Review: Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

"Fantastic Four" wasn't only one of the worst films of 2005, but it also set the comic book genre back a few steps at the very point it was reaching the perfect realm of tortured, spandexed glory. The film was intended to be the lighter side of crimebustin', but all I ascertained from those abominable 100 minutes was a new appreciation for those red movie theater exit lights. Thanks to parents who think very little of their kids, a sequel has been commissioned to soak up more allowance money during the summer months. Dare I ask the million-dollar question: could this franchise get any worse?

Now that Doctor Doom (Julian McMahon) has been taken care of, the Fantastic Four -- Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), and Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) -- have relaxed into their superhero roles and look forward to a life of publicity and potential matrimony. When a metallic-looking alien called The Silver Surfer glides into town promising the end of the world will follow him in the form of a massive planet-swallowing cloud, the team must prepare for battle again to save Earth.

The short answer to my earlier question is … no. "Rise of the Silver Surfer" (IMDb listing) is an improvement. But when you consider just how radically the last installment misfired, and how punishing the sour comedy contained within was, a leap forward in quality doesn't rub off on me as a monumental achievement.

Because the first picture was such a hit with little children, "Surfer" is a milder affair, with less in the way of superhero anxiety and ghoulish violence. This is a PG-rated production that's aimed at younger minds who want nothing more than to see the Four at work and to spot a "cool" villain racing across the screen.

That villain happens to be the Silver Surfer, and as a special effect, he's … bitchin', dude. A liquid metal being with sweeping moves on his board of energy, the Surfer is an impressive looking creation, and succeeds as a convincing mystery for our superheroes to solve. However, once Mr. Surfer opens his mouth, the script can't exactly back up the visuals. Sold as a hopeless romantic who's locked in slavery by a dangerous whirly cloud-like thing called Galactus, the Surfer's character arc doesn't quite hold the weight the effects promise. Surfing down the face of a building or opening bottomless holes in the Earth? Yes! Lamenting the loss of his loved one and trading therapy sessions with Sue? No! But at least when the attention is on the Surfer, it isn't on the rest of the film.

Granted, the picture is pitched obviously to a younger demographic, but the screenwriters haven't deviated too far from the original's lethal sense of humor. Thankfully, Johnny's raging ego shtick has been watered down, along with other half-baked stabs at slapstick. Yet, the jokester vibe of the film remains, and I still don't see the appeal. Director Tim Story is very faithful to a bright comic book ambiance (and to an absurd amount of product placement -- why would Thing drink a Slurpee?), but the humor is dreadful (like a sixth grade class clown polished the script), and if "Surfer" was reaching for a mood of threat or sympathy, the comedy bits have destroyed any chance of those ideas successfully landing on the screen.

What really curdles the film is the return of Doctor Doom, played once again with supreme mediocrity by McMahon. Through the actor's interpretation, Doom is a sleepy scoundrel; a villain more interested in his close-up than the hurt he wants to lay on the Four. It's a terrible performance from a terrible actor in a needless role from a needless movie. Who needs Galactus when you've got Julian McMahon trying to express menace? Any planet would willingly die to be spared another scene of his dreadful pea-shooter intimidation.

"Rise of the Silver Surfer" is a livelier picture than the original film, and with all that origin nonsense out of the way, we do see the team busting out their powers for more than just a couple of brief sequences. As much as Story and his crew have worked to top the first film, they still lean far too much on a cancerous sense of whimsy and superhero humiliation to corral a feeling of friendliness that family audiences might accept. The "Four" franchise doesn't need to be pitch black to have integrity, but some dignity would be nice for a change.

Filmfodder Grade: D+