THE BEST MOVIES are usually both earnest and smart (The Insider). Many successful movies are superficial and smart (Die Hard). And every so often, you can find an enjoyable movie which is superficial and stupid (The Fast and the Furious).
Fox's latest offering, Fantastic Four, is not one of those rare finds. A recent string of exceptionally well-made comic-book movies has spoiled us. X-Men 2 in 2003, Spider-Man 2 in 2004, and then The Incredibles later that year, each set new high-water marks for the genre. Fantastic Four stands out in a different way.
In 1993, B-movie king Roger Corman produced a filmed version of the Marvel comic book Fantastic Four. Hiring director Oley Sassone (his previous credits included 1992's Bloodfist III: Forced to Fight), Corman was not much concerned with the niceties of production. The film was so shoddily made that in one scene a blind woman is subdued as chloroform is forced over her mouth. The camera then cuts to show us a point-of-view shot from her perspective, as the world becomes hazy and fades out.
But the producers weren't 100 percent worried about this sort of bumble because, you see, they never intended to release the movie. Poor Oley Sassone's film was made as the result of a contractual loophole. Corman and his co-producer Bernd Eichinger had the rights to the cinematic version of Fantastic Four, but those rights were about to expire. A-list director Chris Columbus and Fox wanted to do a big-budget version and were waiting for the expiration in the hopes of scooping up the property on the cheap. But buried in the contract was a clause extending Corman's and Eichinger's rights if they simply made a movie. Which is exactly what they did.
In early 1993, Corman spent $1.5 million on Sassone's version of Fantastic Four. He went through the motions, promising Variety in December that the film would appear in theaters on January 21 in the "largest theatrical push" of his career. But that was a lie. The producers had never intended Fantastic Four to be let out of the vault. As Eichinger confessed to Variety in August of 1994--immediately after he sold the property's rights to Fox and Columbus--"To make a long story short, we shot [the] movie because we had to start principal photography within a certain period of time. Time was running out and we had to make a movie." Sassone's Fantastic Four was never released, either in theaters or on video. Today it sits in a can somewhere, contractually bound to gather dust so as not to taint the Fantastic Four property.
It is nearly tragic to note that Sassone, his cast, and his crew never knew they were merely going through the motions to please the lawyers and the producers.
It is incredibly tragic to note that Sassone's ghost film is actually better than the Fantastic Four which has finally reached theaters 11 years later.
FANTASTIC FOUR is superficial and stupid, the type of movie which bludgeons your intellect, your id, and your patience. The nub of the plot, for those not familiar with the comic, is that five people are exposed to cosmic rays while in space. These rays mutate them, giving each special powers, which coincidentally coincide with their personalities. Reed Richards (played by Ioan Gruffudd) is described as "always stretching"; his body turns into rubber. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans) is a "hothead"; he becomes the human torch. And so on. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) turns into the orange rock monster known as The Thing and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) becomes The Invisible Girl. The fifth mutant becomes Dr. Doom. Guess which one of our unfortunate astronauts is the villain.
The film's plot is hardly worth recounting: Dr. Doom wants to kill the Fantastic Four for reasons he doesn't bother to share; he fails. The writing is incompetent and joyless. The acting from the lackluster cast is similarly embarrassing. (It is never unequivocally stated that Alba's character has her doctorate, but we are told that she is a geneticist with a degree from MIT, which is enough to earn her a high ranking on the list of Least Plausible Actors in the Role of a Ph.D.) The work from director Tim Story--he gave us Taxi, starring Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah--is insultingly careless. To pluck just one detail, when the Thing ambles about we sometimes hear big bass rumbles and the sound of crunching stones. Other times he sounds like a normal man with barely a footfall. The only small bit of inspiration present is the decision to set one scene at ESPN's X-Games, which gives the film's producers the opportunity to sell dozens of actual billboards to corporate partners.
Adding insult to injury, Mr. Story has the audacity to end this wreck of a movie with a prelude to the sequel. Fantastic Four will go the way of Elektra and The Punisher. And with any luck, Tim Story will go the way of Oley Sassone.
IN A WAY, though, the worst movies aren't superficial and dumb, like Fantastic Four, but earnest and dumb, like Chris Nolan's Batman Begins. Released a few weeks ago, Batman Begins is the mirror opposite of Fantastic Four: a film so painstakingly made, with such a sense of yearning for class, that it misses the mark because of a surfeit, not a lack, of ambition.
Nolan, who directed Memento and Insomnia, fills his movie with first-rate actors, including Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson, and Christian Bale. He uses thoughtful, earthy locations for many of his scenes. He carefully and methodically plots and paces his movie. But all of this is erected around a flawed foundation: Batman Begins is about the inner-workings of Bruce Wayne. It should be about Batman.
For most superheroes, it's their costumed life which is their secret identity--Sam Raimi's Spider-Man movies are successful because Raimi realized that they're really about Peter Parker, not Spider-Man. Parker has his life; being a superhero is his avocation.
But Batman is different. Being a masked vigilante is his life. Bruce Wayne is Batman's secret, not the other way around.
In the closing moments of Batman Begins, the girl who fancies Bruce Wayne walks away from him, saying that the darkness of being Batman has changed him; her estimation is unsupported by any of the preceding two hours. It's as if the filmmakers reached the end of their story and realized they'd concentrated on the wrong character.
YET IT IS NOT IN VAIN to hope for both the earnest and the smart this summer. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is intelligent, meticulous, and deadly serious. It is also very, very good.
Spielberg decided to make a worm's eye view of H.G. Wells's classic and the result is a film every bit as disciplined and sinewy as Jaws. Ray Ferrier (Tom Cruise) must flee New Jersey when aliens attack the world; the movie tracks his flight to Boston as he tries to bring his two children back to their mother (and his ex-wife).
Smartly, Spielberg never allows his camera to stray from this little family. Giant panoramas and big battles are shoved into the background--or even off-camera--so that we can concentrate on them. In one scene the family is in a little valley while a pitched fight is being waged just over the hill. We hear the explosions and see tanks, soldiers, and planes rushing to the line. Ferrier's son, as eager to see the carnage as we are, runs to the top of the hill, but Spielberg keeps us rooted on the ground. No master shots. No Independence Day-style histrionics. Just Ray's terrified attempt to hold onto both his children.
War of the Worlds is also the most earnest science-fiction movie to come down the pike in a long time. There are no nods or clever winks or even obvious product placements (the watchmaker Omega scores a coup). Spielberg isn't trying to dazzle, but the result is dazzling. If you're looking for a superhero at the cineplex this summer, he's the only game in town.
Jonathan V. Last is film critic for The Daily Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves.