Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (The Power Cosmic Edition) Review
A couple of weeks ago Radar, a trendy magazine for New York’s movers and shakers, published a list of the 100 most overrated aspects of modern US culture. Amongst a somewhat eclectic list which included cocaine, the Dalai Lama and Grey’s Anatomy could be found “Smart Superhero Movies,” a genre that seems to annoy the writers no end. “Batman Begins, Superman Returns, the whole X-Men saga,” the magazine railed in its feature, “each one… is exactly like the other ones …(with) painful exposition, a noisy chaotic denouncement, and a protagonist whose canned inner turmoil is supposed to be interesting. Shut up and hurl a car at a helicopter.” While somewhat hyperbolic with tongue lodged firmly in cheek, it's nonetheless a valid point - since the genre’s renaissance the better part of a decade ago now, I can think of only two mainstream entries into the field which eschewed inner turmoil and just “threw a helicopter,” namely - can you guess? - the first Fantastic Four and now its sequel. In many ways 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer, to give the thing its official title, is the very antithesis to those movies which have so enraged Radar: while the likes of Batman and Spider-Man have been ever more earnestly trying to persuade their audience that they’re all grown-up and serious and have Issues, the Fantastic Four have, in this second instalment, completely turned their back on the adult world and concerned themselves fully with giving the kids a fun-filled, action-packed romp with no message deeper than "Let’s all get along!" and "Being Famous isn’t as cool as it looks!" And, as much as I think Radar are exaggerating the problem in their comments, I have to admit that FF's more relaxed approach to saving the world is somewhat refreshing.
Based on a seminal Fantastic Four story from the 1960s (FF #48-50 to be exactly) the movie opens with the eponymous boarder dropping by just as Reed Richards and Sue Storm (Ioan Gruffudd and Jessica Alba), AKA Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman, are about to tie the knot. Zooming around the world causing havoc, he quickly becomes an uncontrollable menace, forcing the military to call in our heroes to find out what’s he’s up to and put a stop to it. As he’s a nippy blighter with no apparent weaknesses, this proves harder than the four expect, so much so that in the end they are forced to team up with their old nemesis Dr Doom (Julian McMahon) to entrap their prey. However, catching the Surfer turns out to be just the beginning of their problems - not only does old Doom have nefarious plans himself, but it turns out that the Surfer is simply a herald for a giant, planet-devouring entity called Galactus which plans to tuck heartily into the Earth for its next meal. Can the fabulous foursome persuade the Surfer to switch sides and help them defeat his boss, or is the planet toast - literally?
The news that the first Fantastic Four movie was going to have a sequel, with the same cast and directed once more by Tim Story, was not greeted with enthusiasm by the online community. This reaction, while understandable, was a little unfair. While the first film was pretty rotten, the actual depiction of the FF themselves and their world was surprisingly authentic, arguably more so than many other big-name comic adaptations, so the prospect of the team returning was not quite as horrendous as some implied. And, indeed, once again Story and his team have produced a movie which, while flawed, at least makes a decent job at adapting the source material.
Just as well too, as The Coming of Galactus is considered a pivotal moment in comic history, one of the first true classics from Marvel, and making a mess of it would not have gone down well. The three part epic by creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby still regularly appears on lists of Best Ever Story, and it’s easy to see why. The Surfer is one of Marvel’s most intriguing characters, the ultimate hippy superhero, who soon after making his debut in the pages of FF was spun off into his own, short-lived book, which was of a far more philosophic and introspective bent than the majority of the Marvel range. Putting him into the movie was a brave move by Story in that if he got him wrong fan wrath would know no bounds, but it’s a decision that has largely paid off. It’s very difficult to make a completely silver man who flies around on a surfboard look realistic, but the Weta team do a credible job, realising the character in a way that just feels right. Conveying what can only be described as a sinewy beauty, he looks every inch the elemental figure he is, while at the same time capturing the nobility and presence that has made the character so beloved. Doug Jones, who embodies him, and Laurence Fishburne, who lends him his portentous and unearthly voice, combine to create a memorable character, so much so that one can’t help but wish he spends less time whizzing around everywhere and more just interacting with his fellows, so we can appreciate him more. (Not so much Galactus, however, of whom more in a moment).
Some of the pre-publicity suggested that the Surfer’s presence would overshadow the rest of the FF but in the event that hasn’t proved to be so. All the team get some good stuff to do, with the bantering relationship between Thing and Johnny still one of the most important building blocks of the movie. As a cast they have grown immeasurably on me since their debut: Chris Evans as Johnny Storm/The Human Torch is an annoying tit, but he’s meant to be an annoying tit, while Michael Chiklis as the Thing works wonders with his characterisation given the lumpy costume he is hidden beneath. It would be nice if Gruffudd’s Richards was given slightly more to do - there’s not a lot of exposition in the film, but he gets stuck with all of it, and not much else besides - but he certainly looks the part even if sometimes one wishes he could be a little more expressive. That said, the only one of the foursome about whom there are considerable qualms is Alba. She’s an odd performer, in that she combines undeniable beauty with a complete absence of screen presence. Even when she’s centre stage, one often doesn’t notice she’s there, and thinking back now, less than twelve hours after having finished watching the film, I’m struggling to recall a single thing she did or said, other than a moment in which she was set on fire. It’s a similar problem with McMahon as Doom, who is horrendously miscast, totally lacking in menace and has little material this time to redeem himself. I've never particularly found Doom an interesting villain on paper, but there's certainly more to him than McMahon shows - or tries to show - here.
But then characterisation at anything more than a basic level is not what this film is about. Skewed far more than the first at the younger members of the audience, it has a similar tone to the Spy Kids franchise or - God help us - Thunderbirds, although it is far better than that atrocity. It’s light-hearted and daft and moves along at a good pace. The humour is pretty basic, but there’s enough of it done in a cheap and cheery way so as not to grate, while the set pieces are far more interesting this time around. Story doesn’t always construct them as well as you might hope, but overall he’s improved immeasurably with this second effort his direction far more confident and fluid, ensuring the film has a momentum the last just didn’t. It’s also helped by a tighter screenplay, co-written by Don Payne and Mark Frost. Those who have read the book will be disappointed that the emotional angle is played down somewhat, but then to play it up more wouldn’t really suit the mood the film projects - this is a world in which the hardest dilemma is deciding whether to sell your wedding photos to Hello or not and anything more would be ill-placed.
Indeed, the only disappointment as far as devotees to the characters will have is the odd non-appearance of Galactus himself. Now, it’s true that having him appear exactly as he does in the books (that is as a big purple helmeted giant) might have initially sounded silly to the production team, but surely it’s no more so than having a silver beach bum floating through space or a talking pile of rocks? To go so far from his roots and turn him into a whirlwind is a strange choice, one which suggests either a sudden lack of courage or inspiration or, perhaps more likely, that they felt the Surfer himself was enough. But to do so is to tell only half the story, and that's a real shame which smacks a little of appropriating the Surfer for causes other than a desire to translate issues 48-50 on the screen. It also ends the film with an odd anticlimax - if the Surfer could always do what he did, why didn’t he step up to the plate years ago? It's not quite as bad as, say, Superman Returns's non-ending, but one can't help thinking it could have been so much more.
But this is the only major problem in what is otherwise a very acceptable effort. Viewed dispassionately, FF2 is never more than a mediocre entry in the superhero oeuvre. With its slim-line plot, hackneyed humour and flat denouncement, it will not come close to nourishing those who have been reared on more substantial fare, but in all fairness it knows that, and doesn’t attempt to play with the big boys. As a concept the Fantastic Four are absurd, even by the standards of the genre - if you didn’t know the history, you’d think that Indiarubber Man was very much a lower division character created by Jack and Stan on an off day - so to try and make their films anything other than light and frothy would be a mistake. Taken on its own merits, this follow-up does exactly what it sets out to do, providing a breezy bit of nonsense to entertain the kids for an hour and a half. Given that it’s solidly made, reasonably confident and doesn’t outstay its welcome one can only view the film as a minor victory, especially given its unpromising antecedent. Even though it doesn’t really do justice to its source material, it’s very difficult to imagine what could have done, and the realisation of the Surfer is enough consolation to those who would have hoped for something more. It’ll never enter the pantheon of greats, but you’ll have seen far worse as well. I bet Radar loved it.
There are three different versions of the film being released: a one-disc version, this two-disc Power Cosmic edition, and on Blu-ray (I dunno, some new fangled technology I expect). For those wondering, the single disc version is dual-sided with a widescreen version on one side, fullscreen on the other (is that still necessary in this day and age?) and has as the only extras the two commentaries, while the Blu-Ray has two extra games not included in this present edition, Who Dares Defy Galactus? and Saving The World One Question At A Time which is a FF trivia game.
The Main Menus are reasonably attractive, with a whirlwind of hyperactive CGI whizzing around in the background depicting what looks like Reed’s lab accompanied by the urgent score. The film itself and commentaries are found on one disc, all other extras on the other. In addition to the extras listed below there are also a bunch of trailers - two theatrical trailers for this movie, as well as those for the first film, the three X-Men films, Dark Angel, Deck the Halls (which must have wandered in by accident) and the new Futurama release which looks great. There are also a couple of trailers to skip past on Disc One before reaching the Main Menu, for The Simpsons Movie and Live Free or Die Hard.
Unfortunately, the review copy DVD Times was sent was a compressed version of the discs being released, meaning that this review cannot comment on either the Video or Audio presentation of the finished product which one hopes will be significantly higher than the truncated version we saw.
There are two commentaries included. The first is a solo effort by Story which is informative but nevertheless ever-so-slightly dull. He talks about the influences from the books he used, and the various decisions made during production, all of which is interesting in a trivia kind of way but doesn't make for a gripping listen.
The second is also a touch bitty. Avi Arad, Don Payne and the film's two editors Peter S Elliot and William Hoy feature in a track that has interesting snippets but is a bit of a drag to trawl through.
Extended and Deleted Scenes
A surprisingly small number of missing scenes are included here, including an alternative opening sequence and a montage of Johnny and the Thing organising the wedding. One scene of interest features a Fantastic Four Store, from the merchandise of which our heroes fund their lifestyles. Although Story, who gives an optional commentary over the missing material, doesn’t say as much, one can’t help but wonder if this was dropped because it was essentially underlining the point of the movie: to get kids to buy stuff. Or am I being too cynical?
Family Bonds: The Making of Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
This is one of those fly-on-the-wall pieces which doesn’t have a narrator but rather just assembles a chronological selection of footage, going from pre-production meetings through to the final day on set. The highlight here is undoubtedly Stan Lee telling Evans how good he thinks he is - what a charming guy Lee is, he should be more involved in DVDs such as this. Other than that, standard stuff.
The title somewhat oversells this extra which is actually just a slideshow of concept art for the car. Which is a shame, because I was looking forward to trying to fly it.
The Fantasticar: State of the Art
In which we follow the evolution of the FF’s mode of transport from initial design through to the final model on set, actors inside being thrown around by hydraulics. A bit of a space filler.
The Power Cosmic
Visual Effects chief John Kilkenny makes an informative host as he discusses the SFX in the film. From talking about the issues surrounding bringing the Surfer to life, to the difficulties of making Reed’s powers looking remotely believable, he’s interesting and would make an interesting commentary companion. A good featurette.
Sentinel of the Spaceways: Comic Book Origins of the Silver Surfer
In-depth look back at the Surfer’s printed history, with contributions from most of those who have worked on the character down the years. The documentaries on all the Marvel-character DVDs documenting their comic books lives are always a highlight and this one is no exception. Very good.
Character Design with Spectral Motion
A rather lengthy look at Chiklis getting into costume. More filler.
Scoring the Fantastic
Composer John Ottman talks about his music for the movie, and we see the orchestra do their thing in another bland featurette.
There are three medium-sized galleries for you to peruse at your leisure: Behind the Scenes (actors looking at cameras on set) Characters (almost entirely stills from the movie itself) and Concept Art (erm, concept art). As galleries go these are average (although some of the concept art is nice) but here’s a thing: the actors actually look more like their illustrated counterparts in photos here than they do when moving. How odd.
At last count there were over six hundred different DVD releases of the first film, all of which have been reviewed by DVD Times, and no doubt the same will be true for this one - hell, there are already three different versions you can buy. This is a good but not fantastic - chortle - edition, with bog standard extras that won’t excite any but the most easily pleased. Still, it could have been a lot worse...