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 V.16 No.25 | June 21 - 27, 2007 

Film Review

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Surfer rides high in slapstick superhero flick

“Are you sure The Village People started this way?”
“Are you sure The Village People started this way?”

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Directed by Tim Story

Cast: Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis

If you’re going to put the word “fantastic” right there in your title—be it a book, a film, a record or whatever—you should probably produce something fantastic. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for some serious criticism. Elton John’s “Captain Fantastic and the Dirt Brown Band” album? Hey, fantastic! Fantastic Voyage? It had Raquel Welch in a skintight wet suit, what more can you say? The Fantasticks? It ran for 17,162 performances Off-Broadway—fantastic in anybody’s book.

Not so fantastic? The 2005 big-screen adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s classic 1961 comic book The Fantastic Four.

While Lee and Kirby’s work remains fantastic in every sense of the word, ushering in an era of both groundbreaking naturalism and epic, uninhibited imagination in the comic book medium, the Hollywood version (truncated to simply Fantastic Four) left a lot to be desired. Director Tim Story, noted mostly for the Ice Cube comedy Barbershop, was tapped to direct. What in Barbershop made studio executives think he was the man to direct a big-budget superhero flick remains something of a mystery. Story chose to emphasize the slapstick dysfunction of the superhero team (something Lee and Kirby admittedly introduced), downplaying the sci-fi elements and transforming the project into, essentially, one big, overdressed sitcom.

Despite a universal feeling of antipathy toward the first film, it made $150 million, guaranteeing a sequel. Sadly, Story is back for the follow-up film, delivering more silly comedy and further demonstrating his lack of skills in the action department.

Having expressed my dislike for the first film, I’m now forced to admit that Rise of the Silver Surfer wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement in this most crowded of movie seasons, but I can’t say I hated the film. Parts, in fact, I actually liked. Mostly, the parts without the Fantastic Four.

On the plus side, it’s exciting to see the arrival of the Silver Surfer, surely one of Lee and Kirby’s most interesting creations. The Surfer was introduced to generations of comic book readers on the pages of The Fantastic Four, and the film version sticks more or less to the facts of his origin.

Seems Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) and the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba) are trying to get married—not an easy task when you’re the most high-profile celebrity couple in America and constantly called upon to save the world. This time around, the super-nuptials are interrupted by a crisis of global proportions. Seems the Earth is undergoing rapid, dangerous climate changes thanks to a mysterious burst of cosmic radiation. The source of that radiation appears to be a naked silver dude on a surfboard. Go figure.

Just watching the Surfer appear, sail around the Earth, suck missiles into his surfboard and wreak havoc with the F.F. is a thrill for an old Marvel maniac like myself. Having Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix) provide the voicing of this sad and philosophical alien entity is icing on the cake. (Seriously. Great choice.) As fun as it is to see and hear the old guy, however, Rise of the Silver Surfer doesn’t do a whole lot with him.

As in the comics, the Surfer is the herald to a planet-eating cosmic entity known as Galactus, who’s on his way to Earth with a Manwich appetite. If that’s not a setup for a superhero battle to end all superhero battles, I don’t know what is. Unfortunately, FF:RotSS treats the whole “destruction of all life as we know it” thing as an irritating distraction to the events of real import—a splashy superstar wedding, some slapstick squabbling and a whole lot of product placement. Clocking in at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 90 minutes, Rise barely gets started before the end credits fly. The Surfer’s tragic backstory—how he came to be the herald for an entity who devours planets—is scarcely even mentioned. In a summer of two-and-a-half-hour movies, would another 20 minutes worth of story have killed anyone?

Eventually—after assorted misunderstandings, wacky mishaps and a brief villainous return for Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon)—Galactus arrives, leading to a seriously anticlimactic struggle. (Though, to be honest, Galactus’ original appearance on the pages of the Fantastic Four comic book led to a serious anticlimax.) On screen, Galactus is portrayed as a big swirling cloud and not the towering armor-clad entity he is in the comics. Why the filmmakers thought a big cloud was cooler and more menacing eludes me. It makes the climax much more abstract. Note to 20th Century Fox: Fighting a cloud = lame.

Visually, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer may be the chintziest-looking $150 million film ever made. The CGI work is just barely passable. The sets are dinky. The costumes are meh. The filming locations are confined entirely to Canada. And, worst of all, there’s virtually no attempt to recreate the titanic, indelible, otherworldly images of Messrs. Lee and Kirby. It’s still a vast improvement over the last outing, but about the best you can say for this sequel is that it’s a small, inoffensive appetizer that will certainly sharpen action fan hunger for a good superhero movie.

 
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