Fantastic? Not exactly, but Tim Story's take on Marvel Comic's first family of superheroes can be fun if your expectations are low enough.
This summer's second superhero saga, Fantastic Four explains how five members of a planned space expedition face exposure to a cosmic storm that alters each person's DNA, giving them unique powers. Brilliant scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) initiates the mission, which is bankrolled by his longtime rival Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). They are accompanied by Reed's buddy Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), Victor's director of genetic research; Sue Storm (Jessica Alba); and her cocky pilot brother, Johnny (Chris Evans).
Once back on earth, Reed and company cope with their genetic alterations. Richards finds he can stretch his body like taffy. Sue turns invisible while Johnny's body bursts into controlled flames. Ben suffers the harshest transformation - his skin is replaced by orange rock that morphs him into a walking, talking mountain. After staging the doomed space mission, Four quickly connects multiple plot pieces, making changes to the team's history that will mostly nag fans but fly over heads of casual filmgoers.
Let's touch on the stuff that works. 20th Century Fox hired Story after viewing his ensemble work in the Barbershop comedies. He delivers what the studio paid for, unearthing the human elements of his larger-than-life characters. There are certain emotional cues a Fantastic Four feature must hit, and it's here that Story's most on target. We understand Reed's guilt at exposing his friends to the cosmic rays. We buy into Ben's anger at being physically transformed while his teammates look semi-normal. Four best understands the dysfunctional family chemistry that glued this comic book clan together. Plus, it's funny. Evans, an arrogant burst of brash attitude, runs away with his scenes. In this somber summer season of Sith, War of the Worlds, and the brooding Dark Knight, I appreciated the touches of humor found in Four.
That's not to say this is the definitive version of the Fantastic Four. The film has a wealth of problems, some of which could easily have been corrected if Story simply paid more attention to detail. Reed's broke (we're repeatedly told), yet the team can hole up for weeks in his Baxter Building headquarters as he researches a potential cure for their inflictions. Good thing groceries are free and his electricity isn't cut due to unpaid utility bills. After a public rescue on the Brooklyn Bridge, a reporter asks Johnny if it's true he can fly, when the hero has done nothing to suggest that flight is even possible. And my favorite - Johnny has a vanity plate, "Torch'd," even though he's been locked up in isolation since the day he returned from the space mission. When did he find time to apply for the personalized tag?
Further senseless edits derail the story's natural flow. Whole chunks of necessary explanation feel like they've been left on the cutting room floor. Doom suffers most from these chops, decimating his true origin and reducing him to a sinister cliché of power that sullies this particular version of the story.
The effects - usually the reason we invest in summer fare - are uneven. Johnny's flames are convincing, but Reed's outstretched skin is cartoonish. Early shots of Chiklis as The Thing confirmed fanboy fears that the costume looks more like a suit of rubber than of rock. But since we've seen it, digested it, and mocked it in the proper chat rooms, it's easier now to get past it and find the humor and heart that Chiklis instills in the wounded character.
Despite multiple flaws, Four has sporadic pleasures and holds a promise of better things to come. For fans, this is about as good as the Fantastic Four has been on screen so far and it hints at how much better these heroes can get if Fox ever finds the courage to recruit a director with both vision and ability.
Ow, it's too hot!