was seeing the actors and crew come together to actually film the script that I had written only hours earlier. It was a good group and I think they did a great job (I will reserve my final judgement until I see the finished, edited film, but I am hoping for an awesome finished product).

And yeah, I am still freaking out about when the screening will be held (I still haven't been able to change it to Friday), and again, it's one of those frustrating situations where all of the universe's cosmic forces seem to be conspiring to not allow this to work out. I am still waiting on the final word, so pleaaaaaaaaase lord let us be able to scree on Friday rather than Saturday, when I will be flying home to Connecticut. Sadly, the guy from the 48 Hour fest says chances for a switch are not very good. We shall see, my friends. We shall see ...

So, anyways, last night I was slightly stressing about all this and was jones-ing for a movie to take my mind off of everything. Now, all signs pointed to the Fantastic Four sequel being a steaming pile, but the geek in me just had to see the silver Surfer brought to big-screen life for myself. So ...


- Let's put this out there first - The original Fantastic Four movie (from a few years ago, not the Roger Corman one ...) was a piece of crap. The best thing I can say about it is that it wasn't a total loss, because at least there seemed to be a decent cast in place to continue the series with, hopefully, a better director and writing team. But after a string of good to great comic book movies that preceded it (Spiderman 2, Batman Begins, Hellboy, etc.), Fantastic Four burst onto the scene with a total lack of awareness that the bar had been raised in the comic book genre. This was a movie that would have been considered poor even if had been released in the dark days of Spawn and Batman Forever. The writing was atrocious, the plotting disgraceful, and the way that the classic stories of Lee and Kirby were simply $%#* on, with a total lack of artistic vision or purpose, was actually pretty nauseating.

Somehow, some way, however, this movie made money - lots of money. And a sequel was quickly put into production. As a review in The Onion said - "this was that big summer movie that everybody saw and nobody liked."

Well, I'm happy to report that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is definitely better than the first one. It looks a lot better, with some decent action and great f/x for the Surfer. It has a litle bit of actual humor. And, overall, it feels a bit more like a real Fantastic Four movie.

Still, what we have here is by no means a great or even good film. It's still a pretty sub-par offering that has little to nothing to add to the comic book mythos. There's lots of cringe-worthy acting, terrible characterization, a totally bare-bones plot, and still no real visual imagination or vision excepting the pretty cool-looking Surfer.

Let's talk about the film's plotting. So, here's the thing - the one thing the movie has a pretty good handle on is the dynamic between the Fantastic Four. The interplay between Reed Richards, Sue Storm, Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm feels mostly right, and even though it's hamfisted and overly sitcom-ish, the movie's biggest strength is probably the amount of fun with which it handles the family dynamics of the Four. Granted, the writing is basically no better than a typical Saturday morning cartoon, which is especially disappointing since I grew up with some pretty badass Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer cartoons. But, I can see how kids would get into the bickering and sense of friendship that the Four engage in. This aspect is at least handled decently.

What is totally mucked up is the rest of the screenplay. I mean, so much of the focus is on the family dynamics of the Four that everything else is basically an afterthought. So that means that the Surfer, DR. DOOM, and the biggest threat of all, GALACTUS, all get the short shrift so we can spend more time hearing Sue pine for Reed to pay more attention to her. What made Lee's comic book sagas memorable were the moments of characterization sprinkled between the huge, cosmic action. Here, despite a plot and characters that beg for something big and epic, we get only small moments where there is any real dramatic tension or sense of scope, and the promise of those little moments is NEVER followed through on. For a moment - one brief moment - when the Surfer began explaining his origin to Sue, I was 100% in. This was it - Norrin Radd, the power cosmic, the coming of Galactus ... and then, nothing. The fate of the world is only ever actually at stake for about half a second, and the Surfer has a lot of scenes where he looks cool, but says or does little else. Galactus is, for all intents and purposes, not in this movie, only alluded to as some vague planet-eating threat, who we only see as some kind of swirling space-cloud. And that's it. The big climactic moment is the Surfer flying into the center of said cloud, doing something defiant (what, exactly, he does ... I have no idea), and somehow the threat of Galactus is over and done with. At some point Dr. Doom gets involved, too ...

Now, Dr. Doom, as played by Julian McMahon is possibly the worst and most disappointing aspect of not only this movie, but of the entire franchise. For one thing, McMahon is totally wrong for this part. Dr. Doom is, ideally, a crazed, Darth Vader-esque science experiment gone wrong. Here, he looks the part when behind the iron mask and cloak, but sounds like some yuppie upset that someone dented his new ferrari. Now, Dr. Doom is supposed to be the Four's archnemesis, one of the most evil, freakish, scary dudes around. As lame as he was in the first movie ... here is is, well, I won't say he's worse, just useless. Totally useless. He's brought in by the military to help with the Surfer's capture ... for no good reason. He then (surprise!) goes rogue. His big plan is, apparently, to steal the Surfer's board, ride around on it for a bit, and then get beaten up by the Human Torch and get punched into the ocean, presumably never to be see or heard from again ... Basically, one of comic's greatest villains is, once again, a total joke, miscast, and written so haphazardly that I honestly have no idea why he was even included in this movie.

McMahon isn't the only one who deserves criticism here. All of the other characters are treated like one big joke as well. Now, I appreciate that this is a light-hearted story that will have some comedic moments. But here, The Thing is a walking punchline. As is Johnny Storm. Even Mr. Fantastic follows Spiderman's example and has a goofy dance number. As with Spiderman, the tone is so off if only because the plot, in theory, should be tinged with darkness and pathos. We have a herald of a planet-eating despot, aimlessly soaring the galaxy, forced to prepare worlds for destruction in order to preserve his own - I mean, that's some potentially heavy stuff. Well, not here it's not ...

As for Jessica Alba. Well, Iaon Gruffold, Chris Evans, and Michael Chiklis may be the victims of some lame writing, but at least they feel very natural in their parts. Alba has felt wrong from the start, with her oddly-dyed hair and fake blue contacts, her look is some weird attempt to appease comic book fans who want a blond, blue-eyed Sue Storm. And her acting, well, it's just not very good. Alba has shown a few glimpses of talent in movies like Sin City, but she has a lot to prove if she wants to make the argument that she has the chops to pull off a leading lady action role like this one.

Luckily, the cast is to some extent overshadowed by the Silver Surfer. All I can say is - Doug Jones is a phenomena. While the Surfer has a shiny coat of CGI that brings him to metallic life, its Doug Jones physical acting that makes him really shine. As he did in Hellboy, Jones imbues the surfer with this otherworldly personality that feels real and tangible but fascinatingly alien. The voice of Lawrence Fishbourne is appropriately cool and mysterious, but it's Jones who is the real star of the show. So yeah, if there's any one aspect of the movie that lives up to the hype, it is definitely the visual of the Surfer, one of the few areas of the film where a classic Jack Kirby visual was brought to life in a manner befitting of the King.

So, overall, I found enough to enjoy here to justify my ticket, but that is me speaking as a fanboy who was chomping at the bit to see the Surfer brought to life. Ultimately, I can't help but resent how bland and dumbed-down these movies feel. For all the criticism that a movie like Pirates 3 gets from some corners, I think most would agree that it'd be nice if Fantastic 4 had a fraction of that movie's creativity and visual / stylistic punch. Simiarly, the script here is just so underwhelming. It's one thing that the dialouge and characterization is flat and paper-thin. But let's face it - Stan Lee has never been known for sophisticated dialogue or nuance. He and Kirby made their names on characters that jumped off the page and stories that were modern mythology - epic sagas that overflowed with far-out ideas and classic twists. Here, one of those great pieces of modern American myth - the Galactus story, is reduced to a mere afterthought, an excuse to get the Silver Surfer onscreen and broaden the scope of the franchise. Instead, introducing these potentially epic elements only serves to EXPOSE how weak and limited the talent behind the franchise is. There are just too many weak links, in the cast, in the writing, in the direction (please, replace Tim Story on any future sequels!), to successfully create a great comic book adaptation. Servicable? Maybe. But far, far away from being anything close to "fantastic."

My Grade: C

- Alright then, I'm out of here. Let me know what you think, as always. Anyways, now I can turn my attention to some summer movies that may actually be GOOD - Ratatouille, Superbad, Stardust ...

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