FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER (2007)
Director: Tim Story
Following the debut of Superman in 1938, superheroes became all the rage. Superman and Batman became household names, and DC Comics was put on the map. Time passed, the Golden Age of comic books came to a close, and it was time for something new. That something new arrived on the scene in 1961, when Marvel Comics began their revolution of the comics industry with their newest characters, the Fantastic Four. Initially created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to serve as Marvel's response to the DC superteam known as the Justice League, the Fantastic Four were a familial unit that paved the way for other Marvel superheroes with their own personal problems that needed dealing with. They've seen many adventures over the course of their nearly fifty-year run, but one of their most historically significant story arcs is one commonly known as the "Galactus Trilogy." The three-issue story published in 1966 told the tale of the Fantastic Four's battle to save Earth from an extraterrestrial being that devours entire planets for sustenance. Though its box office success was relatively modest, the Fantastic Four movie in 2005 was successful enough that 20th Century Fox approved a sequel, with the Galactus Trilogy pegged to serve as its inspiration. The sequel might not be the best movie it could have been, but it's certainly a fun ride that I feel surpasses its predecessor.
Two years have passed since the Fantastic Four Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), and siblings Sue (Jessica Alba) and Johnny Storm (Jessica Alba) embarked upon their first adventure. They've become four of the hottest celebrities in the world during that time, making Reed and Sue's impending nuptials the biggest social event of the decade. Their wedding is soon overshadowed, however, by the arrival of a mysterious interstellar voyager. This traveler has been causing power outages and wild changes in global weather patterns, as well as creating enormous craters around the planet for reasons unknown, and the Fantastic Four are called in by the military to track the being they've dubbed "the Silver Surfer" (Doug Jones, with the voice of Laurence Fishburne). But tracking the Silver Surfer doesn't turn out so well, as their first encounter with him causes a change to Johnny's molecular structure, rendering him able to swap abilities with his superpowered comrades via physical contact.
Weirdness with Johnny aside, the Four soon feel confident enough to make an attempt at capturing the Surfer. But when their plan goes awry and results in an unbelievable amount of collateral damage, the military brings in someone to assist them: Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). His unintentional resurrection via the cosmic energy generated by the Surfer's exploits has led Victor to invest all of his time into studying this strange visitor from another world. He's had a breakthrough, too, as he's deduced that the Surfer's powers are drawn from his surfboard. Separate the Surfer from his board, and capturing him will become much easier. Though the Fantastic Four despises the idea of working alongside their archenemy, Reed and Victor use Victor's theory to develop a tachyon pulse emitter that would knock the Surfer off his board. The emitter proves successful, and the Surfer is taken into military custody. But little does anyone know just how close this puts Victor to fulfilling his hidden agenda of seizing the surfboard's power for himself. And more importantly, there's the revelation that the Silver Surfer's appearance on Earth is but a precursor to the ever-nearing arrival of his master, a planet-consuming entity known as Galactus.
I don't think anyone would accuse Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer of being a great movie. But it really isn't all that bad, either. It's just a matter of understanding who the movie's target demographic is. Is it for the diehard comic book nerds? I sincerely doubt it. But considering that the movie is lighthearted, inoffensive, PG-rated fluff, I'd say that it's more for kids than anyone else. And there's nothing at all wrong with that. Not every superhero movie needs to follow in the nihilistic shoes of The Dark Knight or Watchmen. Sometimes there needs to be a superhero movie that families can go see without worrying about freaking out the kids. In all honesty, the truth of the matter is that I actually thought Rise of the Silver Surfer was entertaining enough for what it was. It wasn't a whole heck of a lot, but it was something.
Tim Story, director of the previous Fantastic Four movie, returns to helm the sequel, and puts forth a bit more effort than he did last time. Unfortunately, his work also seems somewhat pedestrian at times. There's a few instances of well-done cinematography, but Story doesn't really capture the massive, epic quality a story like this could have had. Instead, he just puts the CGI effects on display and lets them direct the course of the movie. Thusly, we end up with a handful of exciting yet forgettable action scenes and a story that doesn't go much of anywhere. It doesn't help that there are quite a few instances where the CGI looks downright crummy, too. I point specifically to Reed's dancing at the beginning of the movie. It's unconvincing, and frankly, it's only befitting that such a lame scene would feature such lame CGI. At least the Silver Surfer looks good, because the whole thing would have gone right down the crapper if he hadn't.
The screenplay, penned by Mark Frost and Don Payne, is a mixed bag, with it's fair share of both solid moments (such as Ben and Johnny teasing one another) and weak moments (like recycling the silly "Sue's naked in public" gag from the first movie). Really, really weak moments. Now I know I said in the opening paragraph that the movie was inspired by the Galactus Trilogy, that may be a lie. Frankly, there don't really seem to be all that many similarities between the comic book story and the movie. Uatu the Watcher is nowhere to be found, and the character of Alicia Masters continues to have absolutely zero purpose (and practically no screen time at all). The power-swapping thing is added, and Doctor Doom is wedged into the movie for no good reason. Did they really need to include Doctor Doom in this movie? Did they think that the giant planet-eating monster and his all-powerful alien sidekick wouldn't pose a big enough threat? He isn't even written as a believable part of the story. It's like the writers said to themselves, "Oh crap, the movie's only going to be an hour long at this rate. We're gonna have to stick Doctor Doom in there and pad this thing out." The addition of such a needless antagonist, along with the movie's comedic undercurrent, really takes away from the gravity of the situation at hand. There's a giant alien on its way to eat Earth, so quit screwing around with the Surfer! Hurry up and start saving the planet! There's no sense of immediacy to anything in the movie, just a general feeling of, "eh, we'll get there sooner or later." That really sucks, because outside of one or two shots hinting at the eventual coming of Galactus, he's pretty much a non-factor until the last ten or fifteen minutes of the movie. There's no suspense or anything, which is a real letdown. Maybe it's due to studio interference wanting more focus on the Silver Surfer and Doctor Doom, or writers who just don't know what they're doing, but essentially putting Galactus on the sidelines until the end with no strong buildup or anything is lame, lame, lame.
It doesn't help that there's practically no character or plot development at all, either. Seriously, the Silver Surfer is the only one in the movie who has anything resembling a character arc. I understand that in a movie that runs ninety-two minutes, something might have to be sacrificed in order to squeeze in all the cool moments that they want to do. I also understand that the target audience might not particularly care about well-developed characters or stories, but is it too much to ask for three-dimensional characters worth caring about and a plot that does more than go from Point A to Point B without stopping to build things up along the way? At least Frost and Payne made up for it with characters that are somewhat entertaining. I also liked the way Frost and Payne worked in a product placement gag that didn't feel forced. As opposed to a set decorator plastering corporate logos in the most awkward of places like you'd see in other movies, Frost and Payne instead give us a quick gag where Johnny tries to court endorsement deals with a new outfit that looks more like a NASCAR driver's uniform than a superhero's costume. It's a funny little joke that not only gets the majority of the product placement out of the way (save a cheesy yet amusing moment involving the "Fantasti-Car"), but really makes Johnny an even funnier character. Frost and Payne also take the opportunity to make a few cracks about our celebrity-obsessed culture. Johnny and Sue deal with the paparazzi in their own ways (Johnny, ever the attention whore, absolutely relishes anything resembling publicity; Sue considers getting out of the superhero game altogether), while news networks overlook actual newsworthy events so they can focus on Reed and Sue's wedding. None of this actually affects the plot in any major way, and the downright unnecessary feeling only makes it seem even more tacked on. So the Fantastic Four have it rough because they're in the public eye, boo freaking hoo. I don't really think the teenage boys this movie is intended for really care that much about a cheap social commentary about the curse of fame. There's a time and a place for that sort of thing, and frankly, I didn't think Rise of the Silver Surfer ended up being either.
And perhaps I should talk about Galactus while I have your attention. When Rise of the Silver Surfer was released, every über-nerd with an Internet connection bitched and moaned until they were blue in the face because of Galactus's depiction as an enormous, malevolent cloud, as opposed to his traditional comic book visage. I don't really see why that's such a big deal. Had they gone with a giant man wearing gladiator armor and a goofy purple Viking helmet, it would probably have gotten laughed off the screen. But as crazy as it's going to sound, a cloud seems oddly believable. I know that sounds insane, considering the wacky powers the lead characters have, but I think it's true. I'm sure that his more recognizable form will wind up in the Silver Surfer's eventual solo movie, but I don't believe it was really needed here.
Then there's the cast. I could probably copy what I said in my review of the previous movie and stick it here without it making a whole lot of difference. If you've seen both movies, you know what I mean. Copying that review would be cheap, though, so I guess I'll be a little more professional than that. Let's hit the negatives first. If movies like Iron Man and The Dark Knight have some of the best casting in the superhero genre, the Fantastic Four movies have some of the worst. Specifically, Julian McMahon. I don't watch Nip/Tuck, so could somebody who does please tell me if this guy has ANY talent at all? Honestly, these movies could have been so much better had they hired a better actor to play Doctor Doom. McMahon is unconvincing, not intimidating whatsoever, and is definitely the wrong person for the role. I also continue my belief that Jessica Alba isn't the most believable person they could have cast to play a scientist. She's only slightly more believable than Tara Reid as an archaeologist in Alone in the Dark. But it's kinda hard to take somebody seriously when most of your résumé consists of movies like Good Luck Chuck and The Love Guru. I know that's practically the same joke I made in my review of the first Fantastic Four movie, but it's the truth. At least they leave all the science stuff up to the Reed Richards character, so all she really has to do is deliver her dialogue and look cute. Nobody is ever going to accuse her of being an Oscar-worthy actress, but at least she does the best she can with what she's given.
The rest of the cast, though, is what makes the movie worth watching. Kerry Washington and Andre Braugher are fine in their small, utterly thankless roles. Meanwhile, Ioan Gruffudd does a credible, believable job as the brainy Reed Richards. He's likeable in the role, which helps as the character benefits from writing that is stronger than the previous movie's. Even more likeable are Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis. If McMahon is an example of bad casting, then Evans and Chiklis are the complete opposite. The duo are fun, amiable, and entertaining. Evans and Chiklis are, in my opinion, the biggest reasons to watch either of the Fantastic Four movies. Their back-and-forth banter exhibits an amusing comedic chemistry, and if someone were to hire them to star in a regular comedy, it would be awesome. And let's not forget the actors playing the Silver Surfer, Doug Jones and Laurence Fishburne. Jones might not get as much as respect as he should, since people tend to overlook motion-capture performances, but his contribution to the movie is solid. I can't complain about Fishburne either, though his cold, nearly monotone line readings sometimes give the impression that he'd swallowed a handful of Valium before entering the recording booth. But perhaps that was his intent all along. The Surfer is a conflicted character, one who serves as the herald of Galactus and condemns planets to their destruction despite the severe emotional toll it takes on him. Perhaps Fishburne chose to deliver his dialogue in such a manner so as to reflect that?
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is one of those rare sequels that is actually better than its predecessor. Then again, it's still a rather mediocre movie. It's unfortunately inconsistent, due to a real lack of balance between its good and bad moments. Don't get me wrong, it's still an entertaining movie if it catches you in the right mood, but it just isn't as solid as it could have been. But as I said, the movie is a marked improvement, so maybe this will mark a trend of steady improvement with each sequel. Maybe if Hollywood keeps it up, they'll eventually arrive at a Fantastic Four movie that's absolutely awesome. But as it stands now, the world is waiting. I'll give Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer three stars. It's a perfectly acceptable way to kill 92 minutes if you're expectations aren't too high.
Final Rating: ***