Last weekend's release of The Fantastic Four, yet another summer film based on a famous comic book, helped propel the Hollywood box office out of a long-lasting slide but only barely. The weekend's tally of 148.9 million just eclipsed the 148.2 million take of a year ago; and the year-to-date numbers remain far behind the totals for this time a year ago. With a slender plot, even by comic-book standards, F4 is a mediocre film, quickly forgotten. It is, nonetheless, a good bit of fun, with a couple of entertaining characters, and sufficient energy and humor to captivate audiences.
As is often the case, popular taste runs athwart critical appraisal. While film critics panned the film, audiences seem to enjoy the action sequences and the good-natured camaraderie of these comic-book heroes. The film is more Ghostbusters than Batman Begins or even Spider-Man. Although it is rated PG-13, it provides the sort of action and humor that can be honestly enjoyed by an entire family, except perhaps the youngest of children.
The plot is standard comic-book, sci-fi fare; a well-intentioned scientist, who holds to the theory that a powerful solar storm triggered the start of elementary life on earth, anticipates that an upcoming solar storm could yield valuable information about DNA, information that could be put to use for the good of humanity. Having miscalculated the arrival time of the storm, a crew of five is subject to unusually high amounts of radiation which alters their DNA and gives them superhuman powers.
Only four of the five realize their powers immediately. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffurd) becomes elastic man. Johnny (Chris Evans) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) are transformed, respectively, into the Human Torch and Invisible Girl. Subject to the most sustained and direct blast of radiation, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis in a fine performance) is enlarged and hardened into a human rock, called The Thing. By far the best characters in the film are Ben and Johnny. The most endearing character is The Thing, a cross between an internally troubled Hulk and a cuddly Shrek. Abandoned by his fiancé and a laughingstock whenever he appears in public, Ben is desperate to return to normal, as are Sue and Reed. The only exception to the reluctance is Johnny, who embraces his gift of bodily flame and his newfound celebrity with gusto. When he learns that his DNA has been altered to turn him into combustible flesh, he exclaims, "Cool!" Johnny is reminiscent of the Bill Murray character in Ghostbusters, an individual eager to capitalize on his fame to gain money and women. As Johnny deadpans in response to Sue's criticism of his motives, "what else is there?"
The remaining member of the five is Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon). Ambitious and supercilious, Doom is Reed's chief competitor for the heart of Sue. But Doom, whom the radiation blesses with an invulnerable titanium shield, does not come to see his secret power until very late in the film. The bulk of the film thus has little to do with the evil protagonist. Instead, it is preoccupied with the media circus surrounding the Four and the internal, quasi-familial dynamics of the group of reluctant super-heroes. The love triangle among Sue, Doom, and Reed is mind-numbingly stupid. The relationship dialogue falls flat on every occasion. Moreover, the internal bickering among the four is tedious. The best scenes are comedic, as when Johnny plays practical jokes on The Thing. When Doom finally arrives as a nemesis, he is laughably shallow. Hitchcock once said, the better the villain, the better the film. On this score, comic-book villains are a serious weakness and one reason comic books will never make great and memorable films. Even by the standards of the genre, Doom is unusually feeble.
The best action sequences in the film call to mind scenes in disaster films. But here the disasters are typically provoked by the reactions of citizens to the presence of the superheroes, as is the case when the four team up to rescue lots of innocent civilians after a pileup on a N.Y. bridge, a pileup caused by the shock of The Thing's first public appearance.
Despite its many flaws, Fantastic Four has been credited with rescuing a dormant box office, if barely and only momentarily. Some cultural observers attribute declining box office to Hollywood's political alienation from mainstream America. There is undoubtedly something to this, although it's hard to tell how much. In the wake of the success of films such as Gladiator, Braveheart, Spider-Man, LOTR, and The Passion, Hollywood has in the past few years offered more in the way of uplifting stories of heroism. Others simply see market forces at work — the greater availability of video games, cable TV options, and the alacrity with which films make it from the big screen to DVD. Good points, all. But there has not been a huge difference in availability between last year and this.
One reasonable answer to the question of box-office decline is that the quality of the films is down this year. One of the little noticed features of this year's decline is the post-opening week dive that so many big films are enduring. Just last week, for example, War of the Worlds in its second weekend in release dropped about 60 percent from its opening. That's a sign that, while advertising and stars can create a big opening week, only solid word of mouth can maintain a film's popularity. (As a means of comparing quality with hype, consider that a documentary, not yet in wide release, about migratory penguins, The March of Penguins, ranked 13th last week but took in more money per screen than did F4.)
F4's opening week numbers were much better than expected; it made 50 million, while predictions were in the 30 million range. But F4's opening draw was significantly below that of The Incredibles (76.5 million opening weekend), last year's film about a family of individuals with superpowers that many have called a rip-off F4. If that is the case, then we need more rip-offs like it. The big difference between the two films is that The Incredibles has a much better plot and much richer characters. Indeed, F4 needed a lot of help in turning the box-office numbers around; the reasonably strong opening for F4 combined with continued modest success for a number of films: War of the Worlds, Batman Begins, Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Madagascar. In addition to Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Hitch, War, Batman and Madagascar currently constitute the top five box-office films thus far in 2005. By comparison, last year had already witnessed the big-time box office hits Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, The Passion, and the third Harry Potter film. This year, only Sith's numbers can compete with the kind of success all four of those films enjoyed.
The bad news for Hollywood is that it's unlikely that a remake of Willy Wonka or the Bad News Bears or a film version of the Dukes of Hazzard is going to turn things around anytime soon.