Fantastic Four Review
Fantastic Four is the latest in a long line of comic book franchises to be adapted to the big screen. The quality of these adaptations has been as mixed as their box office returns, with every Spider-Man or Sin City being countered by a Daredevil or a Constantine. As someone who was never interested in the superhero comics, even as a child (give me Asterix any day of the week), I've found myself observing this recent trend from afar and wondering what all the fuss was about. That's not to say that I haven't enjoyed any of the films - in the contrary, I recognise many of them as excellent achievements in their field, executed with far more panache than many "serious" adaptations of established literary material (for the record, I consider The Incredibles the best superhero movie, albeit one not based on a pre-existing franchise) - but, by and large, it's not really my thing. As a result, I approached Fantastic Four with some trepidation, opting to reviewing it not because I had any burning desire to see it but because it was the first Blu-ray disc that landed in front of me.
Like most of these adaptations, the film serves as an origin story, showing how the four intrepid heroes who make up the Fantastic Four came into their powers. This particular gaggle of superheroes start out as scientists who, while on a mission in space, are exposed to an unknown energy source that causes extreme transformations to their molecular structures. Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) finds himself able to contort and stretch his body in impossible ways. Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba) finds herself able to turn herself, well, invisible (the name is a handy clue). Johnny Storm/The Human Torch (Chris Evans) can set himself on fire at will. Poor Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), however, merely turns into a huge, ogre-like construct made out of rock, tastefully nicknamed "The Thing". And then there's the slight issue of their arch-nemesis, Victor Von Doom/Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who wants to harness their powers for his own evil plot.
For a summer blockbuster with an emphasis on highflying superhero action, Fantastic Four is surprisingly expositionary. Yes, there are definitely a number of visually complex and suitably entertaining set-pieces, but, for the bulk of the film, the four heroes spend far more time talking about their powers than actually using them. This would have been acceptable had the characters been interesting, but, for the most part, they're not. Chris Evans' conceited daredevil, the Human Torch, quickly becomes incredibly annoying, while Jessica Alba makes for the least convincing scientist since Denise Richards invaded The World is Not Enough. Ioan Gruffudd fares somewhat better, but is hampered by having to portray the least interesting character of the group, with no real discernable personality, while Michael Chiklis gives the best performance as the rock-like Thing, and, in an effective contrast to the fact that, of all the characters, he is the one most dehumanised by his transformation, is the only one to get a chance to exhibit any real human emotions. Tim Story's direction, meanwhile, is perfunctory, while the CGI special effects, which are present in abundance almost from the get-go, are not always very impressive (a scene involving Mr. Fantastic reaching under a door to unlock it looks like something out of a video game).
As a veritable outsider in the world of comic book movie adaptations, it's a little hard for me to know just how effective Fantastic Four is as a representation of its source material. Even this layperson's eyes, however, can see that it pales in comparison to the likes of the Spider-Man and X-Men big-screen adaptations. It's not without its moments, but it is for the most part bland and pedestrian - something I never thought I'd say about a film based on an action-packed comic.
As the first Blu-ray disc that I had an opportunity to view in the comfort of my own home, I was very eager to see how the format compared to the more familiar (for me) HD DVD in terms of functionality. Like Universal and Paramount, Fox have opted for a menu system that appears when you insert the disc, and can also be displayed over the film itself, unlike Warner, who allow the film to start automatically, with the menu only available as an overlay on top of the film itself. While the film is playing, viewers are given the choice of navigating to a full-screen "top menu" or a miniature overlaid variant, both of which, for this film, use an irritatingly unintuitive radial dial design which is a far cry from the standardised layouts adopted by Warner, Universal and Paramount. The latter is definitely preferable, given that accessing the former results in a rather lengthy pause between leaving the film and reaching the menu, or vice versa.
Presented in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio, Fox have elected to encode Fantastic Four using the aged MPEG2 codec also favoured by Sony. The results are mixed: always watchable, but overall disappointing. The transfer exhibits virtually every artefact associated with a digital transfer in one degree or another. The image has a very diffuse appearance, suggesting brick-wall filtering, although a handful of individual shots do deliver that "pop" that has come to be associated with high definition. Light edge enhancement is also present at all times, and is especially pronounced during shots set against the daytime sky.
By far the more distracting problem, however, is the application of an excessive amount of temporal noise reduction, which is designed to eliminate grain, and is something that I would really not expect to see being applied to a high definition disc (although probably a necessary evil, given the need to "simplify" the image enough to fit the entire film on to a single-layer disc using the MPEG2 format). This causes grain patterns to freeze, and, even more distractingly, results in finely detailed objects smearing and leaving trails when they move. Watch Michael Chiklis' vertically striped shirt at 7:22: as he moves across the room, the individual stripes strobe and at times converge completely. Facial details, such as skin texture and stubble, are by far the worst affected by this problem. Additionally, light compression artefacts are visible in a number of scenes. The transfer is definitely not awful, but it's close to the bottom of the barrel as far as the HD presentations I've seen are concerned.
Thankfully, the sound is another matter. Presented in DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio, it is definitely a treat to hear and indeed one of the best audio presentation's I've heard so far. Unfortunately, there is, as of yet, no means of decoding the lossless stream present in the track, so currently viewers will have to make do with the "legacy" 1.5 Mbps DTS stream included for backwards compatability purposes. The sound design of this film is highly detailed, running the full gamut from subtle ambient effects to floor-rattling explosions, with the suspension bridge sequence being a particular highlight. Dialogue is clear at all times, and the use of multiple channel panning effects is among the most aggressive I've heard in a long while. This is demo material in every sense of the phrase.
A Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 dub, and optional English and Spanish subtitles (for the film only, not the extras), are also included.
As a final note, although this disc is encoded for Region B (Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Australasia) only, the disc does in fact appear to be derived from its US counterpart, carrying an American-style FBI warning and a PG-13 ratings card (the film is rated PG in the UK).
Rather than electing to use a more expensive dual-layer disc, or make use of one of the more efficient codecs (i.e. MPEG4 AVC or VC-1), Fox have elected to dispose of the majority of the extras from the DVD release. Gone are the various documentaries and deleted scenes, with only the cast commentary remaining. This track, which features Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, Chris Evans, Michael Chiklis and Julian McMahon, is light, breezy, and not particularly insightful. The contributions of Chiklis, who leads the discussion, tend to be the most relevant, but there's really nothing here to make this an essential listen.
Also included are high definition trailers for Speed, Planet of the Apes, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Ice Age, Behind Enemy Lines and Fantastic Four. The quality varies substantially between films, but it must be pointed out that the trailer for Fantastic Four, despite suffering from Y/C delay (causing the colours to be very slightly misaligned), looks significantly better than the film itself, given that the invasive noise reduction techniques are nowhere to be seen. Trailers that look better than the film itself is a state of affairs that was very common on standard definition DVDs, but one that I would never have expected to find on an HD release.
Ultimately, there really is not much value for money to be had here, particularly when you consider that the likes of Warner and Paramount have been fairly consistent at porting over all of their DVD extras to their high definition counterparts.
Fantastic Four arrives on Blu-ray with a superb, demo material certifiable audio track. However, the sheer lack of material contained on this disc, combined with the lacklustre visual presentation, make the £28.99 RRP frankly outrageous. For fans of the film this will no doubt be an essential purchase, despite the loss of several extras in comparison with the DVD release, but probably only once the price is reduced.
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Last updated: 08/06/2018 15:29:22