a critiQal film review Fantastic Four (2005)

Plot: After a group of scientists are exposed to cosmic radiation, they each find themselves with extraordinary new powers. When the mission's sponsor, Victor Von Doom (McMahon), tries to use his new powers against them, the four of them - Reed Richards (Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Alba), Johnny Storm (Evans) and Ben Grimm (Chiklis) - team up to take him on.

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  • ...truly, a fantastically fun adventure

We were so excited waiting for X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the new Fantastic Four movie almost slid under our radar. After seeing a few of the previews, we thought it looked decent, but were worried.

After the atrocious job Hollywood had done with my favorite comic book hero (see Spider-Man (2002)), I was wary at seeing how bad they would screw up the Fantastic Four. However, the more we saw, the more it looked like the Fantastic Four film seemed more on a par with X-Men (2000) rather than Spider-Man (2002). Of course, by that point the film had already made it’s way through theaters, so we had to wait until it hit DVD.

Having been hyped up by the previews leading up to it’s DVD release date, we immediately rushed out and rented a copy of Fantastic Four as soon as it hit the shelves at our local Blockbuster®. Not wanting to wait any longer, we tossed aside the idea of waiting until Friday, and immediately sat down to watch the film. Would it be as good as all it’s hype had led us to believe, or would this be a rerun of the downfalls of the big screen versions of Spider-Man (2002) and Hulk (2003)?

They couldn’t have picked a better bunch to star in Fantastic Four. While some characters are more recognizable than others, most have not developed a truly memorable movie character so far in their careers (although 3 have conquered TV: Alba in “Dark Angel” (TV), Chiklis in “The Shield” (TV) and McMahon in “Charmed” (TV)). That leaves the 5 of them open for something every actor wants – a role that belongs solely to them.

While Tobey Maguire could easily be replaced in a future Spider-Man (2002) film (hint, hint, Sam Raimi), the same can definitely not be said for the 5 main characters in Fantastic Four. They each take their role and shape into an extension of themselves, making the role so totally theirs that any other actor in the role would seem foolish.

At the same time, they all are able to make the character a totally separate entity from themselves, so they won’t be stuck playing only that character for the rest of their careers (although another movie or two might be fun).

Alba’s sweet innocence in her characters usually hides a savvy toughness, and this combination works well with Gruffudd’s scientific geek, drawing him out of his shell inch by inch. The brash cockiness of Evans also perfectly counters Chiklis’ gruff no-nonsense attitude, and brings out most of the really genuinely funny moments of Fantastic Four. The camaraderie of the 4 of them is easily evident, and never once comes off as awkward or forced.

But what’s a bunch of superheroes without a bad guy? Julian McMahon, with his devilish past in “Charmed” (TV), seemed at first to be an unlikely choice to play one of the most well-known comic book villains of all time. But, it seems that his TV role was perfect preparation for playing Dr. Doom. Julian by now has perfected the ability to exude evil on-camera without even seeming to try. From the first moment he steps into the picture, the audience will know he’s the bad guy. It’s a real talent, and hopefully he will keep playing the “bad guy” for many years to come.

The plot of Fantastic Four does try to stick as close to the books as possible. There may be some differences, but it really does do a wonderful job of staying true to the spirit of the comics. While Spider-Man (2002) may have turned into a phenomenon, most will agree it’s not because of it’s comic book roots. True, nostalgia for the old Spider-Man comics many loved as a child has helped, but it’s not the real reason for the films’ successes. Rather, it’s been to put on as big of a show as possible, and toss in as many outlandish looking costumes and special effects to hide the poor acting and lack of plot.

Fantastic Four, on the other hand, just as X-Men (2000) did, stays truer to the spirit of the comics, and really concentrates more on the storyline than the special effects. Of course, the special effects are there (and in great numbers), but they act to help support the storyline, rather than trying to becoming the storyline themselves.

The special effects are very well done in Fantastic Four. From The Human Torch’s realistic flaming body to Sue Storm’s invisibility and force fields to Reed’s rubbery configurations, the digitally-enhanced special effects make the movie that much more impressive. Not to be outdone, the Thing’s suit and makeup really do a good job of creating the impression that Chiklis’ character is actually made of stone.

Finally, Hollywood has figured out a way to make these impossibly strong characters, like The Thing, into something believable on the big screen. Going fully animated, aka Hulk (2003), doesn’t work yet, as the technology isn’t quite there to make a guy like that photo-realistic. However, using an actor inside a suit still seems to be the best way to go – so far. When the day finally comes when they are able to create a man-creature like The Hulk or The Thing totally out of computer animation so lifelike the audience won’t be able to tell the difference – well, at that point the balance will shift. But for now, Hollywood, stick to the suits when trying to bring these big guys to life.

All in all, Fantastic Four comes in a decent second in terms of major comic book series live-action adaptations. Still numero uno: X-Men (2000), for now. But with the memorable characters created by these 5 talented actors, an involving storyline, staying true to the spirit of the comics, and some well thought out special effects, the inevitable sequels may be set to give X-Men (2000) a run for their title.

The fact that the heroes never really feel like they are in danger may be a drawback for some. But the fun, early comic book feel of Fantastic Four helps make it a lighthearted romp. Sure, it’s not exactly deep, but it’s a solid popcorn-chomping fun fest…and that’s a lot more than you can say for Spider-Man (2002).

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