Fantastic Four (2005)

CapeTentHalf a tent

It’s crap!

Crap crap crap crap crap. Crap crap crap crap crap crap crappity crappity crapping crap. Crappy crapulent crapful craptitious crapoidal crapistic craponical craptacularly crapacious craply crappiness. In other words, it’s shit. But as shit goes, it doesn’t taste all that bad... in fact, it almost tastes like... cheese!

The last remaining A-list comic franchise (unless you count The Flash) finally gets the blockbuster treatment. And the treatment it got can be summed up entirely in one sentence: “Let’s give the comics fans EXACTLY what they expect.” Except, the fans were probably expecting much classier effects, rather than a grade of CGI and creature makeup suitable for a mid-season episode of Enterprise, and better acting, rather than a level of thespianity that’s about enough for playing an interchangeable guest crook on CSI: Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Anyway, they just go down the checklist, ticking off every item that’s supposed to be in the Fantastic Four story.

Except for Michael Chiklis as Ben “The Thing” Grimm, the cast is pretty hopeless. Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards? Fuckin' lame. Julian McMahon as Victor von Doom? Fuckin' lame. Jessica Alba as Sue Storm? Fuckin' lame. Chris Evans as Johnny “The Human Torch” Storm? Well... sorta more or less okay, I suppose — a shallow performance for a shallow character. And the writing, too: fuckin' lame. It almost seems like they set out to write a remake of the never-released Roger Corman version, instead of an original take on the source story.

To go into greater detail... well, first, let’s dispose of Jessica Alba. I haven’t seen her other work, but from this, all I can say is: this ain’t an actress, it’s a starlet.* And with the clothes and hair they put on her, she looks like a washout from America’s Next Top Model. But at least her constant display of cleavage helps add that tasty cheese flavor (or to be legally exact, pasteurized processed cheese food product flavor). Julian McMahon as Doom ought to be grandly menacing; he manages to be moderately creepy. He’s gotten up in his Dr. Doom costume in the final act, and starts pronouncing how everybody’s gonna kneel before him... actually, no he doesn’t — from behind the metal mask comes a voice that belongs on a smarmy lounge-lizard trying to pick you up in a bar. And Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic? He’s got to be the most forgettable nonentity ever to be accorded the respect due a leader of heroes... When someone else tells him in the first act that he’s a dork, you agree; then after he fights Dr. Doom and does everything he should to be a real hero, he’s still just as big a dork. And not in a good way, either — if he was a true nerd, he’d be cool, but he doesn’t measure up to that, he’s merely a dork.

It’s embarrassing to compare Gruffudd and McMahon as Richards and Doom to some other famous comic-book-movie antagonists: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto. Stewart and McKellen imbued their roles visibly with strength, resolve, vision, integrity, charisma, and leadership. Gruffudd and McMahon imbue their roles with... well, pretty much nothing. If the gravitas level of Stewart and McKellen is enough to fill up a king-size waterbed, then the level of Gruffudd and McMahon is about enough to lightly dampen the inside of a shot glass.

Dr. Doom’s transformation into murderous evil feels completely sourceless and random; it happens just because it’s in the script, that’s all. As for the transformation of The Four... well, the movie leads you by the hand to explain every little detail of how they came to be just like in the comics. “This is how Reed Richards got gray hair at his temples (not due to age, since otherwise Jessica Alba would be way way too young for him), and this is how they got blue costumes that can stretch and go invisible and not burn, and this is how Ben got the nickname The Thing, and this is how.......” Enough, already! I swear, it’s twice as bad as Batman Begins. Maybe for the truly dedicated comic book fan, this is like visiting the Stations of the Cross. But from a movie I really hope for something more than just re-reading a comic. Or re-watching a saturday morning cartoon from 1968: The movie’s biggest key moment for any of the characters comes when Ben Grimm has to make a choice between regaining his humanity and staying a freak in order to fight evil. And they did it just the way I remember it from an episode of that cartoon show I watched as a kid.

But the most annoyingly bad aspect of the script was the way that everybody hectors Reed Richards for being such a scientist that he can’t be passionate and give his heart to someone he loves. They actually have him say to his ex-girlfriend, by way of illustrating his dorkhood, that the best part of their relationship was “our passion... [deceptive pause] for science.” Gaaaah! Does anyone out there in movie-audience-land believe there’s a single human being who would say such a thing? It’s a total crock, but historically, Hollywood loves this trope, that science makes people into unfeeling defectives*... In fact, the idea that emotionality — or even irrationality — is the precious key to our genuine humanity, or even that emotionlessness equates directly to evil, was a staple of the black&white monster movies of the B movie golden age. As Lyz Kingsley put it in reviewing another film: “In choosing to champion the emotional over the rational, Alien simply follows the lead of more science fiction films than I care to remember.”

I might as well mention that the science in this movie is just completely goofy. Enough to contribute considerable tent value. The dialogue contributes quite a bit more... everybody gets their turn to sound like a complete putz.

The movie’s final shortcoming is that there’s not much super-action. All the real super-fights are crammed into ten or fifteen minutes at the climax. And it sure doesn’t make up for lack of quantity with extra quality.

You may be getting the impression I hated this movie. I didn’t — it’s not a hateful or contemptible movie, it’s just a bad movie. And sometimes, for some of us, bad movies are better than good movies. (Perhaps not very often, in a case like this, but sometimes.) And there are plenty of comic book movies that are far, far worse...

So if you like cheesy bad movies: one thumb halfway up.

* In fairness to Jessica Alba, it came out later that part of the problem is that they would not even let her use whatever acting range she actually possesses. For instance, when there was a crying scene, director Tim Story told her not to scrunch up her face, and actually used the words “Cry prettier!” And when he and Alba could not agree on how to play a scene, his compromise was to tell her to just leave her face blank.

** Why does the stereotype of scientists being coldly emotionless even exist? Two reasons. One is that part of their discipline is to always watch out for times when emotional bias might interfere with getting to the truth. But this does not mean suppressing emotion (which is a recipe for falling into self-deluding rationalization), it means being conscious and mindful of one’s emotions. That first reason is fairly well known, but the second reason is not. It's that science is just not a very enjoyable career for an emotion-driven person. The work requires endless patience, and a huge tolerance for frustration. It’s also usually very unrewarding for anyone with a big ego or a need for recognition. As a result, people in science generally tend to be calm, placid, and undemonstrative personality types... and also tend to show a lot of genuine humility, which is another thing that the discipline requires. Frankly, a lot of us could learn something positive from getting to know more people like this.