Fantastic Four, The (1994)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 02/10/03 08:57:58

"I'd rather watch this five times in a row than half of Batman & Robin."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Why would a studio go to the trouble of conceiving, producing, and totally completing a movie while planning to NEVER release it in any form? Well, as disturbing a concept as this may be, this is precisely what happened in the case of Roger Corman's adaptation of Marvel Comics' The Fantastic Four. The flick's a stunningly choppy (yet still amiable) mess, but the behind-the-scenes tale is even more entertaining.

So I've (finally) seen this legendary movie. Well, legendary inasmuch as The Fantastic Four has been the subject of discussion and hushed conversation ever since its existence was divulged to comic book and movie fans the world over. The internet provides a few well-written reviews and articles about the ill-fated production, but I was informed that the only place to acquire a copy was at something called a "comics convention". I've heard about those things; my smarmy, cynical wise ass would never make it out alive. (Odd that I enjoy comic book flicks so much, yet I never really went hog-wild for the magazines as a kid.) How I actually got the movie will remain my own business, as I may have broken a law to get it. (But since this is 'the movie nobody wants', I doubt I'll be punished too harshly for my crimes.)

Though much of the documented history on The Fantastic Four semi-contradicts itself, a few things are very clear:

- Roger Corman purchased the rights to the characters not from Marvel, but from Constantin Films, another foreign body that (temporarily) retained the rights. Still with me? Good.

- Corman's New Horizons outfit had a deadline to start production. Things got draggy. (Keep in mind that the only recent Marvel adaptations had been Captain America and The Punisher - two astonishingly bad (yet still released) movies.) If Corman didn't start a full production, he would lose the rights to the characters.

- Through a snafu of copyright laws so profoundly twisted, the best recourse was for New Horizons to film the movie (on the cheap) in an effort to retain the character rights.

- So OK: it was rushed into production for financial reasons, and it probably wouldn't have dazzled audiences all that much. So why was it left to languish on the shelf, with not even a bargain-bin VHS release to salvage some pennies? Well, 20th Century Fox had recently caught the SuperHero Bug, and planned to produce a huge-budget summertime blockbuster of The Fantastic Four. (The project is now ready to start filming over at Fox.) No studio wants a $2 million cheesefest dampening their eventual cash parade, so the flick was jammed into a vault.

The actors and craftsmen who worked on the film cashed their paychecks and moved on.

Like I said, the backstory is a bit more fascinating than the actual movie, but here's the scoop:

Remember those old Spider-Man TV-movies? The Hulk series and TV flicks? Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman?

This movie is a lot like those adorable campfests. The acting is alternately wooden and overwrought, the special effects are largely laughable, the costumes are bright and tacky, and the dialogue seems as if it should come attached to big white balloons hovering over the characters' heads.

Simply put: kids would probably dig it; kids and overgrown infants like myself who consider it a huge thrill to discover an unreleased old comic-book turkey called The Fantastic Four.

Like many comics adaptations, this one is a 'genesis' tale, in that it offers the creation of the celebrated cadre of crimefighters: Reed Richards and his three best pals are sent spaceward in a swanky spaceship, only to have an evil device wreak havoc on their DNA. Richards gains the ability to stretch all about like Gumby on speed; big lunkead Ben Grimm sprouts big orange rocks all over his skin (thus becoming "The Thing"), Johnny Storm gains the power to harness fire, and his sister Susan can now become invisible at will.

It was the evil Dr. Doom who caused the interstellar explosion, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that Doom's alter ego has some 'unfinished business' with Reed and his pals. Half the flick sets all this up, a good fifteen minutes are spent with some earnestly silly exploration of the gang's new talents, and then there's an abbreviated action finale that actually manages to entertain...if only for about 6 minutes.

One would expect a movie destined to sit on a shelf for all eternity to be some sort of astonishingly wretched stinkbomb, but the simple truth is this: I see several modern movies (yes, theatrical releases) that are 'worse' than The Fantastic Four. What this movie lacks (and it lacks a whole lot), it semi-makes up for in cheesy good charm. I can easily imagine this one being a movie I saw as a goofball ten-year-old - and really liked.

But as a grown-up, and one who now knows the minimum components of a quality motion picture, I still had a good time with The Fantastic Four. Sure, it offers childlike silliness, but there's also LOTS of unintentional hilarity on display here. And laughs are like twenty-dollar bills: how you get 'em isn't as important as how many there are. If a movie is funny by accident, hell, it's still funny.

Case in point would be Reed's special power: if you remember anything about him from the comic book (or if you remember the less-cool Plastic Man), it was that Reed could stretch around the block and back - like the world's biggest rubber band. In the movie, Reed's only flexibility comes from his arms and his ankles - and the effect is so amazingly laughable that you simply can't believe it. The FX crew earns a gold star for effort (as this would be a truly difficult effect using only practical FX), simply has to be seen to be believed.

As far as Johnny and Sue Storm are concerned: he plops fireballs into his open palms, and she briefly turns her lower half invisible. They're the supporting characters.

And then there's The Thing. Hmmm. How to describe was this character looks like. Imagine Kevin Sorbo coated in orange cement and you're halfway there. On one hand, the suit and mask are a nifty little piece of effects design. On the other, it still looks ridiculous. (Though I was impressed with the way his mouth moved; it looked exactly like the animatronic reptiles in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, for whatever that's worth.)

So after years and years (ok, more like 2) of wondering about this shoeboxed little movie, I've now been able to see it; my curiosity is sated; the mystery is solved. All things considered, I suppose the mystique of this movie is more entertaining than the actual movie - but it's nice to find something intended for the incinerator and experience it for myself.

Final analysis yields a painfully silly movie, one with more heroic intentions than actual assets, a slipshod and clumsy movie that's STILL a better flick than is either Captain America or The Punisher (and I believe I mentioned that THOSE dungheaps actually made it into the multiplexes for about a week each). But keep in mind that this movie wasn't killed for reasons of quality; it was just an issue of money and copyright law. Yeah, it's a bad movie. Lots of bad movies get the chance to be seen. Hundreds each year, actually.

My prediction: by the time Fox gets rolling with their expensive version, this current SuperHero Flick Trend we're all coasting on will have slowed down to a mild whine; the $175 million production will struggle to make half that money back, and somewhere deep in the bowels of Roger Corman's production studios - someone will be giggling.

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