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07/26/2005 - THE FANTASTIC FOUR
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FANTASTIC FOUR by Tom McCurrie


"Why bother critiquing the script for FANTASTIC FOUR?" you may ask. The movie has made well over $100 million at the box-office already, so at first glance, whether the script is good or not means about as much as whether someone as freakin' hot as Jessica Simpson can act or not. But since FANTASTIC FOUR cost an estimated $100 million to produce (not including prints and advertising), and since its receipts dropped 60 percent the second weekend from bad word-of-mouth, and nearly 50 percent the following weekend, the flick's box-office "success" seems a bit more dubious. The question then becomes, would FANTASTIC FOUR have done twice as much money by now if the script didn't totally blow chunks? Sorry, Mister Murdoch, but the answer is yes.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead!)

Written by Mark Frost and Michael France (and Lord knows who else in its decade-plus trip through studio development hell), FANTASTIC FOUR is about four astronauts who survive a blast of cosmic radiation only to find themselves saddled with various superpowers: one has the ability to stretch himself like rubber (Reed Richards or Mr. Fantastic), one has the ability to turn invisible (Sue Storm or The Invisible Woman), one has the ability to flame on and off like a cigarette lighter (Johnny Storm or the Human Torch) and one basically turns into a big, chunky rock with legs (Ben Grimm or The Thing). Admittedly, this is a super-cool high-concept, and because this concept is based on a comic book that just about everybody digs, and because it's one that has never been seen on film before (except for a little-known, risible 1994 adaptation), it's both fresh and commercial, and is in fact the main reason the pic opened with a phenomenal $56 million its first weekend.

Again, the biggest plus FANTASTIC FOUR has going for it is its concept, a concept the script can't take credit for since it was lifted from another source. Remove that concept, and there goes your $56 million opening, making the movie more an underperformer than a blockbuster.

And remove that concept and you see how flawed the rest of FANTASTIC FOUR is, and the reason box-office is sinking week by week. Of course, the uninspired direction of Tim Story and the sub-par acting by the cast of relative unknowns is a big turn off when it comes to repeat viewing. As Mr. Fantastic, Ioan Gruffudd is as animated as your neighbor's dining room table, while Jessica Alba is hardly convincing as geneticist Sue Storm, especially since this particular geneticist appears to be about sixteen years-old. Only Michael Chiklis makes an impression as the gruff but kind-hearted critter known as The Thing. It helps that the script gives him the strongest, most emotionally affecting arc: he is rejected by his fiance for how he looks, turns bitter because of it, then learns to accept what he has become, that what is inside is what counts, not what is outside (even if your skin is made of rock).

But that is about the only thing the script gets right. The First Act sets up the Fantastic Four's origin in rushed, perfunctory fashion, but the screenplay really jumps the shark when it gets to the Second Act about half-an-hour in. The Four rescue a bunch of New Yorkers, courtesy of some rather cheesy visual effects, and suddenly become world-wide celebrities, with their names and backgrounds now common knowledge. This immediately reduces tension in an important way. In the best superhero flicks like SPIDERMAN 2 or BATMAN BEGINS, the good guy has to take down the bad guy without revealing his secret identity. To do otherwise would put him, and those he loves, in incredible danger. The suspense created in the audience's mind over whether the hero will be exposed helps keep them on edge, and watching, till the end of the movie. But since the world already knows the identities of the Fantastic Four early on, there is no tension over whether the secret will be kept since there is no secret to keep. Not surprisingly, FANTASTIC FOUR's Second Act has a deficit of suspense -- and that creates a deficit of viewer interest.

Of course, the writers could have made up for this shortfall by boosting suspense some other way. But they blow it. Once the Four reveal themselves to the public, they hole up in a Big Apple loft, kind of like a superhero version of FRIENDS. Now all heroes need a goal to serve as the spine of the screenplay, giving said screenplay cohesion and direction. Unfortunately, the writers give the Four a very weak goal -- to rid themselves of their powers so they can get back to normal. This struggle produces very little tension during the Second Act.

Why? Because the stakes are so low. When the Four reveal their identities at the end of the First Act, they are practically adored by the public (with the exception of The Thing's fiance). Since the masses aren't clamoring for our heroes' blood, we aren't invested emotionally in their goal of getting back to normal. After all, whether they get back to normal or not, no physical harm will come to them. Without a high-stakes threat of physical death or injury, there simply isn't much anxiety over whether the Four accomplish their goal, nor is there enough psychological motivation to justify their embarking on this goal in the first place.

Now there is some infighting between the Human Torch, who actually likes having powers, and the rest of the group, but we never feel the heroes will turn on each other so violently that an external, life-and-death conflict will result, so there is very little tension here as well. With a franchise-in-the-making like FANTASTIC FOUR, the heroes are certainly not going to kill each other off in the first movie, no matter how much they may bicker.

The primary conflict in the Second Act is internal. With the exception of the Human Torch, the Four feel out of place in society and want to be normal again, thus their desire to ditch their powers. But this desire to "Fit In" generates little tension because the worst that will happen if they don't succeed is that they'll feel bad, which is hardly an earth-shaking tragedy. And because the Four are fairly one-dimensional characters anyway (something made even worse by the weak performances), they're not built for inner torment; it's difficult to relate to their emotional crises in the way you would to the crises of characters with more complex (i.e. more realistic) personalities. Again, with so little riding on the heroes accomplishing their goal of "normalization", the Second Act gets pretty dull dramatically.

A major problem with the "Fit In" plot isn't just the lack of tension -- it's the lack of physical action. Movies thrive on external conflict because external conflict means external action, perfect for the visual medium of film. But there is little external conflict, or action, in FOUR's Second Act as the plot focuses on the heroes conducting lab experiments and building a machine that gets them back to normal. This makes the picture as dull visually as it is dull dramatically. And once the eye is bored, the rest of the viewer soon follows.

It's only in the Third Act when an external threat arrives to liven things up. Victor Von Doom also went through the radiation storm, and once he realizes he is turning into a mass of metal, he blames the Fantastic Four for his new position on the periodic table and decides to take them out. The welcome addition of a physical antagonist raises the stakes dramatically to life-and-death and generates visual excitement with some action set-pieces. But all this is too little, too late to get our interest back; we checked out long ago.

The writers could have solved all their problems by having Dr. Doom attack the Fantastic Four at the start of the Second Act, or at least set his evil plan in motion by then so that the Four's goal isn't to dump their powers, but to stop Doom from destroying the city, taking over the world, or accomplishing some other nefarious deed. This would have planted a strong external goal with plenty of external conflict/action early on to grab our interest and keep it grabbed the rest of the movie. The inner conflict of whether the heroes want to even keep their powers could remain, but as a sub conflict/goal. Having the public despise the Four as freaks would have strengthened the motivation for this sub conflict/goal as well as handed the heroes another external threat from the people they're trying to protect (a la X-MEN), boosting tension, and interest, even further.

A fresh, commercial and well-marketed concept can open a movie no matter how lame the script is. But if you want your movie to have legs, like WEDDING CRASHERS with its terrific 23 percent drop the second weekend, a well-constructed script is better than the biggest marketing campaign money can buy.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're now archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is currently working on his first novel.

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