Sunday, June 17, 2007

Surf Bored: On Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

[Spoilers Ahead]

I was hoping for "refreshing, weightless, and cheerfully dumb." What I got was "a plotless, brainless, witless bore."

I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. With the exception of Batman Begins and V for Vendetta (both flawed but in a different league than the rest), Hollywood has had trouble making aesthetically coherent, genuinely enjoyable superhero films with first-rank comics properties lately. Like the X-Men films, the Spider-Man trilogy started strong but stumbled with the histrionic weepathon, Spider-Man 3. Meanwhile, the equally grandiose Superman Returns collapsed under the weight of its own ponderousness and narrative bloat. Ghost Rider was a passable distraction, but only because it aimed so low.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer joins this distinguished company of creative misfires, but for different reasons. Spider-Man 3 and Superman Returns both fell short of lofty ambitions for pulp transcendence by taking themselves way too seriously. No such accusation could be levelled at FF2, a movie that reduces Ben Grimm's existential angst to body humour. The occasionally charming imbecility of the first movie was supposed to have been the second film's biggest strength. After the tedious self-importance of Superman Returns and the bathos of Spider-Man 3, how nice it would have been to see a dumb, good-natured, competently-executed comic book romp. Ghost Rider, but bigger and brighter.

FF2 doesn't deliver on even this minimal promise, however. Not simply because half the main players (Alba's Susan Storm, Chiklis's Thing, McMahon's Doom) are unbearable, but because the film's script aims both too low and, in a curious way, too high.

The "too low" is easy to account for. This consists of the reduction of the already slim characterizations from the first movie to entirely one-dimensional cartoons, the film's tireless cataloging of the Thing's bodily functions, and Johnny's dick jokes. When did the Hollywood suits decide that this was the only way to make a commercially successful all-ages film? Has everyone forgotten that kids will rise to the level of the material as readily as they'll sink to it? George Lucas knew that--"once upon a time..."

The "too high" is relative to the "too low." The one good thing about the film (though not enough to redeem it) is the Silver Surfer, who seems to have sailed straight out of the tip of Jack Kriby's pen and onto the silver screen. The anguished cosmic slave takes over Ben's traditional role of eternal sufferer, embodying exactly the kind of nobility and gravitas that one might have hoped to see in the translation of this character from comic to film. Unfortunately for the film, the Silver Surfer's movingly visualized tragic plight seems to belong in a completely different movie than the one we are watching--that is, a movie for grownups and children with IQs higher than a pretzel's.

The incoherent tone produced by the contrast between the Surfer and the FF themselves is evident throughout, but is particularly glaring at the climax of the visually stunning chase between Johnny and the Surfer when, just before being flung back into the earth's atmosphere by the emotionally remote, god-like Silver Surfer, Johnny gets off some moronic wise crack that undercuts the awesomeness of the moment. The later scene in which the Invisible Woman first converses with the Surfer illustrates a related problem: the CGI'd Surfer appears to have more emotional depth and to be more convincingly human than shallow, doe-eyed Susan Storm (who is for some reason written as a selfish, shrewish ditz, leaving Alba once again with the most thankless role in the film).

Needless to say, I have a fair degree of ambivalence about the film's tone. Part of me would be quite happy with a witty, well-crafted adventure pic, something like a super-powered version of the bubbly, ticklish Ocean's 13 that I enjoyed the night before. But another part--the shameless geek who still pointlessly yearns for a truly great FF movie--sees reflected in the Silver Surfer's gleaming form an image of what might have been, and starts to feel decidedly pissy.

Clearly, a "great" FF film isn't in the cards and was never part of the mandate for the sequel, so at best I'm left hoping for the amusing romp. And this is where things get really irritating, because the writers of the film seem perversely intent on withholding even the consolation prize of a half-decent B-movie. How else to explain the script's self-sabotaging impulse to curtail the sprightliness that was its only real hope for conjuring a bit of summer afternoon fun.

What is FF2 about? What's its theme? Forget about Sue and Reed's wedding shenanigans--this one's all about educating Johnny, the only truly puckish one of the lot. Or at least, he was, until the Surfer showed up, scrambled his powers, and tutored him on responsibility and humorlessness.

The pedagocial subtext of the opening air-battle between the Torch and the Surfer is not immediately obvious, but acquires its symbolic meaning retrospectively, at the end of the film when our favorite "narcissist" (as Frankie Raye calls Johnny) soberly takes on the responsibility of saving the earth because he realizes "some things aren't all about me." This goofball epiphany about selflessness and sacrifice is, of course, the lesson of the Silver Surfer's own tragic existence: he serves Galactus to save his planet and the woman he loves. Ultimately, he sacrifices himself to save the earth as well, anticipating and outdoing Johnny's own transformation from horndog to savior.

Thus, in that earlier air-battle between Torch and the Surfer, Johnny trails behind the quasi-angelic Surfer, both literally and morally. That battle concludes with the Surfer extinguishing Johnny's flame and throwing him back to earth--just as his example will later provide the model for the symbolic extinguishing of Johnny's "narcissism" when he is brought "down to earth" by the impending destruction of the planet and the apparent death of his sister. It is of course Johnny who gives the Surfer's board a final boost as the Surfer plunges into Galactus and destroys it in a sort of glorious cosmic crucifixion. Susan's parallel, but more minor, transformation from sullen bridezilla to can-do superwife is similarly informed by the Surfer's example (she reminds the herald of his beloved--why? because she's a woman?).

This would all be fine if the film had enough gravity to convince us that it was sincere about its moral fable. But the movie's indifference to its own moral is palpable, and the moralizing merely bogs the film down. Really, who wants to see the Human Torch mend his ways, anyway? Did we pay our two bits for "hugging and learning"? Is the domestication of the film's only remotely amusing character really a good idea in a series that is already painfully short on the fun it promises to deliver?

Bah.

Fortunately, FF fans have other options this summer. Despite the destruction of Reed Richards in Civil War, Dwayne McDuffie, Paul Pelletier, and Rick Magyar's The New Fantastic Four is an absolute blast--and it looks sensational to boot. Its just-wrapped Glactus/Silver Surfer three-parter was infinitely more entertaining than the film version. I wasn't sure about Storm and Black Panther replacing Reed and Sue at first, but the shift does liven things up, and Pelletier drawns a mean Black Panther. In fact, the quirky new team is just one other detail that harkens back to the glory days when Steve Englehart, Keith Pollard, and Joe Sinnott presided over the odd but wonderful FF team of Thing, Ms. Marvel, Torch, and Crystal, telling cosmic adventure stories with a classic look and feel. Their work really reignited my enthusiasm for the FF back then; perhaps McDuffie and Pelletier can pull off a similar renaissance for the title today.

As for the movies? I give up.

13 comments:

Sean Kleefeld said...

Thanks for that review, Jim. All of the others I've seen thus far were both short and superficial, thereby making it extremely difficult to determine the movie's actual level of quality. As usual, your piece is quite insightful.

Of course, I tend not to go to the movies any more because of what I think you're review hints at: too many cooks. One of the problems with mass media entertainment, as I see it, is that there are too many people weighing in with their opinions on what works and what doesn't. "Maybe if we try this..." With the number of people that work on a movie (or a TV show), the original story, no matter how good, is diluted through the eyes of hundreds of people before I, as part of the audience, see it. There are three creditted writers on this movie and I can guarantee that another half dozen or more added in their two cents. I count at least 12 directors here, another 13 editors, and a dozen producers. Plus the actors, the special effects folks, the animators, the costumers, the set designers, the lighting techs... How many hundreds of people helped shape what this film looks like? To get them all to agree, you (generally) have to boil things down to a lowest common denominator which almost inherently strips out any charm or character that a piece might have. That any movie is even tolerably followable amazes me to no end.

That's why I think other forms of entertainment will always be more interesting and engaging. A novel has how many contributors? A writer, an editor and a publisher? Maybe an assistant editor? Or a comic book? Writer, artist, inker, colorist, letterer and an editor. The less people you have working on a project, the more singular and cohesive the vision. For me this provides a more satisfying result.

The few TV shows and movies I enjoy, too, are notable in that, even though a number of people helped create it, it was led by a strong individual with a very powerful vision. Generally, their name is directly associated with the end product: Fritz Lang, Orson Wells, Gene Roddenberry (in the 1960s), George Lucas (in the 1970s), Joss Whedon.

I think the same way about music. You start pulling together a composer and a lyricist and musicians and sound mixers, you start getting cacophony. Give me a group like Rush (three musicians and a producer) or Dresden Dolls (two musicians and a producer) any day. Even better, get them out of the studio and put them on stage so there's not a mixing technician wonking around with the sound.

So, ultimately, I am not at all surprised that FF:ROTSS wasn't done very well. Just another example of the bottom feeder drek that almost inevitably has to come out of the studio production methodology.

plok said...

Damn you, Jim, now I have to see the movie so I can read this post!

Jim Roeg said...

Sean - I couldn't agree more with your diagnosis of the film by committee syndrome that is torpedoing recent superhero films. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I'm inclined to say that superhero films have become victims of their own success--the bigger they score with the general public and the bigger the budgets, the more nervous studios second-guess the writers and make auteur work impossible. Sigh!

Don't do it, plok! You'll want that 90 minutes back the minute you step out of the multiplex! :)

Matthew E said...

I don't know about Sean's argument. I mean, yes, okay, maybe he has a point... but there are some art forms, like movies and music, that are by their nature collaborative. If we have a failed collaboration, then we do, but that doesn't mean that they failed just because they were collaborative.

Sean Kleefeld said...

Oh, I'm not saying collaborations are bad in and of themselves. I'm just saying that trying to collaborate with the huge number of people they throw into a typical studio movie results in a bad movie more often than not.

Nobody said...

I take your points, Jim, but I have to admit I really enjoyed the movie. Maybe because I've never particularly liked the FF, nor the Silver Surfer, and the first film left me with such low expectations, but the primary virtue of the movie for me was its breeziness.

Even if the Torch did learn a lesson, it wasn't anything like the knuckle-rapping of Spider-Man 1 with its endlessly repeated motto. Its not like it took the fun out of the character -- his final action in the movie was so jerkish I couldn't believe it, but it was delightfully unexpected and captured the playful tone of the FF.

If anything it was the Surfer who threatened to ruin the lightheartedness of the film, but since he was the best thing about the movie I'm not complaining. Even the political subtexts, while always hinted at, were wisely never made explicit.

Jim Roeg said...

Even if the Torch did learn a lesson, it wasn't anything like the knuckle-rapping of Spider-Man 1 with its endlessly repeated motto. Its not like it took the fun out of the character -- his final action in the movie was so jerkish I couldn't believe it, but it was delightfully unexpected and captured the playful tone of the FF.

Yeah--I agree with you there, nobody. Thank goodness they at least made Johnny a gestural asshole at the end. Still, even the bouquet-incineration was qualified by Johnny's "old habits" quip, which ambivalently reaffirmed the birth of the "new" Johnny!

Of course, I'm totally splitting hairs about a film franchise that is clearly aiming at silly, easily digestible fun. No doubt this episode's "hugging and learning" will vanish as though it had never been and Johnny will not have "grown" for the third installment--thank goodness! (Will I go see it? Oh, of course I will.)

I'm glad you enjoyed the breeziness. (So did my theatre--which actually applauded after the credits rolled.) I think I'm just getting grumpy in my old age. Though, on the topic of political subtexts left thankfully in the background, my wife leaned over to me in the theatre (once she had woken up from her first-act nap) and whispered archly: "If only the terrorists would see this movie." 'Nuff said!

Nobody said...

The subtext was indeed interesting. On the one hand, the FF stand up to the macho American military machine and oppose its strategy of firing missiles at all its problems and conducting interrogations in Siberia, and at the end they even describe themselves, however apologetically, as "enemies of the United States" (if that wasn't begging for international approval I don't know what is).

But all the while, their savings of the day in both London and Tokyo smacked of nothing as much as Team America: World Police.

Chigdon said...

Hey Jim,

You know, I was really pulling for the new FF movie to be pretty good, but well, looks like a mixed bag.

I'm starting a site called GeekPublishing.com, the be-all, end-all site for honest to goodness geeky awesomeness.

I'm looking for people who would be interested in syndicating content. I've already got a couple of people interested, if it sounds like something you'd be interested in learning more about, drop me a line.

chigblog
AT
gmail
DOT
com

Thanks Jim,
Craig

Anonymous said...

jim, excellent review. to quote danny glover " i'm too old for this sh*#"

even with lowered expectations and ignoring all the plot holes in the movie ... the main plot is about an alien force of nature coming to devour earth.

and that's the resolution?

plok said...

Well, I rented it.

Was that really only ninety minutes?

Felt longer...

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