Fantastic Four, The (2005): Tim Story’s Disappointing Version

Judging by its naive storytelling, light tone, shallow characters, clumsy look, and cheesy special effects, The Fantastic Four seems to belong to another era of Hollywood filmmaking.

Artistically, Fox’s adaptation of the 44-year-old Marvel comic book is as disappointing as “The Hulk,” “Elektra,” and “Daredevil.”

Of the rich crop of comic strip screen adaptations, Tim Story’s movie is retro in the literal, not in the cool or campy, sense of the term. Inevitable comparisons with the TV series, Roger Corman’s 1994 version, and Disney’s brilliant animation “The Incredibles” will make this “Fantastic Four” look even weaker than it is.

Fox has made a fortune out of Marvel’s “X-Men” franchise, and the studio had high hopes for its latest entry in the comic-book chronicles. However, released in the midst of a cruel and competitive summer, just nine days after the blockbuster “War of the Worlds,” “Fantastic Four” is bound to fail, despite an aggressive ad campaign that has been warning viewers, “Prepare for the Fantastic.”

Running against the grain of most recent big-screen versions of comic books, which even if their narrative were flawed, at least used state-of-the-art technology, “Fantastic Four” has set its artistic goals rather low. The movie is so dated that it feels as if it were made in the 1960s, during the height of Marvel’s series.

Vacillating in tone from the bland and square to the occasionally goofy, “Fantastic Four” never finds the right rhythm for its story, co-scripted by Michael France, Mark Frost, and Simon Kinberg, who have dumbed-down the tale and have shrunk the powerful heroes to shallow figures.

Marvel Comics’ beloved property concerns a team of astronauts who gain superpowers and go against the evil incarnate, Dr. Victor Von Doom. Unfortunately, the best thing about this crook is his name; it’s one of the best names ever bestowed on a villain. On paper, the casting of “Nip/Tuck”‘s handsomer Julian McMahon as Van Doom, is great. But, strangely, McMahon is bland, and he doesn’t look good in spandex.

After going bankrupt, Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) with the help of his friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) asks Victor Von Doom for money and the use of his machines to study cosmic radiation. Von Doom then enlists the help of Sue (Jessica Alba) and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans). Together, the quintet set off to the space station and are struck by the very cosmic radiation they wish to study.

Suddenly, each member begins to display new abilities. Johnny Storm is the clown who becomes the Human Torch. Reed, the stretchy Mr. Fantastic, flexes his limbs, reaching across the hall for toilet paper. And the sight of Sue, the Invisible Woman, getting caught with her clothes off, is repeated one too many times.

Ben bursts out of the hospital in which they are quarantined and heads for New York and his girlfriend. Upon arrival, Ben’s girlfriend grinds his stony heart into pebble as she flees in terror. Ben contemplates suicide, but, instead, causes a huge accident that reveals the “Fantastic Four” to the world and the destruction of Doom Industries. Von Doom then plots his revenge against the Fantastic Four.

The similarities to Disney/Pixar’s brilliant “The Incredibles,” further tarnish this film’s commercial status, even though the Marvel comics precede the animation movie by decades. Both “Incredibles” and “Fantastic Four” center on a quartet of extraordinarily heroic characters.

In the former, the clan’s father is Bob Farr; in this one, it’s Ben Grimm, aka the Thing (played by Michael Chiklis of TV’s “The Shield”). Reed Richard, aka Mr. Fantastic can stretch like a rubber, much like “Incredibles” Helen Farr. Sue Storm is the daughter who can turn invisible, much like the “Incredibles” Violet. Both Baby Jack-Jack and Human Touch can ignite.

“It’s difficult not to appear derivative,” Ralph Winter, the producer of “Fantastic Four,” told E.W. Winter should know, for he produced Fox’s two X-Men movies. “It left us with a certain nervous energy,” was the reaction of Marvel’s Avi Arad to the success of “The Incredibles.” In fact, rumors have it that one scene involving a cat and a tree had to be removed from “Fantastic Four” because of its striking resemblance to a sequence in the Pixar flick.

Worse, this wannabe blockbuster is poorly directed (orchestrated is the right word) by Tim Story, an untested filmmaker. It’s a mystery why would anyone entrust such a big-budgeter in the hands of a director best known for the comedy “Barbershop,” which was decent, and the Queen Latifah vehicle, “Taxi,” which was not; the latter was also a commercial flop.

In 1994, Roger Corman made a version of “Fantastic Four,” but knowing his limitations, he opted for a campy take. The comic book’s fans didn’t like it, and I doubt if they would like Story’s film. Hardcore fans will also be disappointed by strange changes in the plot and in the characters’ backgrounds that cannot be revealed here.

The tone of last season’s “Spider-Man 2,” and this summer’s “Batman Begins,” “Land of the Dead,” and “War of the World” has been dark. Disregarding the current ideological climateor politics in generalthis “Fantastic Four,” unlike the 1960s series, exists in a showbiz vacuum.

At one point, Chris Columbus and Steven Soderbergh were attached to direct the film, and either would have been more suitable than Story. As director, Story lacks, style, technical know-how, and energy-in short, all ingredients for making an enjoyable summer tent pole.

On paper, the casting is decent. In his transformation into the Thing, Ben Grimm walks like a hulk, and his suit looks like foam rubber. Growling like a lug, Chiklis plays him as a genial hell guy and he’s mildly entertaining, even if he doesn’t look right.

During production, there were complaints about Jessica Alba’s casting. Beautiful and sexy as Alba is, in “Fantastic Four,” she plays a Waspish character, with blonde hair and blue eyes. A naturally exotic brunette, Alba, who looked terrific in “Sin City,” is said to have focused on the spirit, rather than look, of Sue.

Julian McMahon’s Von Doom is decent but not menacing enough. McMahon has revealed in interviews that he had tried different voices and accents for the role, and that whole scenes had to be reshot due to those changes. As Johnny Storm, Chris Evans is the only who seems to have fun; he also gives the film’s most credible performance.

After the brilliance of “The Incredibles,” the visual pizzazz of “Spider-Man 2”, the ingenious pyrotechnics of “War of the Worlds,” and the creepy humor of “Land of the Dead,” “Fantastic Four” is a major disappointment—it’s bland and cheesy at the same time.