4: Rise of the Silver Surfer

WFTB Score: 8/20

The plot: The squabblesome superheroes known collectively as the Fantastic Four have their plans for a Big Day ruined by an extraterrestrial force who bizarrely resembles a surfer. Dr Reed Richards is tasked by the Army with capturing the apparent menace to the planet, but Mr Fantastic also has to appease a fiancée who thinks he’s less fantastic with every passing day; and when the military lose faith in the team, they meet an old foe with a keen eye on the alien’s powers.

It’s a chill wind that blows no good for ‘Mr Fantastic’, aka Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), as a series of meteorological phenomena threaten to distract him from his impending marriage to Susan Storm, the lovely Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba). Radiation spikes – and ruddy great holes in the ground – at various co-ordinates around the world indicate something big is going on, and as nuptial preparations falteringly progress, Richards struggles to keep his fiancée onside whilst tracking the speedy source of the radiation at the behest of gruff US Army General Hager (Andre Braugher).

As the wedding day arrives, rock-hard Thing (Michael Chiklis) and Susan’s brother/Human Torch Johnny (Chris Evans) try to concentrate on the happiness of the married couple rather than bickering with each other; but the appearance of the Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne) – the cause of all the trouble – disrupts proceedings and a brush with the alien force leaves Johnny with an identity crisis, since he swaps powers with any of the other Three he touches.

As if this wasn’t enough to be getting on with, the Four’s old enemy Victor von Doom (Julian McMahon) has returned from Latveria, back to his former glory and Hager’s new best friend following his own meeting with the Surfer. But what are Doom’s ulterior motives when the Four are forced to work with him? And when the mysterious visitor promises that ‘everything we know is at an end’, could the surfer’s ultimate mission be the destruction of planet Earth? The Four, troubled by rumours that Richards is about to break up the band for the sake of domestic harmony, will need all their powers, plus some bright new gadgets, if they are to save the day.

This second helping of the Four bears the same hallmarks as Tim Story’s 2005 original, with an attractive cast who seem more comfortable in their roles (Gruffudd is rather more at ease with his own voice this time) and a bright, familial, even romantic sensibility where the characters are determined that their special powers won’t get in the way of their everyday lives and loves, the Richards/Storm wedding and the support of Chiklis‘ blind partner Alicia (Kerry Washington) vying for equality with the sci-fi action, a patchwork of a hundred other sci-fi and superhero plots, not least The Day the Earth Stood Still and E.T. (unsurprisingly, the Surfer turns out not to be the real bad guy, unlike Zach Grenier’s off-the-shelf alien torturer). Also, without giving away too much, there’s a big Matrix Revolutions borrow late on too.

But there are still a few original ideas: both Mr Fantastic’s stretchiness and Johnny and Thing’s banter are good fun, and Johnny’s malfunctioning powers make for a decent variation on a theme. However, whereas I called Fantastic Four ‘comic book’ without meaning it as a criticism, I’m not sure I’d be so lenient when applying it to Rise of the Silver Surfer. For whilst there’s nothing wrong in principle with a set of superheroes whose domestic arrangements are as much a focus of the film as their superheroics, when the stakes are literally the end of the world you want the film to carry rather more weight.

There’s a scene early on in the film where The Thing nestles into an aeroplane seat, much to the dismay of those around him: all well and good from a comedy perspective, but this bloke is meant to be heavy; the fact that he can get on a normal plane without causing any problems for take-off mirrors the lack of gravity assigned to the film as a whole. I’m not remotely qualified to speak about the treatment of the cinematic Surfer versus his comic-book persona, but I understand he too is less complex here than he could have been.

More than anything, though, there’s an overwhelming sense that the same ground has been covered – better – in other films. The draining of the Thames near the London Eye is a fairly conservative spot of CGI pseudo-destruction, and Johnny’s wooing of icy Army Sergeant Raye (Beau Garrett) is both perfunctory and predictable. Then there are potentially neat ideas which the demands of modern film-making screw up, like the Four’s modular jet (I read it’s supposed to be called a Fantasticar but I’m not playing that game) which gets plastered in distinctly Dodge-y product placement. Even Stan Lee’s trademark cameo is uncommonly clunky, as a wedding guest who gets to say ‘I’m Stan Lee.’ Still, even if it doesn’t come close to rescuing the rest of the film, the film does build to an involving climax; just as well since – like the first movie – bona fide action sequences are thinly spread.

The general consensus seems to be that Rise of the Silver Surfer is marginally better than Fantastic Four, but I don’t see it. The first film was saddled with the always-tiresome job of explaining the origins of the heroes and setting up their relationships; having done that, you might expect this sequel to get straight into its stride. It’s never an actively poor film, to this comic-book layman at least; but with an ambience that’s often far too light and fluffy for the story it has to tell, this is a soufflé of a film that largely fails to rise to the occasion.

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