The fanboys, naturally, have been skeptical. As with most comic-book-to-big-screen translations, no detail has been too small for Fantastic Four devotees to obsess over since pre-production. The Thing: Will old-school effects be more convincing than CGI? Sue Storm: Should a blond, all-American superheroine really be played by a Dark Angel? And after the long list of directorial talent rumored to have been attached—including Chris Columbus and, unbelievably, Steven Soderbergh—the decision to bring Taxi helmer Tim Story on board was probably the most knee-shaking announcement of them all.
It’d be nice to say that all the fears were groundless. But sorry, kids, it’s clobberin’ time.
From the moment a tarted-up Jessica Alba is introduced as a “director of genetic research,” Fantastic Four is less a whiz-bang popcorn flick than an unintended comedy. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Four will already be aware that it’s a space trip gone awry that “fundamentally alters the DNA” of Sue Storm (Alba), Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), and Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), but if you aren’t familiar with the background, good luck getting the gist. The script, by Michael France (Hulk, The Punisher) and Mark Frost (Twin Peaks), introduces the Marvel characters in a muddle: In a boardroom somewhere, a handful of pretty people talk very seriously about a decision—the terms “space,” “human genome,” and, laughably, “IPO” can be discerned, but otherwise the quick scene is just a lot of stern glances and dramatic music.
Suddenly, the group is out of its business wear and in sleek scuba suits. And just as suddenly, it’s in “space” (launches, apparently, eat up too much of the budget) and something bad is happening: Ben, who floated away from the main vessel and is out at some other one, needs to float back before time runs out. He seems to move pretty damn slow, but he makes it. In between, tremendously fake-looking fire shoots waywardly around the crew—which, for what must be streamlining’s sake, also includes soon-to-be nemesis and generic company head Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon). The walking-dead performances at least emphasize that our heroes are not yet fantastic—not by a long shot.
Unfortunately, even afterward they’re not all that great. Each starts to discover his powers soon after coming back to Earth (a trip also unseen). Sue, aka Invisible Woman, can disappear—and, according to the special effects, throw air. Johnny, the arrogant group hothead, turns into the Human Torch, able to ignite, albeit cheesily, at will. Reed, as Mr. Fantastic, can stretch and flatten, à la Mama Incredible. Ben, the growly hangdog of the group, is transformed into the supersize, rock-covered Thing—which makes him very sad. And Victor begins growing metal skin and a chip on his shoulder as he morphs into Dr. Doom. This because he was fired over the whole IPO thing.
Fantastic Four’s bad acting, airless dialogue, and zero star appeal reach Revenge of the Sith levels. And there’s not a whole lot of plot here, either: Mostly, the Four isolate themselves in some spacious location and bicker tediously about how to handle their new superheroicism. It’s anyone’s guess whether they shut themselves in for hours or days. When any of the characters do show up outside, there’s no explanation except convenience, such as when the Thing runs away and happens to save a guy ready to jump off a bridge. His happenstance heroism results in a big melee, which is soon being witnessed by his teammates and wife (Laurie Holden), none of whom knew where he was. The wife’s bizarro reaction to her new and improved husband is so ridiculous that it’s nearly entertaining enough to make up for the sequence’s gaping holes in logic.
There is, of course, a bit of action here and there—comprising, again rather randomly, one scene of X-treme skiing and another of X-treme competitive motocross, both of which Johnny participates in as suddenly and casually as if he had gone to the fridge for a soda. A romantic subplot is thrown in for additional, uh, thrills, but as sexy (if weirdly shellacked) as Alba is, here she can’t make even a love triangle sizzle. Oh, and Doom, the movie’s sole villain, is really more Xanax’d than evil. But one thing he says to a hostage will reverberate with disbelieving audiences: “Painful? You don’t even know the meaning of the word.”
Elizabeth Banks, who plays one of the central characters in Heights, was nearly a Fantastic disaster herself, having been considered for the role of Sue Storm. The loss is debatable: Alba will certainly end up richer, but Banks’ participation in writer-director Chris Terrio’s quiet, engrossing debut won’t bring her grief from either mean critics or the 10 people who end up seeing the movie.
A Merchant Ivory production, Heights details 24 hours in the lives of an interconnected group in New York City. There’s Diana (Glenn Close), a drama teacher and well-known actress; her daughter, Isabel (Banks); and Isabel’s fiancé, Jonathan (James Marsden), who are consumed with planning the couple’s wedding. There’s also Alec (Jesse Bradford), an upcoming actor who auditions for Diana and turns out to have a link to Isabel, and Peter (John Light), a gay biographer who’s sent out to interview the ex-lovers of his famous-photographer, magazine-piece subject, with whom he also had an affair. Peter is soon ringing Jonathan, who is none too pleased.
Co-written with playwright Amy Fox, Heights quickly draws us in with its two mysteries involving Alec and Jonathan—though the reasons behind Jonathan’s sour reaction to Peter’s messages, granted, are a bit more predictable than Alec’s question mark, which early on is set up to show that, though Diana has never met him, he isn’t familiar with her just because of her fame. While these carrots dangle nearly to film’s end, Banks makes Isabel an enticement all her own. Her character, a wedding photographer who ends up getting fired and tells an old friend that her engagement ring feels “heavy,” though clearly in turmoil, sounds equally unshakable whether she’s saying, “My mother is driving me crazy,” “I miss you,” or “Whatever.”
Yet the calm that Banks lends Isabel is less reminiscent of a disaffected zombie than one of the walking wounded. The seemingly perfect life she’s planning for herself is something she’s profoundly unsure about—most deftly demonstrated in a moment when she’s just turned down a freelance assignment that would conflict with her wedding. Her contact says he figured she could work around it. “Have you ever had a wedding? You don’t work around them. There’s planning. There’s…fucking string quartets,” she responds, her annoyance quickly wilting into utter resignation.
Other compelling performances include Close’s Shakespeare-obsessed bon vivant, who throws parties stuffed with creative types and urges her students to approach their lives with Elizabethan passion, all while quietly languishing in an oh-so-sophisticated open marriage. Of the men, all are utilitarian—though Marsden’s unavoidable good-old-boyness actually makes Jonathan unlikable—but they’re instantly outplayed by Rufus Wainwright. The singer’s brief appearance as one of the photographer’s exes almost matches Banks’ performance, sketching a character who initially seems slightly standoffish and borderline arrogant but reveals hidden depths with an interesting turn of phrase or flash of intellect.
Despite its title and life-altering plot twists, Heights never becomes melodrama; rather, it’s all about capturing people at pivotal instants. Granted, it’s quite a coincidence that so many of them happen in one night. But the insistently mellow way in which Terrio allows events to unfold makes them seem entirely natural—and way more character-defining than some screwed-up DNA.CP