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Fantastic Four (2005)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 07/16/05 17:32:36

"Ten years in the making, and this is all we get?"
1 stars (Sucks)

There is a shot in “Fantastic Four” in which the supervillain, Doctor Doom, emerges slowly from the back of a garbage truck. And I think yeah, that pretty much sums up the movie right there.

The film, based on the flagship title of the Marvel Comics line, shows every minute of its rocky production history. It spent over a decade in Development Hell, with screenwriter after screenwriter being brought in to rework the story to fit whatever angle the producers had concocted lately. Broad comedy, sly satire, straight action-adventure, spoof of reality TV - every conceivable direction was attempted and dropped. Then the superhero boom put the movie in high gear, with bits and pieces of each script being salvaged to compose a screenplay amalgam of sorts… then, of course, rewrite the whole thing while it’s being filmed. (Michael France and Mark Frost get sole writing credit, but it’s been reported that upwards of twelve writers have contributed to what’s on screen.)

What we get is exactly what you’d expect: a movie that looks like it was cobbled together from a handful of other movies that kinda involve the same characters. Making matters worse, this A-list production was given a B-list cast (with no offense to Michael Chiklis, star of TV’s “The Shield,” who’s talented, yes, but still a B-lister) and a C-list director (Tim Story, whose “Barbershop” succeeds because of the script and the cast, not because of the direction, and whose “Taxi” was downright unwatchable). The final nail? The movie suffers from distractingly sloppy editing, what looks at first glance to be the work of somebody trying desperately - and failing - to salvage a muddled story.

(Consider the scene in which Jessica Alba, playing Sue Storm, aka the Invisible Girl, has to sneak past a wall of cops and press. She turns invisible - hence the name - and her teammates inform her that we can still see her clothes. So off comes the shirt and bra. Cut to a quick shot of the crowd. Cut to Alba getting redressed, right next to her teammates. I think they’re down past the cops. So, um, what, exactly, happened here? How did the other non-invisible guys get past everybody? Why did Sue have to strip at all? One gets the feeling that this scene used to make sense, but for whatever reason, a few minutes were left on the cutting room floor, keeping all logic with them.)

But it’s not just sloppiness that kills this movie. It’s - how to put this delicately - everything.

Let’s begin with the script (that is, the final version used to produce what we get on screen). The story is familiar to comic fans, although it’s been tweaked plenty for movie purposes: scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), gruff space pilot Ben Grimm (Chiklis), hottie Sue Storm (Alba), and her dopey brother Johnny (Chris Evans) blast off to a space station owned by multizillionaire Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) in order to study a cosmic storm of some kind. The storm gets wacky, the cosmic-ness of it all zaps everyone on board, and back on Earth, they’re discovering that they all have new, neat-o powers. (Sue can get invisible, Johnny can set himself on fire and fly, Reed can get all stretchy, Ben turns into a superstrong rock-man, Von Doom becomes this metal-guy.)

It’s all handled so by-the-book in superhero origin format that the film offers no time to soak it all in, either for the viewers or the characters. Here’s a major life-changing event, and the movie treats it all with a shoulder shrug; the characters, like the filmmakers, seem underwhelmed with the newfound powers.

And when the film does try to go deep on us, it gets everything so hilariously wrong. There’s a subplot in which Ben - now called The Thing - visits his fiancée, who freaks out over seeing him in monster form. Fine, I suppose, but then there’s another scene, right after Ben save the lives of dozens of New Yorkers, where the fiancée shows up again out of nowhere, stares Ben down, takes off her engagement ring, and storms off in disgust. That it’s so silly makes up for the fact that it’s so idiotic.

Even worse, the whole mess of the story lacks such urgency that I’m at a loss to remember half of the plot, especially the parts that explain the whole Doctor Doom thing. I can guess that his transformation from regular business jerk to creepy metal man might drive one insane, but I honestly don’t recall why exactly he spends so much time watching the Fantastic Four work in their decked-out studio apartment/laboratory, thanks to hidden cameras and such other works of peeping tom villainy. And I’m a little fuzzy on what finally causes him to attack the Four for the movie’s big climactic battle; I know that there was a fight, and the script had to set it up, but it must not have been that important.

I do remember, however, that there was this weird scene in which Johnny shows Ben a Thing action figure whipped up by “the marketing people,” and I thought to myself, “what marketing people?!” The film throws our heroes around so much that it’s never quite clear what’s going on with them. We know they’ve become media darlings, but the marketing people? Did that scene get cut, too?

I’m hesitant to blame the rest of the movie’s failure on the cast, as it’s obvious that all involved are aiming for an overplayed, campy comic book vibe. (One of the film’s first lines is that Doom is “just a little larger than life.”) But while I commend Chiklis for doing the best he could with such a poorly written role, and while I can deal with Evans’ too-pat wisecracks (he’s likable enough here that he gets a pass), I found McMahon’s hamminess to be far too overdone to be even watchable. And I also find it hard to believe that Jessica Alba is capable of delicately handled intentional badness. She’s just not that good, and we all know it.

The big offender, however, isn’t Alba - it’s Gruffudd. As a leading man, Gruffudd provides all the charisma of a damp sock. Sure, his character’s supposed to be a bit of an absent-minded professor type, but we should still like the guy, right? As it is, Gruffudd’s so charmless, so bland, so utterly unappealing on screen that one wonders how he landed the top role in one of the decade’s most eagerly awaited comic adaptations. Were the producers hoping that the CGI team could not only give him super powers, but acting ones as well?

So there you have it. We’ve now come to the point in the review where I’m legally obligated by film critic union rules to make some sort of cheap pun in regards to the word “Fantastic” in the title. You know, something along the lines of how the quality of the film is, in fact, quite the opposite of the word used to describe its main characters. All the reviews I’ve read from all the nation’s top critics have featured one of these wordplay gems, and now it’s my turn. Sigh. The best I can do here is something along the lines of:

“Fantastic Four?” Hey, it’s more like “The Hastily Cobbled Together, Poorly Directed, Unentertaining Piece of Crap Four” instead!

OK, so I’m no Gene Shalit. But you get the idea.

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