Hitting stores a few weeks before Spider-Man 3 is the other half of Blu-ray's Marvel superhero double feature for October, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. While all the other superhero franchises are trying to out-Watchmen each other -- duking it out over who can be grimmer, grittier, and slaughter more of their supporting casts -- Tim Story's Fantastic Four franchise is lighter and too approachable to want to tally up much of a body count. I'll admit to kinda being won over by Story's first Fantastic Four flick; the storytelling felt rushed, sure, and there was a heckuva lot of stilted acting and cringingly bad dialogue, but all in all...not so bad. On the other hand, Rise of the Silver Surfer plays more like a clunky ABC sitcom. Think Cavemen with a family of superheroes and Weta Digital on speed dial.
Rise of the Silver Surfer opens with the world barraged by a series of bizarre anomalies: oceans that have solidified into a spongy gel, the pyramids in Egypt blanketed in snow, rolling blackouts that have made The City That Never Sleeps go dark, and the globe pockmarked by mysterious craters that plunge miles deep into the earth. The military brass, headed up by General Hager (Andre Braugher), turns to the brilliant mind of Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) for help. The timing's not all that great; his fiancée Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) -- the Invisible Woman -- is seething at the idea of a science experiment stepping in the way of their continually delayed wedding yet again, but Mr. Fantastic does the math, and...yup, wouldn't be much of a movie if he opted against saving the world. So, with their teammates Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) and Susan's hot-headed brother Johnny (Chris Evans) in tow -- y'know, the Thing and the Human Torch -- they set out to find whatever...or whoever...it is that's wreaking this havoc across the world. If you really need a hint, give the title of the movie another quick look.
Okay, so there's the Silver Surfer, and I guess he's rising or something. The Surfer's so overflowing with power that the world reshapes around him as he soars through the sky, and his excess energy inadvertently revives Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon), the badnik who the Fantastic Four thought had been knocked off for good the last go-around. While the team is seeking out a way to throttle the Silver Surfer's destructive globetrotting, von Doom schemes to strip the surfboarding alien of his Power Cosmic, using it to...well, you know how the whole megalomaniacal thing goes. What everyone on Earth fails to realize is the Surfer isn't the real threat; he's just the herald of something greater...a world-devouring cosmic force eyeing our little ball of mud for a Sunday brunch.
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer isn't a retread of what Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought to life more than forty years ago in the pages of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine. There's no Watcher. No Ultimate Nullifier. No enormous guy in a purple metal skirt and an unwieldy, pointy helmet. No, Rise of the Silver Surfer's screenplay is a mesh of original ideas and comic book storylines spanning the past four decades. I'm a lifelong comic nerd, sure, but Tim Story and company taking those sorts of liberties doesn't bug me. It's just that in the comics, this was a story of an indescribably large scale, and that doesn't really come across in the movie. Galactus towering over the Fantastic Four in New York City, tinkering with elaborate machines of Jack Kirby's distinctive design crackling with power as they prepare to transform our planet into pure energy...? That's tense...the feeling that the world as we know it is on the brink of extinction. Rise of the Silver Surfer lacks that same sort of urgency. There's no real sense of impending doom at all, instead opting for a handful of fairly ordinary superhero slugfests. Galactus doesn't ever rear his purple, pointy head, and the celestial dustcloud that harbingers his arrival just feels more like an elaborate digital effect instead of the onset of Armageddon.
The smaller scale of Rise of the Silver Surfer is partly intentional. Director Tim Story mentions in his audio commentary that he wanted to remind viewers that the Fantastic Four is first and foremost a family, not a stone-faced team of super-powered vigilantes, so he spends a good bit of the movie showing off their domestic side. Once you get past the 'lookit all the weird stuff happening throughout the world!' montage, a fist-sized chunk of the first act is spent showing the Fantastic Four struggling as they fly coach, three-quarters of 'em hanging out at a nightclub for Reed's bachelor party, and trudging through a wedding cut short by...yeah, the rise of the Silver Surfer. Most of these are supposed to be the funny scenes, but they're just...devastatingly, soul-crushingly awful. Reed continually mugging to the camera as he uses his stretching powers to twist and gyrate to some faceless hip-hop number? The ever-lovin', blue eyed Thing belching at a guy and blowing back his mess of hair as if this was a Memorex ad from 1983? The weak stabs at drama also flail around aimlessly, with Johnny feeling jilted after thinking the team is going to disband and Susan griping about wanting to be Reed's first priority instead of...y'know, the survival of mankind.
At least Rise of the Silver Surfer blazes along at a pretty steady clip; most superhero franchises these days are clawing their way towards the two and a half hour mark, but this sequel doesn't even crack ninety minutes minus credits. I guess that doesn't leave time for as much as action as I went in expecting, though. Saving people on an oversized ferris wheel or dragging wedding guests out of the way of a runaway helicopter just doesn't have the dramatic punch of a confrontation, and there are only a couple of those in the movie. I mean, as it is, the Fantastic Four aren't even directly responsible for saving the world at the end of their own movie. Despite the title and the whole Devourer of Worlds routine, Dr. Doom once again takes the reins as Lead Bad Guy, and Julian McMahon just doesn't exude the sort of menace to make for a credible supervillain.
Kinda cool moments...? The Silver Surfer, brought to life by Doug Jones (Hellboy's Abe Sapien; Pan's Labyrinth) fame and the wizards at Weta Digital, looks phenomenal. An early encounter with the Surfer leaves Johnny swapping powers with his teammates whenever he bumps into one of 'em, and even if it doesn't really stick with the movie's internal logic, his newfound ability to absorb the powers of the rest of the Fantastic Four is put to Super-Skrull-tastic good use when Rise of the Silver Surfer lurches towards its climax. The Fantasticar -- eye-rollingly heavy-handed product placement for Dodge aside -- looks absolutely amazing as well, and having been a rabid Fantastic Four fan for right at twenty years now, those scenes alone made the movie for me.
Look, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer doesn't make any stab at being a dramatic, intense superhero flick. It's definitely not a character study -- the dialogue's way too awkward and stilted for that, and Andre Braugher aside, no one in the cast really has the chops to pull off something like that anyway. Rise of the Silver Surfer is light, harmless entertainment by design, skewing really heavily towards the younger set. The end goal's to make you shell out eight bucks for a ticket, then have your nine year old drag you out of the theater to Toys 'R Us for a Silver Surfer action figure or to grab a Fantastic Four Happy Meal from McDonald's on the way home. Dunno if I'm too cynical or just really far outside of Fox's target demographic this time around, but I can't say I thought all that much of Rise of the Silver Surfer; it's too small in scale, too clumsily written and acted, and not offering enough action or worthwhile drama to really get the pulse racing. Rent It.
Compatibility Concerns: Some early Blu-ray players have been reported to choke loading Rise of the Silver Surfer, apparently because of the way it uses Java in the disc's menus. If you aren't giving the disc a spin on a PlayStation 3 console -- the PS3 handles it without a hitch -- it'd be worth checking to make sure your firmware is up to date and maybe spend a few minutes scouring some Blu-ray forums to make sure other people with your player aren't running into any problems.
Video: If I hadn't watched this disc right after Spider-Man 3, which serves up one of the most instantly striking high-def presentation I've ever seen, I'd probably be a lot more enthusiastic about Rise of the Silver Surfer's 2.39:1, AVC encoded video. Don't get me wrong: this is a great looking Blu-ray disc, but it doesn't come close to the reference quality image of Spider-Man 3. Crispness and clarity are often strong, with many shots razor-sharp and dazzlingly detailed, but it's uneven enough that others have a tinge of softness to them and aren't quite as well-defined. The image doesn't consistently have that same sort of three dimensional pop either. There's nothing wrong with the video quality, to be sure -- black levels are robust, its palette (minus Jessica Alba's inhumanly blue contact lenses and the orange self-tanner she slathers herself in) looks fantastic, and there aren't any nasty compression hiccups or edge haloes -- but I wasn't floored the way most other reviewers and high-def enthusiasts seemed to be. Keep in mind that my opinion's not in the majority on this one, but I found Rise of the Silver Surfer to overall look very good rather than great.
Audio: With Rise of the Silver Surfer, Fox has included another of their lossless DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks, despite the fact that hardly any hardware in the market can decode it or even pass the stream along. The 1.5 Mbps DTS core of the track sounds very good, but again, I was so spoiled by Spider-Man 3 that Rise of the Silver Surfer makes it feel as if I'm settling for second best. The mix is pretty aggressive during the handful of action sequences, particularly in the scenes with the Human Torch, the Silver Surfer, and the Fantasticar blazing from one end of the screen to the other. Bass response is similarly solid, backed by a powerful low-end. However, the detail and distinctness that have made so many of Sony and Disney's Blu-ray releases sound so tremendous don't really shine through; maybe that's just a factor of only extracting the core from the DTS HD-MA track, but with so many other studios able to provide lossless or uncompressed audio that viewers can actually...y'know, use, it's baffling that Fox would stick so unwaveringly to a codec that only a percentage of its userbase that doesn't even amount to a rounding error can properly decode. The mix isn't as well-balanced as expected either; not that the film's clunky dialogue is all that worth listening to or anything, but it gets drowned out in some of the more bombastic sequences. Again, the audio is a reasonably solid effort from Fox, but it didn't impress me nearly as much as I went in expecting.
Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are offered in English, French, and Spanish, and the list of subtitles this time around includes streams in English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Korean. Rise of the Silver Surfer is also enhanced for D-Box rigs.
Extras: Exclusive to this Blu-ray release are two Java-based games. The first of them is "Saving the World One Question at a Time", which overlays 180 trivia questions over the movie. Miss too many, and Galactus devours your planet. It's a pretty solid quiz, covering decades' worth of comics, the actors and filmmakers behind the movie, action figures, and video games, with some of the questions tackling topics as recent as Robert Kirkman's Marvel Zombies miniseries. The only drag is that if you successfully plow through all 180 questions, it just congratulates you on saving the planet without ever giving a tally of how many you got right. Oh well.
Next up is "Who Dares Defy Galactus?", a simple but surprisingly fun strategy game. You can play against whoever's hanging around with you or square off against the computer, choosing between the Silver Surfer and Galactus. The goal is to move around the planets that pepper the game board along pre-defined paths. Landing on a planet claims it for your side, but only the first person to hit it gobbles up any points. Once all of the planets are claimed, the victor is the player who holds the most points. Further spiffing up the gameplay are the fights that break out when the Surfer and Galactus are both planetside at the same time -- you don't see any video of the battle; the winner is just randomly selected -- and the bonuses that some planets reveal. Definitely worth a look.
Two trailers for Rise of the Silver Surfer are presented in high definition, along with high-def plugs for The Simpsons Movie, Live Free or Die Hard, the original Fantastic Four, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and X-Men: The Last Stand.
The other extras are ported over in standard definition from the 'Cosmic Edition' DVD set, including a pair of audio commentaries. Director Tim Story's commentary doesn't linger on the technical aspects of helming a big-budget effects spectacle, instead preferring to focus on the construction of the story...the 'why' rather than the 'how'. Story touches on some of the specific comics given a nod throughout Rise of the Silver Surfer, how its first really big action sequence was originally going to open the movie and was shot without the cast ever stepping foot in London, some of the concepts that originated completely during post-production, and why he chose to leave the appearance of Galactus so ambiguous.
Rise of the Silver Surfer's other commentary features writer Don Payne, producer Avi Arad, and editors Peter S. Elliot and William Hoy, recorded in three separate sessions that have been spliced together for this track. Arad really doesn't have much to say this time around, but the rest of 'em are more than happy to pick up the slack. What I found particularly intriguing is how critical they're willing to be of the movie, with the editors in particular making it clear that they weren't thrilled with the quality of what they were getting. Some of the highlights include noting a fight scene in one of the craters that had been cut out of the script, comedian Brian Posehn once being considered for a screenwriting gig before being cast as the minister, hammering out just the right look for the Johnny-Thing, and the upside of writing a sequel when you can write around the strengths and weaknesses of your cast. Story's commentary is pretty solid, but if you only have time to listen to one, I personally found this to be the more interesting of the two.
By far my favorite of the disc's extras is the 46 minute making-of documentary "Family Bonds". No clips from the movie, no talking head interviews, and no narration: it's 100% fly-on-the-wall footage shot during pre-production and filming. It's extremely comprehensive, showing off location scouting, production meetings, makeup and wardrobe tests, the Fantasticar being shown off for the first time, sets being built, and pretty much every key sequence during the actual shoot. Although they're clearly putting in a massive amount of effort, there's something just infectious about how much fun the cast and crew are having, and it almost makes me feel kinda badly for not giving Rise of the Silver Surfer more of a thumbs-up.
One of the disc's other highlights is "Sentinel of the Spaceways" (39 min.), a documentary purely about the Silver Surfer's more than forty year history at Marvel. Featuring interviews by writers Stan Lee, Steve Englehart, Jim Starlin, Ron Marz, and J.M. DeMatteis, "Sentinel..." explores how a cold alien that Jack Kirby created out of narrative necessity became an almost entirely different character in his own book, disappearing into the pages of The Defenders and scattered guest shots before his incredibly successful revival in the '80s. The documentary is punctuated by numerous close-ups of comic book panels, also taking care to touch on the book's supporting cast and some of the recurring themes that make the Silver Surfer such a compelling character. Really, really well done.
The disc also includes several featurettes tackling more specific topics behind the making of the movie. The most dispensable of these is a fairly traditional five minute piece on the recording of John Ottman's score, but the other three are all great. The best of the bunch takes a look at the design and construction of the Fantasticar (10 min.). Visual effects producer John Kilkenny delves in detail into the design and collaborative execution of the computer-generated Silver Surfer in the fifteen minute featurette "The Power Cosmic", and the last of these spends eleven minutes with Michael Chiklis in the make-up chair getting gussied up as the Thing.
There are a few short deleted and extended scenes, bookended by black and white footage to help put them in context. These scenes include an extended title sequence in space, a brief snippet suggesting that Doom hasn't healed in quite the way we might've thought, and a couple of goofy clips from the first act building up to the wedding and showing off how the Fantastic Four can afford such pricey digs. Tim Story serves up some optional audio commentary, although a lot of it boils down to "I really liked this, but we had to cut it for pacing." This footage clocks in a little over 9 minutes in total.
An extensive set of still galleries rounds out the extras.
Conclusion: I'm all for doofy, family-friendly popcorn action flicks, but Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer really didn't do anything for me at all. At least the Blu-ray disc looks and sounds nice enough, even if it doesn't approach the reference quality audio and video of this month's other Marvel superhero slugfest, Spider-Man 3. The Blu-ray release carries over a considerably stronger than average set of extras from the DVD, and Fox has also gone to the extra effort of included a couple of BD-exclusive games. Rise of the Silver Surfer isn't exactly the worst movie I've ever seen, but there's not much about it that screams out for any sort of recommendation. Rent It.
The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.