Over the past decade there’s been a proliferation of movies based on comic book heroes; mostly due to the technology finally reaching a point where you can believe that Wolverine’s claws are real or that Spiderman is really climbing that wall. True, Superman and Christopher Reeve’s excellent acting job may have started the phenonoma but with the advent of CGI technology the movie industry was ready for new and radical interpretations of old cartoon and comic favorites.
One classic comic book family and crime-fighting group is The Fantastic Four, springing from the pages of Marvel comics to the big screen in this newest release. True fans will tell you that this is technically the second movie for the FF in addition to an animated series, but this is the first movie to use current technology and top-name actors to reach a worldwide audience. And it works, and works well.
The story of the Fantastic Four is simple and yet complex. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is a genius, a scientist who may excel in his field but falls flat in the area of interpersonal relations. He’s desperate to get into space in order to study a solar storm that’s approaching Earth and use the results to help benefit mankind. His best friend, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), is a NASA astronaut/pilot/bodyguard who’s stuck by Richards for years even though he doesn’t understand much of the science and just wants to get the job done.
Bereft of funding and having run down his list of potential sponsors, the pair end up at the front door of Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon). Having been at M.I.T. with von Doom, Richards thinks that his old schoolfriend might be interested in sponsoring the trip into space for a part of the profits generated by the research.
Von Doom agrees. His huge international corporation would put their resources behind this project – for a huge piece of the pie, of course. Victor takes the opportunity to point out a major member of his team to the startled pair, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba). She and her brother Johnny will be coming along for the ride to Doom’s private space station from which they can observe the solar storm in safety.
Of course, things go wrong. The storm advances on the space station much faster than calculated and all five of them are exposed to the unknown radiation and cosmic rays despite the shields on the station.
As they return to Earth and attempt to analyse what went wrong a series of personal and professional crises rush over the five. Richards has to deal with the fallout of the relationship between him and Storm from years ago even as she contemplates her own relationship with Doom. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), a flamboyant showman at the best of times, discovers his ability to literally burst into flames and survive is a crowd-pleaser as well as a great way to meet women. And gentle giant Ben has to cope with rejection from his girlfriend who can’t deal with his sudden mutation.
Von Doom has his own worries, of course. Aside from losing Sue Storm to Richards his company is collapsing from inside and his professional reputation is disappearing faster than his would-be fiancee can. But while Richards is working feverishly in his lab to try and reverse their mutations Doom is accepting his with enthusiasm and contemplating how to use it to further his personal ends.
This movie is a great introduction to the Fantastic Four family for both long-time fans and those new to the genre. Even if you know the future of these characters you feel for them as they first discover their particular skills and have to deal with the ramifications of being “different”. This is easily seen in the case of Ben Grimm, who picks up the nickname The Thing quickly enough from Johnny Storm. Trapped literally in a skin not his own, he wavers between feeling sorry for himself and anger at those around him, even those he loves, for not being afflicted in the same way.
Jessica Alba comes across as a perfect Sue Storm, still recovering from her relationship with Richards and making her way in the professional world courtesy of Victor von Doom. Keenly aware that Victor sees her as a prize to take away from Richards she tries to work between the two, working to find a cure for their afflictions.
At the same time she’s trying to control her younger brother who sees these mutations as a gift, not necessarily a curse to be “cured” or “fixed”. Even as Johnny is announcing their nicknames and talents to the world Reed and Sue are seeking a cure and unable to deal with their newfound popularity.
The special effects for this movie are excellent, surpassing those of only a few years ago. Mr. Fantastic’s ability to stretch doesn’t come across as an artifical creation along the lines of The Incredibles’ ElastiGirl but as that of a living, breathing man trying to cope with a strange talent.
Rumor has it that originally The Thing’s skin was supposed to be CGI but Michael Chiklis insisted on putting a physical costume on in order to give the part more authenticity. His decision proved to be the right one, with this talented actor giving more emotion through a thick rubber suit than many can without.
The Human Torch’s flames are as realistic as you can get without literally setting Chris Evans on fire and his flight sequences well-choreographed and exciting to watch. Even the scenes without special effects are fast and action-filled, with personal conflicts creating a realistic world where you can believe that a woman can turn invisible and a man can stretch his hand under a locked door.
The movie ends with a satisifying setup for a sequel, with all of the original actors supposedly already signed up for another movie. With already successful box office numbers it’s likely that the Fantastic Four will become a series of movies along the lines of Spiderman and the X-Men.