Fantastic Four

on July 08, 2005 by Wade Major
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Attempts to transform successful Marvel comic franchises into equally successful big-screen movie franchises have been, to say the least, decidedly mixed, with blockbuster hits like the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" films more than offset by duds like "The Punisher," "Daredevil," "Elektra" and "Hulk." But "Fantastic Four" must surely have seemed among the more dud-proof when the folks at Marvel and Fox elected to do it -- thematically kindred to "X-Men" with a pop culture recognition factor second only to Spider-Man, the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby-created tale had all the makings of a sure-fire hit. If only they'd bothered finding the right makers to bring those makings to fruition.

The story, as it may charitably be called, begins with an orbital experiment gone awry -- while attempting a study of a wayward cosmic cloud, five astronauts and their space station are overtaken by the cloud and bombarded with radiation. Shortly thereafter, each shows signs of having been genetically discombobulated and endowed with remarkable powers. Former MIT wiz-kid Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), the experiment's originator, has become rubberized so that he can elongate and stretch his extremities at will. Reed's ex-girlfriend, Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), can generate force fields and bend light so as to make herself appear invisible. Sue's brother Johnny (Chris Evans), a hotshot playboy astronaut, can ignite himself like a human torch and, if he really focuses, fly. Pretty neat afflictions, it would seem, except for the fact that the other two members of the team aren't able to reverse or conveniently switch their mutations on and off. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis of "The Shield") -- Reed's partner and Johnny's former commanding officer -- has been transformed into an enlarged, freakish creature with a cracked, crusty, stone-like epidermis, while Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon of "Nip/Tuck"), the project's billionaire benefactor, is fast developing a metal alloy exoskeleton which can generate and conduct devastating bolts of energy. While this proves absolutely devastating to Grimm's life, destroying his marriage in the process (for obvious reasons), Von Doom has little trouble embracing his new self.

Given the film's title, it's a bit of a giveaway that one of the five doesn't join the forces of truth and light. Nor should it be much of a spoiler to point out that it's the guy with the unfortunate surname of Von Doom.

A hastily-arranged rescue on a New York bridge serves as the catalytic set piece in which the soon-to-be-nicknamed Fantastic Four earn their hero stripes, eventually gaining individual monikers more suited to their individual abilities: Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Girl, The Human Torch and Thing. It's also the moment that defines them in opposition to the megalomaniacal Dr. Doom, as Von Doom will become known once his metallic chrysalis is complete. But it's a less-than-enthralling scene that stands out only because the rest of the film is so static, even lethargic. Most of the underlying problems stem from the screenplay by "Hulk" writer Michael France and "Twin Peaks" co-creator Mark Frost, with characters forced to mouth the kind of simplistically absurd, overly expository dialogue on which comic books routinely rely. But there's also the problem of balance, as the picture accelerates where it should decelerate, while taking far too much time to develop action scenes that should feel brisk and energized. Compounding the problem is a mostly uncharismatic cast (only Chiklis and Evans are worth watching) and a director -- Tim Story -- who, based on his previous work in the small-scale "Barbershop" and the painfully poor "Taxi," was clearly the wrong man for this job. The larger the film's scale, in fact, the clumsier Story's direction and the more unstable the film's pacing -- a clear indication that it was misbegotten already from the concept and planning stages. Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans and Julian McMahon. Directed by Tim Story. Written by Michael France, Mark Frost. Produced by Avi Arad, Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus and Bernd Eichinger. A Fox release. Action/Sci-Fi. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action, and some suggestive content. Running time: 105 min

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