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Front Page - Friday, August 21, 2015

The Critic's Corner

Almost, but not quite fantastic

“Fantastic Four” has been unfairly skewered by critics and comic book fans alike. I’ve seen it twice, enjoyed it both times, and am unclear on why it’s been universally panned. It’s not a perfect movie, but it certainly doesn’t deserve to be called “worse than worthless,” as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote in his review. That kind of critical bashing should be reserved for films that get everything wrong, which “F4” doesn’t.

The story might or might not seem familiar to you depending on your familiarity with the comic books, which debuted in 1961 and featured four characters who gained superpowers after exposure to cosmic rays during a scientific mission to outer space. A 2005 film stuck closely to this storyline, but the reboot currently in theaters, co-written and directed by Josh Trank (“Chronicle”), does not. Instead, the team must harness abilities gained from an alternate universe to save Earth from a friend who becomes their enemy.

“F4” opens with promise and, for the most part, delivers on that potential until its clumsy final act. We initially follow Reed Richards and his friend Ben Grimm from the basement of Reed’s childhood, where he builds a teleporter that can send things elsewhere but not bring them back, to a high school science fair, where he’s recruited by Prof. Storm to work at a government-sponsored research institute.

There, Reed helps scientist Sue Storm and technician Johnny Storm complete a quantum gate designed by the professor’s protégé, Victor von Doom, who also agrees to help due to his unreciprocated feelings for Sue. Once the project is complete, the institute’s supervisor says, “Thanks. Now we’re going to turn your work over to the government.” Furious, Reed, Johnny, Doom, and Grimm use the gate to travel to another dimension, where Victor is doused in strange matter and seemingly killed.

As the other three return to the lab, where Sue awaits, the gate explodes, altering everyone on a molecular level and affording them with super-human abilities: Reed can stretch like rubber; Sue can become invisible and generate force fields; Johnny can engulf his body in flames and fly; and Ben becomes bigger and develops a rocklike hide that gives him enhanced strength and durability.

Eventually, Doom reappears bent on destroying Earth and rebuilding the alternate dimension in his image, giving the F4 their first mission.

Things I liked: For starters, how the story develops slowly until everyone is in the lab working on the teleporter. “F4” allows us to get to know the central characters and what motivates them, and gives them time to become friends. Once the action starts, though, it doesn’t let up. I also liked the dark tone of the film, though I will say parents who are thinking about taking their kids to see it might want to go on their own first, as there’s more profanity than in most comic book movies and some gruesome deaths in the final act. I also liked each of the actors in their roles, including African American Michael Jordan as the Human Torch. He was a controversial addition to the cast due to Johnny being Caucasian in the comics, but Jordan delivered a solid performance.

Things I didn’t like: “F4” flies off the rails during its climax, which is brief, awkward, and unsatisfying. Actor Miles Teller, who played Reed, has a few really goofy moments, like when he says, “Victor, don’t do this!” with all of the skill of a teenager in a high school play trying but failing to be dramatic. Some of the fault lies with the writing. With the world literally falling apart around the foursome, Reed somehow says, “He’s causing a chain reaction! It’s going to overload the system and destroy the world!” That’s a paraphrase, but it’s close. Expository dialogue rarely works late in a movie.

Things I didn’t care about: I didn’t care that Trank and his co-writers changed the story. Nearly all superhero movies do this, and judging from what I know about the comics, none of the changes were so severe, they altered the heart of the story. Five characters are inexorably changed by a scientific accident, and four of them bond together to save Earth from the fifth, who turns evil.

Comic book fans groused about “F4” for as long as they were aware of its existence. Having not read the comics, I went in without expectations, and I generally enjoyed what I saw. While the clunky ending did feel like patchwork (lending credence to rumors that Fox took the film out of Trank’s hands and did extensive reshoots), Trank’s creative stamp can be seen throughout most of the movie. As with “Chronicle,” it’s character-focused, action-driven, and during its first half, instills a genuine sense of wonder in the viewer.

Although “F4” is bombing at the box office, Fox has scheduled a sequel for release in 2017. I hope they have the guts to make it.

Two-and-a-half stars out of four. Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and language.

David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at dlaprad@hamiltoncountyherald.com.