Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007)

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Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Dir. Tim Story
Premiered June 12, 2007

So I was off on my own, going to see Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End at what would later become the ArcLight Pasadena when a college-aged guy came up to me to offer me a place at a test screening for two upcoming politically-oriented films: Rendition (about which more later) and War, Inc. This seemed like a cool deal, but I had briefly forgotten that I was still 17, which meant that the man barely older than myself then attempted to be “hip” by chatting me up about the upcoming Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer until it quickly became clear that neither of us knew what we were talking about.

This is for good reason: of all the Marvel superhero brands, the Fantastic Four stand alone in never having clicked with a wider audience: by 2007 it had been the subject of a handful of little-seen TV series, a never-released Roger Corman b-movie made purely to hold onto the option on the comics, and Tim Story’s 2005 film, which was financially successful but of no interest to me or anyone I knew.

As for that first movie, the cast appear to have been chosen for their physical resemblances to the characters in the comics and nothing else, as they have no chemistry. Despite having played many Americans before, Welshman Ioann Gruffudd strains at an American accent as Reed Richards and ends up occasionally lapsing into an impression of Guillermo del Toro; Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm/The Thing is at least serviceable, but doesn’t feel like he’s playing a character; Jessica Alba as Susan Storm, the Invisible Girl, is only a slightly more convincing a scientist than Denise Richards; and even Chris Evans, who can usually bring much-needed levity to a dubious character, acts like a lost castmember from Grind while playing Johnny the Human Torch.

The plot is painfully generic and relies on so many contrivances and conveniences as to border on dream logic; the dialogue cliché-ridden and delivered with uniform woodenness. What’s more, it focuses far more on the Four’s personal lives and petty squabbles than on being superheroes, to the point where they only end up saving themselves at the end. The overall mood is oddly weightless and carefree in a distinctly pre-9/11 sort of way– indeed, the final draft of the script was written in April 2001 while the film was in the midst of a tortured decade-plus development.

Having gone through an even quicker production cycle than usual, its sequel, Rise of the Silver Surfer, raises the stakes to a reasonable level, but doubles down on everything else to the point of parody.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer can be easily be divided into two parts: first, the the Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) comes to Earth and starts messing up all kinds of stuff: power outages in the US, snow in Egypt, the ocean freezing in Japan– not cooling down to a solid state, but simply becoming stuck in time and thus taking on the attributes of solid mass– and giant sinkholes appearing all over the world. Yet this news is somehow sidelined by the long-awaited fairytale wedding of Reed and Sue. Having repeatedly postponed their marriage in order to save the world, they begin to question whether they can lead a normal life as celebrities and decide to quit being heroes.

But before they can do that, the franchise finally remembers that it’s about superheroes. General Hager (Andre Braugher) reaches out to Reed for help tracking and capturing the Silver Surfer, with help from previous baddie Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon), who’s been inadvertently revived by the Surfer’s energy and reasons (if only temporarily) that he needs the world to continue existing, because it turns out that the Surfer is merely a slave to a world-devouring cloud called Galactus.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer wants to be both a superhero movie and a comedy– attempting to do what Guardians of the Galaxy eventually would. But it’s relying purely on the situations to be funny, and misses every opportunity to tell a good joke. For example, after being dragged into space by the Silver Surfer, Johnny crash-lands in the Sahara desert where he encounters some Berber nomads. The joke should be that they recognize him as the world-famous Human Torch, it would make sense in the context of the rest of the movie, but instead, Johnny looks up and there’s a camel! Isn’t that hilarious!?

And as a superhero movie, it doesn’t have enough care for its own universe to make sense. Another example: after coming in contact with the Silver Surfer, Johnny and Sue switch powers when they touch; as ever, the fire powers make Sue’s custom-designed supersuit burn up leaving her naked, yet Johnny’s suit, altered only to resist fire, turns invisible with him. Then he switches with Ben and turns into his own version of The Thing but stays roughly the same size as his normal self.

The plot too is relentlessly sloppy: there’s no rhyme or reason to the nature of the Surfer’s influence on the earth, and Reed figures out that his next attack will be on London because London is in fact at 50º east and 30º north. You heard it here first, folks: London is the capital of Iran. Also, the Great Wall of China is driving distance from Shanghai, Yakutsk is a short flight from Manhattan, and a cloud is a compelling villain.

The whole thing is like this: it’s all mapped out to be silly and weird, but instead it reads as awkward and stupid. The blocking, cinematography, editing, and special effects are so bland and careless that whatever director Tim Story was trying to do– having already been handicapped by a laughless script– dies onscreen. It’s worth noting that Chris Columbus was an executive producer, and though it’s unlikely that he had much creative input, this movie fails in all the same ways that his directorial efforts do.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The New York Skyline features the World Financial Center but neither incarnation of the World Trade Center. Circuit City still exists. Reed still has a PDA; the iPhone debuted the month after this came out. The US is using a military base in Russia.

Additional Notes
I don’t know how to say this nicely, and it’s certainly not her fault, but Jessica Alba’s solid blue contacts in this movie make her look like a Robert Zemeckis mo-cap zombie.
There’s a weird microplot about General Hager resenting Reed for being too much of a nerd, but I’m pretty sure some intellectual rigor is required to be a military officer, and Andre “Snowflake from Glory” Braugher doesn’t exactly read as a meathead.

How Did It Do?
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer suffered much the same fate as Spider-Man 3: it made a profit ($330 million against a $130 million budget), but still grossed less than its predecessor and was trashed by critics– albeit not as overwhelmingly as the first Fantastic Four, and admittedly it’s at least not as boring.

In a very strange series of events, 20th Century Fox somehow got the Franklin Mint to produce US quarters altered to advertise the film, which was super illegal and made the government quite cross.

By the film’s premiere date, plans had already been drawn up for another sequel as well as a Silver Surfer spinoff, but as with Spider-Man, the failure of the movie convinced 20th Century Fox to burn it all down and start over. As before, this took several years of development which continued even after the ultimate reboot began production. The result, helmed by Chronicle auteur Josh Trank, was widely considered one of the worst studio films of 2015.

Next Time: Live Free or Die Hard

 

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Ghost Rider (2007)

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Ghost Rider
Dir. Mark Steven Johnson
Premiered January 15, 2007

In 2017, it’s weird to look back at a time before superhero movies existed. And when they finally did, they were mostly DC comics adaptations– Superman and Batman. For the longest time, DC’s competitor Marvel was nowhere to be found.

After 1989’s Batman, superhero movies were all the rage, and Marvel’s staggering unwillingness to play ball was bad for everyone. The comic publisher’s carefully guarded licensing left major studios to fill the gap by adapting several kidunfriendly indie comics, with predictably dire results. Finally, when Marvel went bankrupt in 1996, it was snatched up by toy magnate Avi Arad and given a film division. “Marvel Studios” wasn’t an actual studio, but it finally gave Hollywood what it wanted, and it worked out really well. Usually.

The first license, 1998’s Blade, did way better than expected, and things seemed only to improve, with the X-Men and Spider-Man franchises setting new records and new goals, both commercially and critically. The first critical misstep, 20th Century Fox’s Daredevil, was a punching bag for the press. However, and quite unfortunately, it was also commercially successful enough to convince rival studio Sony to bring writer-director Mark Steven Johnson aboard to work on their own latest Marvel acquisition, Ghost Rider.

The movie opens with an introductory monologue by character actor Sam Elliot that blatantly rips off the intro from The Big Lebowski, and has very little to do with the story until much later, followed by a 20-minute origin story sequence that feels way, way longer. Back in 1986, or a version of 1986 that makes no attempt to look like anything other than the 2000s, Matt Long plays teenage motorcycle stuntman Johnny Blaze (not to be confused with “Average Homeboy” Denny Blaze), who plans to steal away with his girlfriend Roxanne (Raquel Alessi). After discovering that his father (Brett Cullen) is dying of cancer, Johnny takes up a faustian offer from Mephistopheles himself (Peter Fonda, because motorcycles) to cure him. Naturally, dad dies the next day in an accident, but Mephistopheles appears to have made Johnny immortal for some future purpose. Orphaned and literally soulless, Blaze leaves Roxanne.

You can imagine how that felt way longer than twenty minutes.

Twenty years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) is…basically a different person. He’s still a daredevil, making good use of his satanic immortality, but avoids thinking about work at all costs, indulging a litany of adolescent quirks that he never had before, like watching nature documentaries, eating jelly beans out of a martini glass, listening obsessively to The Carpenters, and living in the constant suspicion that his deal with the devil is the only thing keeping him alive, much to the dismay of his friend and crewmate Mack (Donal Logue, attempting to do for this movie what T.J. Miller eventually did for Deadpool).

At this point, a lot of typical superhero tropes come in that give the appearance of a story, but don’t actually have anything to do with each other. First, Johnny runs into Roxanne (Eva Mendes), who is now a reporter. She isn’t a reporter in the comics, it was just easier for Johnson to rip off Lois Lane than try to write a strong female character who isn’t damaged in some way, even when the comic already did. Anyway, Johnny asks her out, she accepts, and when Johnny doesn’t show, she consults the Magic 8-Ball that she apparently keeps in her purse.

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Keep this in mind, because while it isn’t strictly relevant to the rest of the movie, it is not pointless, and will help illustrate the main way in which Ghost Rider fails.

The next thing that happens is that Mephistopheles’ demon-seed Blackheart (Wes Bentley) suddenly shows up to…well, it’s not clear at first what he wants. Mostly he seems to enjoy killing randos by turning them into a cross between Violet Beauregarde and Sonny from I, Robot. At this, Mephistopheles tasks Johnny with defeating Blackheart and his cronies, at which point Johnny discovers the ability to turn into a flaming skeleton in the dark of night and kill the wicked by looking into their souls. Of course he fails, leaves enough collateral damage to become public enemy #1, and is taken in by another soul-selling demon, a 150-year-old Texas Ranger/gravedigger, played of course by Sam Elliot, which sets in motion an utterly half-assed macguffin chase at the last minute.

But it’s not just the illusory plot. Wes Bentley is awful, playing Blackheart as a (slightly) more evil version of the plastic bag douche from American Beauty, and tries to match Cage for crazy expressions, but fails laughably and is never threatening; and he’s defeated using a strategy that, in the interest of creating drama, was explicitly shown not to work earlier on. There are other chintzy little things, like Mack watching a highlight reel that just consists of film footage from the previous scene. And these, and even the story, are secondary to Ghost Rider’s core failing.

Contrary to what you might expect, Ghost Rider does not suffer the least from Nicolas Cage’s involvement– he’s a perfect fit for the campy, surreal tone the movie tries to set. Emphasis on “tries:” there’s a total disconnect regarding the tone. Appropriately, the various sets, vehicles, and costumes go for a sort of satanic/biker/heavy metal aesthetic. But cinematography and editing are far more important to creating a mood and identity that sticks with the viewer, and the crew of Ghost Rider apparently didn’t get the memo. Nor did the film’s composer Christopher Young, whose work here seems more suited to be used as filler on a slightly upmarket police procedural.

And holy fuck, the CGI certainly doesn’t help, splattering the picture with random photoshop effects, jump scares, phony vehicles, and sub-1990s morphing effects. Seriously, Johnny Blaze as Ghost Rider makes the T-2000 look like Gollum. It’s not so much the texture as they way everything moves and is lit. Effects of this quality do not belong in 2007, and certainly not in a movie rooted in the very tangible, tactile world of asphalt, steel, and leather.

This is the killer. Without an effective tone, all the goofy weirdness– the jelly beans, The Carpenters, the Magic 8-Ball, the anarchic pileup of inert story clichés– that might actually have worked instead falls flat, so flat that despite its myriad flaws, I cannot summon enough emotion to outright hate it.

How Did It Do?
Ghost Rider earned $228.7 million against a $110 million budget. That’s right: this piece of movie concentrate cost nine figures, overcame the odds to become a worldwide hit, and still barely broke even. The studio ominously withheld the movie from critics until a day before its US premiere, and true to form it got trashed. Four years later, the movie managed to get a sequel with half the budget but vastly improved effects, helmed by Neveldine & Taylor, the absurdist-exploitation team behind Crank. It did even worse.

Next Time: Rocket Science