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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Movie review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer **

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

As Jerry Seinfeld might ask:

Who are these people?

The Fantastic Four, created in the early 1960s by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Marvel Comics, about the time they were developing Spider-Man, Hulk, the X-Men, and scores of other legendary heroes, have always struck me as something of a road show production of the Justice League - the most obtuse and feckless of the old Marvel stable, a bunch defined less by their super powers than by their personal angst.

But not the Fantastic Four.

Fantastic? Perhaps.

The kind of fantastic that comes from wearing matching blue jumpsuits and saying you are fantastic. The Not-Bad Four?

The Helpful League?

Much better.

In the comic, as in the first film, from a couple of summers back, the Fantastic Four were scientists hit with gamma radiation (ah, that old gamma radiation, rarely seen these days) and each was given a power that springs from their personalities: Sue Storm, the pretty girl genius, is under-appreciated and therefore prone to turning invisible. Her brother, Johnny Storm, is quite the arrogant star - he bursts into flame, and (for whatever reason) flies. There's the gruff but lovable Ben Grimm, who becomes a lovable walking landslide named The Thing. And finally, their leader, but only because no one wants to write the checks, Mr. Fantastic - he can stretch and bend his body like pizza dough because he is... uh, quite a multi-tasker?

It took one picture, The Incredibles, to point out how lacking in depth and personality this family of mediocrities was. I always liked the comic books well enough. But I was 6 years old. In Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, the sequel, opening today, they remind me they have yet to show the slightest awe or curiosity at their remarkable predicament. Aside from the hideously scarred Thing, the ramifications are lost on them. Unlike Spider-Man (who is forever quitting, only to return) and Hulk (who wants a cure for his violent anger more than he wants to help mankind), these guys behave as if they were always meant to explode into flame or mimic salt water taffy.

They just blandly settle into the routine of world saving. No arguments, and no complaints.

God bless 'em, they're dumb.

Sweetly dumb, like dogs.

Which, I think, is somewhat the point to the Fantastic Four pictures. The geek blogosphere can dump on the Four all they want - that first film was hated by comic-book connoisseurs and made a huge hit by general audiences - but this particular franchise has decided to remove itself from the superhero-movie pack by not brooding (Batman), or finding a moral (Spider-Man), or getting religion (Superman). Its trump card is that it's goofy; they're the superheroes you turn to when you just want a simple galaxy saved, hold the anxiety.

That doesn't make Rise of the Silver Surfer better than the first installment; it's still pretty idiotic, but a vapid 89 minutes. As long as you understand its limited goals and take its embrace of its own shallowness at face value, well, then it's tougher to get bent out of shape yourself at What Might Have Been. Indeed, one subplot here is the Fantastic Four's new uber-celebrity. Being some of the few superheroes who work without an alias, they've become endorsement magnets and Us Weekly regulars. But it's handled in a mild fashion, without consequence, or even a lot of satire. In fact, a single jarring serious nod to the zeitgeist - late in the movie, the military is brought in to torture the captured Silver Surfer - is the one instant of overreaching.

But oddly, the Surfer isn't.

He should be, though.

The guy's just looks pregnant with meaning. He is silver, he owns a surf board, he is bald. He was created by Marvel in the 1960s and something of a hippie icon, ripe for the age of mind expanding. The Silver Surfer's deal was that he was a slave to the giant space food critic Galactus, who "devours worlds." If Galactus doesn't eat the home planet of the Silver Surfer, the Surfer will serve Galactus, traveling the universe for an undetermined period, looking for more suitable planets to eat, like a malevolent Fodor's. In the comic, I remember a lot of pontificating, but now he's just quiet and sad and, I guess, thoughtful, prone to staring off blankly, then, as on Sue Storm's wedding day, announcing "All that you know is at an end" and flying off. Great, and the DJ's already been paid, too.

Anyway, stepping back in the picture is archenemy Dr. Doom, who asks to help the Fantastic Four halt the Surfer's prophesy, and the Fantastic Four agree to this because, again, they are idiots. (His name is Doom, guys.) Shown a picture of a streaking meteor, Mr. Fantastic declares "I've never seen anything like it!" Never? You've never seen a comet? A scientist? And once it's surmised that the comet is "this silver... surfer," Mr. Fantastic decides "It feeds to survive on both organic and thermal energy." He talks like scientist in a sci-fi flick from the '50s, spouting dialogue (with a straight face) so routinely impenetrable, the Human Torch is forever seeking clarification. It's a running joke, of course, but I think it has far more to do with the delete function on the screenwriter's edition of Word.

On the other hand, there's a zippy adolescent charm when played at double speed and removed of all feeling. It's an entire hour shorter than Spider-Man 3, but you sacrifice coherence: When the end of the world does arrive, we see a giant cloud envelop the earth that primarily affects a few blocks of Times Square. Though the Silver Surfer is composed of "cosmic matter," and flies through buildings, he tends to zoom through tunnels and congested streets. And as for Galactus - he is an all-powerful god who, arbitrarily, can be destroyed when the mood strikes.

Indeed, the cast is very '50s sci-fi: Ioan Gruffud's Mr. Fantastic should own a white lab coat; Jessica Alba's Invisible Girl is all exposition-spouting B material; Michael Chiklis, as the Thing, does what he can under what looks like eight tons of orange Styrofoam; and only Chris Evans, as Johnny Storm, has the spark in his eye to match his personality. Even the Silver Surfer, anti-hero, on hand to lend the Fantastic Four series a little cachet, is an airless digital special effect (voiced by Lawrence Fishburne). But like everything else here, there's a sense of reduced expectations, of 20th Century Fox squeezing bronze from tin, not even shooting for the silver.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.



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