I own Catwoman. That’s right. On my shelf, as I write this, Halle Berry’s 2004 attempt to not only ruin her career but an entire sub-genre of action film sits snuggled between Dario Argento’s Cat O’ Nine Tales and 1953 B-movie classic Cat Women Of The Moon. Why do I own it? Is there lead in my pipes? Does my gas stove leak? Did I grow up in a monastery so cloistered from women the closest thing to a physical relationship I can stand without my head exploding is an image of Halle Berry in a PVC costume? Or perhaps it’s the explanation is more noble. Perhaps, I own the film to remind me that no matter how bad a movie gets, no matter how disappointing a comic-book adaptation is, how untrue to the source material it is, how incompetently produced in its own right it is, there is always some redeeming feature that makes it better than Catwoman.
And that’s the case with Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer. In fact, not only is it better than Catwoman, it’s better than the first Fantastic Four. Not that the first film was all that great. In fact, it was kind of bad. Not awful, just simplistic and disappointing. The character of Dr. Doom was so unnecessarily two-dimensional, and Sue Storm and Reed Richards so bland, that the film faded from memory halfway through the credits for the lighting crew. Still, the interaction between the Human Torch and The Thing was well-written, and so well performed by Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis, that the film was prevented from being entirely dismissible.
In the sequel, this strong interaction remains, and the other two members of the Fantastic Four seem almost up for the challenge of being interesting as well. Almost. The script is still stupid, making me wish I’d taken a few more whiffs of my mind-numbing gas leak before heading to the theatre so I might be surprised by a plot twist or two, but nevertheless, at its heart, the story stays true to the essence of the Fantastic Four. When the comic debuted in 1961, it broke ground with a sense of naturalism unheard of in comic books. Sue Storm, her husband Reed Richards, her brother Johnny Storm, and friend Ben Grimm each gained superpowers when exposed to cosmic rays. But powers and supervillains aside, the comic was really about how the four interacted as a family, and the movie captures this well. When it starts, Sue and Reed are about to get married. Or rather, they’re about to try and get married, for the fifth time. The pressures of fame and celebrity are making it difficult for them to lead a normal life, and Sue is beginning to feel the strain. Though my sympathy for her is somewhat limited, as my ‘normal life’ routinely involves me having to pay for groceries with my credit card, it’s a believable reaction to the situation.
Then, the world comes to an end. Or it’s about to, at the hands of world-eating Galactus and his herald, the Silver Surfer. Based up on the Galactus trilogy that began with Fantastic Four #48, the story line will be familiar to fans of the comic, though they may be incensed by the differences from the source material. These are to be expected, in fact encouraged in any sort of adaptation, so I won’t dwell on them, aside from to note that changing Galactus from a giant in a purple metal skirt and a pitchfork hat to a sentient dust cloud was probably a good call. The Surfer, voiced by Laurence Fishburn, is a sympathetic character that helps continue the thread of humanity that holds the barely cohesive story together.
The special effects are solid, and Tim Story’s direction, though uninspired, lets the characters breath. Reed Richards, played by Ioan Gruffud, and Jessica Alba’s Sue Storm are still the weak links in the cast, but they’re given more to work with, and therefore manage to distinguish themselves a bit more than in the previous film. The script, by Don Payne and Mark Frost, succeeds only when it’s focusing on the family dynamic of the story. The rest of the time, it relies on familiar conventions and plot developments to move the story forward, borrowing scenes directly from whatever Syd Field handbook states that you have to have a part in the movie where a guy in an office building gets startled by some crazy crap going on outside his 43rd story window, or have a character recap the plot halfway through to make a clip for the trailer. When Fantastic Four works, it works, but when it doesn’t, it’s still Catwoman. Thankfully, it’s not Catwoman long enough to be a complete failure, nor long enough to find a place on my shelf in between Eyes Wide Shut and Femme Fatale.