More Than Meets the Eye
From the blackest depths of the universe comes a massive, sentient monster whose only goal is to devour any planet in its path. Using Saturn-sized fangs, it drills deep, sucking the life and energy out of entire worlds, leaving behind burnt-out husks. As this unstoppable thing makes its way to Earth, a small band of extraordinary heroes is mankind's last hope for survival.
Sorry, I've already reviewed Transformers: The Movie.
Today, I'm here to talk about Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer--one of the strongest sequels and best comic-book movies I've seen.
(I've been batting a thousand this week, huh? First, defending Hellraiser: Revelations; now, sticking up for the sequel to one of the worst comic-book films ever made. I assure you, there's nothing wrong with me*.)
What makes a great sequel? First, it has to be better--or at least as good as--the film that preceded it. In the case of the Fantastic Four franchise, it would be almost impossible to make a movie worse than the original. In the two years between releases, director Tim Story seems to have figured out that an entertaining superhero movie involves more than just giving characters powers, watching them mope inside a skyscraper for forty-five minutes, and then having the supervillain show up downstairs for the climactic big brawl.
The second mark of a solid follow-up is to take the characters, story, and action (including, in the case of summer blockbusters, special effects) to places not explored in the original film. In Rise of the Silver Surfer, the main cast has already been established. Following a failed experiment in outer space, scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), his wife, Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), her brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), and their colleague, Ben (Michael Chiklis), are each endowed with abilities ranging from invisibility to willed, full-body combustion and flight. At the end of the first picture, they vanquished professional-rival-turned-electricity-generating-madman, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon).
Rise's screenplay by Don Payne and Mark Frost acknowledges earlier events through allusions in the dialogue. The sequel doesn't go out of its way to recap Part One; it ties the origin story directly into the current threat--which, for most of the film is the appearance of a mysterious, silent man made entirely of silver, whose presence freezes oceans and causes massive craters in different parts of the planet. Reed thinks he may have been endowed with similar gifts to he and his friends, but he can't pin down the visitor long enough to ask.
It turns out that the Silver Surfer (physically played by Doug Jones, and voiced by Laurence Fishburne) is the herald of Galactus, the aforementioned world-chomping creature. He made a deal long ago to prepare planets for destruction in exchange for his own being spared. We don't learn this until much later in the film, whose focus isn't really the Galactus threat at all.
One of the biggest surprises about Fantastic Four 2 is that it's more about how the team struggles with interpersonal conflicts in addition to the weird predicaments that always seem to come their way--rather than being a two-hour chore of CGI explosions. The heart of the film concerns Reed and Sue's multiple attempts to tie the knot, which are always interrupted by some crisis or another. Additionally, following Johnny's first encounter with The Surfer, he develops a disease that causes him to switch powers with whoever he touches. This makes for some really interesting variations later on, and offers a nice twist on the superhero-movie trope in which characters are given a chance to get rid of their powers.
Tim Story deserves a lot of credit for balancing the first three-quarters of action-comedy against the last twenty-five minutes, which take on a more dramatic tone. The plot turns on a dime as Galactus draws close and The Silver Surfer is captured by the military--who has teamed up with a rejuvenated Dr. Doom. Sue forms a bond with The Surfer who, when separated from his board, loses his brilliant sheen and is reduced to a drained, scuffed-tarnished body. In these scenes, he explains his pitiful existence and gets the team on his side. The climax sees the Fantastic Four busting him out of a top-secret compound to confront both Galactus and Dr. Doom, who has channeled the board's powers to enhance his own.
Unlike many other Marvel Comics films, Rise of the Silver Surfer best captures Chairman Emeritus Stan Lee's vision of comic-book stories as fun adventures whose messages about friendship, family, and alienation are relatable even to those who can't scale walls or shrug off a spinning helicopter rotor to the face. Too many other comic adaptations either stray too far into camp (Spider-Man 3) or try to make four-color adventures into two-plus-hour, pseudo-art-house films (X2: X-Men United). At just under ninety minutes, Rise of the Silver Surfer feels like a great three-issue miniseries: we get in; we get out; we wouldn't mind seeing more. Most importantly, the journey is fun.
The cast deserves a lot of credit for making the movie so enjoyable. Gruffudd puts a warm, everyman twist on the cold, obsessed scientist; Evans is sufficiently snarky and charming as the branding-driven schemer; Alba and Chiklis do what they can, though their parts mostly involve being supportive and clobbering things, respectively. Jones is, um, fantastic as The Silver Surfer. When the gleaming CG effects aren't masking out all expression, he does wonders in conveying both sadness and the re-awakening of hope in his character. It's hard to tell how much of his performance was enhanced with effects, but watching the surfer in motion is really exciting.
My one gripe is with McMahon's interpretation of Dr. Doom. I was relieved to find that Doom didn't try to strike some kind of Lex Luthor-style deal with Galactus, but the character's voice is all wrong. I'm not alone in having grown up imagining Dr. Doom with a booming, European accent (he's the dictator of the fictitious island nation of Latveria, after all). McMahon sounds like one of Patrick Bateman's lunch companions in American Psycho--more nasally snob than world-dominating mastermind. Like I said, though, Doom is relegated to supporting-player status, so the fact that his look and his voice are completely incongruous didn't get under my skin too much.
If, like me, you hated the first Fantastic Four and had no intention of watching the sequel, I highly recommend you give it a chance. Had this been the first film (maybe with a five-minute, pre-credits origin tacked on), I think the series would still be going strong--instead of being all but forgotten in the era of The Dark Knight and Thor. Rise of the Silver Surfer is what most comic-book movies should be.
*Crazy people say this all the time.