Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Fantastic Four

  If you're a Marvel nerd, comic geek, or even just a movie lover you probably have heard of the 1994 Roger Corman produced Fantastic Four movie. You've heard all about why it was never officially released, you've probably seen images, or even seen a bootleg copy of it yourself, but if you haven't... contrary to popular opinion, I think you're missing out. With a new Fantastic Four reboot looming on the horizon with nothing but bad pre-release buzz, I figured I owed it to myself to see this one. After all, I am a comic geek, a Marvel nerd, a movie lover, AND a Roger Corman fan. There was no downside to this little venture. With my expectations set to abysmal, and a Papa John's pizza on the way, I settled in to feast my eyes on... The Fantastic Four.

  Well, the movie opens with some neat outer space shots behind the opening credits. The sort of low budget space stuff that still manage to look really cool? (see: Forbidden World, Galaxy of Terror) That, coupled with incredibly catchy theme music kinda got my hopes up that maybe, just maybe, this movie had been unfairly maligned. I'll say it right now, the establishing parts of the movie are kinda great. Sure it's a bit campy and some of the dialog is hokey, but we actually get to see Reed Richard's (Alex Hyde-White) friendship with Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp). Something the newer movies never show us. Despite Reed's best efforts, everything goes south once Victor's calculations land him in the morgue after a failed experiment. Then we cut to ten years later or so. Everything so far is actually really solid. I expected utter garbage, but the sets are really well made, the acting isn't bad, and I'm just... stunned.  I mean, either it's good, or I'm conditioned to Corman productions.

  Maybe it was my low expectations going in, but I was thoroughly entertained throughout. Especially as Reed assembles his crew for a revolutionary mission into space, where they plan to study some cosmic rays or something. I dunno why I'm explaining all this. We all already know the story. The point is, that the movie follows it really closely. Admirably so in fact. There are some odd sub-plots that they weave in there, which do nothing but needlessly complicate the movie. For example, Reed has a diamond crystal thingy set up to absorb the cosmic rays so it wouldn't hit the crew instead, and this Mole Man-esque jewel thief steals it, swapping it with a fake one. Which isn't bad, but this Mole Man dude isn't the main villain. Doctor Doom is. You could've had Doom's minions do the same thing, and the story might've started to make a little more sense.

  As it is, it follows adequately from scene to scene as each group of characters go through the plot, acting and reacting as necessary. And speaking of acting, it ranges from surprisingly convincing and serviceable, to hilariously bad. Fortunately the hilariously bad bits are rather far and few in-between and usually those scenes are victimized by bad camera angles and/or crappy writing. Unfortunately, usually both. I really stress the fact that on the whole, most of the acting is decent. Nobody was going to win any awards here, but they all get an A+ for effort. Their line delivery is only as strong as the dialog allows it to be. When Reed starts explaining how their powers reflect their personalities... it was kind-of groan worthy, but somehow Alex pulls it off with a straight face, and as a viewer I felt compelled to keep a straight face as well.

  It was the least I could do since It really does seem like everyone involved, on-screen and behind it, were really truly trying to make a fun movie. All things considered, they succeeded. It's a crying shame that Captain America (1990) got a theatrical release and this didn't. Relegated to bootlegs for all eternity, I think that The Fantastic Four might've found an apologetic and dedicated cult following. Especially in the wake of super dark and serious superhero movies like the Nolan Batman trilogy. The pendulum swings one way, and then the next, and had this been officially released, I could see people being a little kinder to it these days. But it's back-alley black market distribution hurt it's reputation at the outset. In no way was the final quality unacceptable for a low-budget 1994 movie.

  But then again, I have a soft spot for tripe like Street Fighter, Captain America (1990), and Doctor Mordrid (A Doctor Strange inspired flick also made under the Corman banner of New Horizons). But it bears mentioning that the bright colorful comic book feel of the movie saves it from being at odds with itself. The Fantastic Four's outfits are true blue, the Thing looks ripped from the pages of the comic, and Doctor Doom has an extravagant throne room in his sinister clifftop castle-lair. The movie is pretty much in love with it's comic book roots, and it shows. It's a blast. A cheesy, hokey, low budget, blast- but don't hold the shoestring budget against the movie. It's still fun if you have the right frame of mind. The Fantastic Four themselves make the most of their low-budget superpowers as they disappear, punch, stretch, and flame their way through Doom's minions in completely unabashed fashion.

  The whole cast looks like they're having fun, and I think that translates rather well into the movie itself. Nobody is having more fun than Joseph Culp though. In full comic-faithful regalia as Doctor Doom. He chews scenery with an insatiable hunger. But it works. He's so over the top, he hit the perfect note for Doom. He also manages to be more scary and intimidating than the last iteration of the character seen on-screen. Culp plays Doom like he's a villain in an old Flash Gordon serial. This Doom is Ming the Merciless, Skeletor and even a dash of Darth Vader, all rolled into one. He points and gestures and makes broad sweeping movements with his arms, knee deep in full-on bad guy melodrama. He even has the voice right, that is... when we can hear it. For some reason, I don't think they bothered to ADR (re-record) any of his lines. So a good portion of them are muffled behind his mask. It's ridiculous, and kind of hilarious. Sadly undercutting the delightfully evil performance Culp had worked up so far. He's still one of the best things of the movie, nonetheless.

  The movie does have it's fair share of humor, but it's situational, and never (intentionally) dares to descend into slapstick. The score tends to make some scenes sound sillier than they actually are, as does the occasional mishap in the editing department. However, when all is said and done, the movie is flashy, colorful, and full of creative special effects. Alas, it's is creativity born out of a nearly non-existent budget but still, they were trying. It's impossible to talk about this movie without mentioning the money they had to work with around every corner because you can tell if they had a bigger Hollywood-sized budget, this movie would've been absolutely great. As it is, it'd destined to forever be derided by bandwagon haters on the internet who'll never fully give it the time of day. I found a lot to love in this campy little flick. It has the energy of a Saturday morning cartoon, and the flashy visuals to match.

  If you're not expecting something on par with the likes of Batman (1989) or Superman: The Movie, you might just have a decent time with it. It's better than most superhero sequels from that era, and manages to be a really fun movie throughout. Or maybe I'm so used to the production value of Corman movies that the badness of this movie never phased me. I reiterate, it's campy, it's cheesy, but it has it's heart in the right place and manages to be rather exciting in a childlike way. I ended up watching it with a couple little kids, and these are kids who are used to the big budget extravagance of modern superhero cinema like The Avengers and Man of Steel, and not once were they anything less than enthralled with The Fantastic Four. If watching movies like this with the eyes of a grown-up skeptic hinder me or you from enjoying them, then maybe we've something to learn from those little kids. Sometimes having fun with something means it doesn't need to be perfect or convincing. Sometimes rubber suits and crappy computer effects can still be exciting.

  I was 8 years old all over again with this movie, and there's nothing wrong with that.

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