The summer’s previous sequels—“Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “Ocean’s Thirteen”—have all been disappointments, but such isn’t the case with “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Not because this second installment in the Marvel Comics franchise is good; it’s not. But the first movie in the series was so awful that expectations had to be low for the follow-up. This chintzy-looking effort unfortunately meets them.
The success of the original, a kind of origins episode that explained how the foursome got their special powers in an accident out in space and won their first victory over the dreaded Dr. Doom, could be explained only by the fact that it was so cartoonish that it appealed to small fry. So perhaps it’s not surprising that the makers—most of them holdovers from the first picture—have chosen to follow pretty much the same juvenile formula. That means, unfortunately, that “Silver Surfer” may entrance the five to ten-year old set (boys in particular) and older members of the audience of similar intellectual maturity, but will be met with snorts of derision from most anyone else. The short 90-minute running-time (merciful, given the quality or lack thereof) also seems suited to such a target demographic, as also does the complete lack of anything resembling character development or real human feeling.
The story told here is based on a forty-year old classic from the comic—the one about the FF’s battle against planet-eater Galactus and his herald, the gleaming but tortured Silver Surfer, who’s embraced his awful duty in order to save his own world from extinction. The Surfer became so popular that he starred in two series of his own book, along with multiple guest appearances in other Marvel titles and a host of one-shots, but here what we get is in effect both a sequel and a second origin tale, presumably designed to initiate a theatrical spin-off akin to the one that emerged on the comic pages. And who knows, we’ll probably soon see a “Silver Surfer” movie. After all, a solo Wolverine picture is in the offing.
If that happens, though, one can only hope such a flick will be superior to this one, which sees the wedding between Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), still the bland science nerd, and Sue Storm/Invisible Girl (Jessica Alba), still the vacuous beauty, interrupted by the Surfer’s (Doug Jones, with voice by James Earl…no, Laurence Fishburne) very theatrical entrance to the stratosphere, where he’s been causing massive weather fluctuations, energy blackouts, and damage to a succession of world landmarks. Johnny Storm/Human Torch Chris Evans)—still the money-grubbing womanizer—is sent to intercept him, none too successfully, while earthbound Ben Grimm/The Thing (Michael Chiklis)—still the muscle-bound buffoon—looks on. All of which leads to a struggle between the alien and the whole team, until the Surfer, finally coming to the realization that he can’t keep serving such a master, join with our heroes against Galactus. Making matters more turbulent is the reappearance of the Four’s old nemesis, metal-man Dr. Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who once against comes across as a leering bargain-basement version Skeletor from the old “He-Man” toon. Here he tries to usurp the Surfer’s powers for his own nefarious purposes. There’s also a typically obtuse army general (Andre Braugher) on hand to give Doom access to the Surfer while condescendingly dismissing the efforts of Richards and his crew.
Just about nothing goes right with “Silver Surfer.” The dialogue provided by Mark Frost and Michael France is puerile, the acting alternately wooden and comically exaggerated, and Tim Story’s direction limp. Even the effects are mediocre, although the Surfer character itself is kind of cool, visually at least, for awhile (certainly better than the Galactus footage, which looks like outtakes from Disney’s 1979 “Black Hole”), and John Ottman’s score is equally tepid.
Compared to the best superhero movies—the ones that treat the genre seriously and try to add some welcome emotional heft to it, like the first two “Spider-Man” pictures, “Superman Returns” and “Batman Begins”—the best that can be said of this flyweight, instantly forgettable effort is that it’s unpretentious. But then it has a great deal to be unpretentious about.