There's just no excuse for failing a test when you've been given all the answers ahead of time. All it takes is one half-glance towards "Spider-Man," "X-Men," and "Batman Begins" to figure out the superhero formula: Give the audience an actual foundation of heart, drama, and character -- and you're halfway to making an excellent superhero flick. The precedents have been set and the results are crystal-clear. Apparently none of these memos made their way into the Fantastic Four production office.
There's a bona-fide laundry list of things that are wrong with Tim Story's Fantastic Four: the acting is almost completely bland across the board, the screenplay is a mawkish and uncomfortable collection of corny gags and painful exchanges, the direction could be charitably described as "the pinnacle of all things pedestrian," the pacing is all off... For all these reasons and more, the thing's best described as a guilty pleasure -- at best.
Here's the gist: A scientist, a girl scientist, a sidekick, a pilot, and a billionaire shoot themselves into space so they can collect samples from a glowing red cloud of some sort. It's their hope that said cloud particles can do wonderful things for humankind, so off they go. The cloud reacts differently than previously anticipated, and our five goofy pals find themselves packing some newly rejiggered DNA strands. Our "leader" becomes a man who can stretch his body like Silly Putty. The girl scientist gets to do the Claude Rains schtick -- and yes, she must be naked to be entirely invisible. The hotshot pilot becomes a human ball of flame, and the lunky sidekick guy gets turned into a giant rock-man thing. Ah, and the billionaire turns into (all together now!) an evil arch-villain with a grudge and metallic skin.
The next 80 minutes consist of these five idiots running around, whining about their bizarre new powers, staring into microscopes, courting the media, and participating in oh-so-adorable musical montages in which Rubber Man fetches toilet paper from another room (without leaving his toilet!) while the grouchy rock-man gets smeared with shaving cream. (Oh, and product placement. Lots of product placement.)
It's been widely reported that Fantastic Four, during its exceedingly lengthy gestation period, saw the entrance and exit of several directors (Chris Columbus, Peter Segal, Raja Gosnell, Peyton Reed, and Brian Helgeland among them) and the frenzied assistance of dozens of screenwriters. OK, that's not that big a deal, really. Lots of big-budget movies, both very good and very bad ones, go through long and painful conceptions. But in the case of Fantastic Four, one just has to wonder: With so many talented and creative people pitching in over the course of about ten years ... how is it that the final product looks, feels, and tastes so stomach-turningly undercooked? Credited screenwriters Michael France and Mark Frost have done some darn fine work in the past, so perhaps they're not the ones to blame for dialogue like:
"When will you stop treating me like a child?"
"When you stop acting like one!"
I suspect that the blame for the borderline disaster that is Fantastic Four will fall directly upon the shoulders of director Tim Story -- and that's just not fair, really. Astute movie fans from around the globe knew it from the outset: "Um, no offense to Mr. Story, but how can you give a movie like Fantastic Four to a guy who directed 1. A dialogue-driven ensemble comedy (Barbershop), 2. One of the worst car-chase comedies of all time (Taxi), and 3. Nothing else at all? Mr. Story is not a visionary comics geek like Bryan Singer, nor is he a genre-loving mad genius like Sam Raimi. He's a rather bland director-for-hire who got stuck swimming in the deep end of the pool.
I say the blame for the mess that is Fantastic Four should rest firmly on the scalps of the Fox executives who just had to get the movie ready by July of 2005. Didn't matter if the special effects were done (because they often don't look it), if the actors were delivering the appropriate line readings, or if the screenplay was one of the most conventional things ever set down on paper. Fox just wanted that summertime tentpole flick -- and here it is. Basically, a very difficult project somehow ended up as a rush job, and trust me, it shows.
--Notes after a second visit: Everything you just read came from my original theatrical review of Fantastic Four. After giving the original cut a second spin, I'm thinking it's just a little more watchable than my earlier comments may have indicated. Yes, it's a draggy little slog of a movie, but it's pretty harmlessly diverting all the same. Basically, if there's a middle ground between the excellence of Batman Begins and the stunning awfulness of Catwoman, then Fantastic Four would fall squarely between the two poles.
---Notes on the extended edition: A bit more character development and a little more time to breathe. Fox has wedged almost 20 minutes of unseen footage back into the film, and just about all of it helps to make the flick better. (One lovey-dovey scene between Reed and Sue, however, is strangely similar to a different lovey-dovey scene between Reed and Sue, which means that some of the "new stuff" was tossed in kind of arbitrarily.) Basically, a very clumsily-edited movie now feels just a little less clumsy. You'll also find a little new material in the bridge sequence, a new dinner scene between Sue and Victor, a lot more of Ben Grimm's romantic life, a quick cameo from "Herbie the Robot," a funny new elevator scene, a goofy Wolverine gag, one or two sequel teasers, and a few extra extensions that actually make the movie a little more satisfying. Weird. (There's also a pretty nifty new opening credits sequence.)
Video: No complaints whatsoever. The anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) transfer is crisp, clean, and entirely colorful.
Audio: Audio quality is also very strong. (I'd never noticed how cool John Ottman's score was!) Dolby Digital 5.1 (English or French) or DD 2.0 Spanish. Optional subtitles are available in the same three languages.
On disc 1 you'll find a pair of audio commentaries: one (on the theatrical cut) with actors Ioan Gruffudd, Jessica Alba, and Michael Chiklis and another (on the extended version) with director Tim Story, producers Avi Arad and Kevin Feige, and screenwriters Mark Frost and Michael France. The first track is pretty fluffy, but the second contains a lot of solid info. Fans of the flick will probably enjoy both, but track two is the more informative one.
Also included on disc 1 are a collection of twelve deleted scenes, the original teaser trailer, the theatrical trailers, and three TV spots.
Switching over to disc 2 we find a whole bunch of "Fantastic" features, and I'm not kidding when I say disc 2 is worth the 17 bucks all by itself.
We start off under the "Production" heading and are treated to a 97-minute making-of documentary called "Heroes are Born," which offers a big chunk of on-set footage and extensive interviews with all the major players. It's still a bit fluffy and surface-level, but there's still lots for fans to enjoy here. "The Baxter Building: Declassified" is a 7-minute featurette that focuses on the team's home / lab / hideout. Also included is a multi-angle animatic breakdown.
Moving on to the "Comic Book" section you'll find a pair of really excellent documentaries: "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine" is a marvel-ous hour-long look at the FF comic book throughout the decades. At least a dozen of the writers and artists are interviewed here, and there's tons of peeks at the old comic book pages. "Jack Kirby: Storyteller" is a 64-minute piece that tells you everything you'd need to know about the Elvis Presley of the comic book world. Again, both of these docos are of supremely high quality; even the FF fans who detested the movie will enjoy 'em, guaranteed.
Rounding out the second disc are a 3-minute featurette on the FF collectibles, a merchndise gallery, a 4-minute "comic book to film" featurette that compares page panels to movie scenes, and a whole bunch of still galleries. (Plus the package comes with a free ticket to Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.)
A not-great movie made slightly better by the addition of some extra character development and breathing room, the Fantastic Four Extended Edition is a must-own for fans of the original comic book. Just focus on the superlative documentaries and consider the main feature a small bonus.