Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer (20th Century-Fox/Marvel Entertainment, 2007)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, and though it’s hardly a great movie it turned out to be quite entertaining, blessedly short (92 minutes, about all the running time its rather slender plot could sustain) and uninhibitedly fun in a way that superhero movies are supposed to be but the most recent Batman and Spider-Man films haven’t been. I could probably nit-pick this film to death for the rather odd casting of Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic — from the comic books and the 1960’s Hanna-Barbera TV cartoons I had always thought of him as taller and more buff, and with a deeper and more butch voice (the young Harrison Ford would have been ideal) — the even odder appearance of Jessica Alba as a blonde and some of the dorky dialogue (writers Mark Frost, Don Payne and John Turman were obviously trying for Nick-and-Noraesque banter in the run-ins between Reed Richards, a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic, and his bride-to-be Sue Storm, a.k.a. the Invisible Woman — promoted from the “Invisible Girl” she was in the comics — but their sense of wit hardly matches that of the Thin Man series writers, real-life couple Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich).

But the film is well constructed and the writers maintain a light touch throughout — even if the gimmick of having the Richards-Storm wedding continually interrupted by one world-threatening emergency or another was done to death in the 1930’s Perry Mason and Bulldog Drummond movies before most of the personnel connected with this one were even born. Director Tim Story throws a few weird camera angles into the mix (notably an overhead shot of the Fantastic Four entering their headquarters, the Baxter Building, that looks like they’re going to be followed by a Busby Berkeley chorus executing a flawlessly rehearsed dance number) but mostly gets the job done, presenting the action effectively and avoiding the mind-numbing pretension Christopher Nolan and Sam Raimi have brought to their Batman and Spider-Man films, respectively.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer deals with the superhero quartet — Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, Michael Chiklis as the Thing (a former football player turned into something that resembles a heap of animate orange rocks — and the makeup, a prosthetic outfit created by Bart Mixon, is utterly convincing) and Chris Evans as the Human Torch (Sue’s hormone-driven younger brother Johnny, though frankly Evans would be more believable as Ioan Gruffudd’s brother than as Jessica Alba’s!), whose body turns into a fiery-orange sheet of flame and allows him to fly (the only one of the Fantastics who can under his own power) and shoot fireballs at the baddies — up against the Silver Surfer, a beautiful motion-capture creation built on the body of actor Doug Jones, but with Laurence Fishburne providing his voice and continuing the tradition of using deep-voiced African-Americans for these characters begun with James Earl Jones’ service as Darth Vader’s voice in Star Wars even though, as here, someone else was actually inside the costume on screen.

The Surfer turns out to be a malevolent version of John the Baptist, heralding the coming of Galactus, an inconceivably enormous monster who survives by eating entire planets that the Surfer scouts for him using electronic gizmos conceived inside his equally silver surfboard, on which he flies through both outer and inner space without the necessity of life support or any visible means of power supply. The Silver Surfer was introduced into the comic books as a villain, but the character proved so popular that Marvel made him a hero and gave him his own magazine, and something of that duality is tapped in the film as the writers make him a figure of real pathos, lamenting his separation from his girlfriend back home and conscience-stricken over the Faustian bargain he’s made with Galactus: he’ll scout other living worlds for this malevolent creature to destroy if Galactus will leave the Surfer’s home planet (including his girlfriend, whom Sue Storm naturally reminds him of) alone.

The film also features the Fantastic Four’s usual nemesis, Victor Von Doom a.k.a. Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon), who by the usual fiat of superhero-story writers managed to survive the cataclysm that destroyed him at the end of the first Fantastic Four movie in 2005 (two years earlier than this one) and gets called in by Reed Richards’ nemesis, General Hager (André Braugher), to help the good guys stop Galactus’s plot to eat the earth — only of course what Doom is really interested in is the Silver Surfer’s board, since he (like Richards) has figured out that that’s the source of his power. (In the comics Doom’s face had been eaten away by cosmic rays and that’s why he wore the metal mask; in the film his face looks normal and the mask is actually an iron hood that doesn’t seem to serve any purpose except to make its wearer acutely uncomfortable.) The effects people do an excellent job of duplicating the powers we dreamed about when we read the comic books — Mr. Fantastic’s infinitely pliable body looks rather fake but the other effects are completely believable — and the motion-capture system on the Surfer is good enough that even within the silver computer-generated mask and body suit Doug Jones’ face is quite expressive and beautiful.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer is everything a superhero movie should be, and everything the recent Batman and Spider-Man films haven’t been: lively, exciting and, above all, fun — even though part of me misses the old conceit that the heroes had to keep their civilian identities secret; here Reed Richards and Sue Storm are full-fledged members of the celebriati, their activities (including all their previous abortive attempts to marry each other) grist for the tabloids and TV talk shows, and their superhero alter egos are not only open secrets but not secrets at all, reported by Fox News personality Lauren Sanchez (a blatant piece of cross-promotion across the Murdoch empire; Twentieth Century-Fox distributed this movie and co-produced it with Marvel Entertainment) in a mild but still welcome bit of satire of modern celebrity culture.