The further I walked up 6th Avenue to the "Fantastic Four" screening, the more my level of apprehension rose. Here in New York City, you would be hard pressed to look anywhere, including in the privacy of your own home, without seeing some form of promotional material for this movie. Of course, this is the normal saturation program that any major studio unleashes for big movies, but the "Fantastic Four" promo blitz we've been faced with seems particularly anemic and uninspired - and it's everywhere.
After walking past a few more posters and bus ads with the Four staring back at me, I arrived at a rather intimidating building with an equally imposing and futuristic security desk. Taking a moment to stop observing an array of screens and pushing unmarked buttons, the guard checked me in and took my camera phone. He then quietly ushered me, with a curious look on his face, towards unfortunate mediocrity.
I was never a serious reader of the book, but I did have some friends who would have copies around to leaf through on lazy weekends. It was interesting stuff in the sense that these guys lived right in New York City with no secret identities, were a bickering family and had some interesting powers. The main draw of this book always seemed to be the relatability of the characters and the ease with which the reader could step into their shoes. It's never been hard to imagine flying through your own city, or smashing down a wall after an argument -- and these guys could do it. And that was kind of cool to watch.
That said, I feel like this film totally missed that critical point. Instead of effectively showing us that these people care for each other, we are subjected to an obscene amount of corny dialogue and ham-fisted emotional displays. It was a strange feeling to have the thought "they want me to feel sad here" pop into my head while watching the film, but that's exactly what happened several times. That's usually a bad sign.
Not only were there patchy areas of dialogue, but some of the acting was fairly cringe-worthy as well. Ioan Gruffudd seemed to periodically stumble around inside Mr. Fantastic, making me feel like I was watching a high school play audition. I honestly felt bad. To his credit though, there are some scenes where he nails it, but just not enough. Jessica Alba mostly comes across as an annoying and naggy Sue Storm, but they slide her into enough tight outfits where I'm sure no one will mind. There also seemed to be a complete lack of chemistry between Gruffudd and Alba, making their situation all the less engaging.
On top of that, if this movie couldn't effectively show us the emotional side of this team, the filmmakers could at least give us some mind blowing effects and action sequences to take our minds off of things, right? Unfortunately, these were somewhat of a let down as well. Mr. Fantastic's stretching effect looked blurry and strange in parts, and the Invisible Woman effect was periodically good, but it seemed like the FX team couldn't decide what to do with her. The action sequences for the most part felt mild and detached. In general, the movie seemed to lack a cohesive visual style in the effects, sets, and framing that a comic book film like this desperately needs to keep things interesting.
On the other hand, the two standouts were Michael Chiklis as The Thing and Chris Evans as the Human Torch. First of all, putting Chiklis in the rock suit instead of using CGI has to be applauded. Even George Lucas, with more resources than God, can't make a CGI Yoda that looks as real as the puppet. Using a suit to create The Thing made the character interesting instead of distracting and Chiklis' performance comes through incredibly well.
While Chiklis was undoubtedly uncomfortable and sweating like a pig in that suit, Chris Evans seemed to be having the time of his life playing the Human Torch and just made me happy to watch. When he's discovering his powers or chasing girls, the smile on his face seems completely genuine and infectious. He also has one of the most visually exciting moments in the film as he attempts to outrun a heat-seeking missile fired by Dr. Victor Von Doom, the strangely ineffectual villain of the movie.
As for Doom, he comes across as a poorly motivated and unimpressive villain. Sure, he can shoot lightning from his hands, but any villain's powers are less impressive if the possessor is not mentally intimidating. As with the emotional relationships of the characters, we are told Von Doom is a brilliant man, but not really shown this fact, which makes it hard for us to believe. Julian McMahon has been acclaimed for his role in "Nip/Tuck," but in "Fantastic Four" he comes across as malicious, but not as particularly bright or intimidating - things that Dr. Doom absolutely should be.
Even though I've come across as fairly harsh on this film, it is not great or terrible - it just seems to slide by. Origin films for comic adaptations seem to have difficulty with juggling character introduction, realistically creating situations for future stories and keeping the audience interested in the current action. "X-Men" had the same problem-- a huge amount of information to convey and a large cast of characters to introduce in a short amount of time. However, for the crust of stumbling and ill-conceived ideas surrounding this film, there were glimpses of a good movie peeking out from underneath the bracken. With any luck, the keepers of this franchise will bring those glimmers to the surface and give us a film worth getting excited about the next time around.