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In recent years comic book movies have become big business. Starting with 1998’s Blade and gaining rapidly in popularity, the spandex ones have dominated our screens for the past five years. Unlike the glory days of DC’s Batman and Superman franchises, recent times have seen Marvel Comics’ heroes taking the lion’s share at the box office. From the phenomenally successful Spider-Man franchise, to X-Men, Hulk and even less-iconic titles such as Daredevil and Electra, it’s been a good time for comic book aficionados. However, until this year there had been one (some would say two, but I’ll leave the Avengers out of it) glaring omission from the ranks–the good old FF. After coming in for a fair bit of flack during its theatrical release, Fantastic Four attempts to win over the fans courtesy of Fox’s new DVD release.

Fantastic Four

Feature


Brilliant scientist Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is in serious financial trouble. Although he has hypothesised a technique to cure disease by harnessing the power of cosmic radiation, he faces bankruptcy unless he can actually convince someone to finance an expedition into space in order for him to test his theories. Calling in his best friend Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) for moral support, Reed swallows his pride and goes cap in hand to his old ‘friend’ Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who is now a wildly successful, if morally bankrupt businessman. Unfortunately Victor is also entangled with Reed’s ex-flame Susan Storm (Jessica Alba), which only serves to heighten the tension between the two. Victor eventually agrees to fund the expedition on the proviso that he receives an unfairly high percentage of the profits, and that both he and Sue come along for the ride.

The group blasts off in a ship piloted by Sue’s hot-headed brother, Johnny (Chris Evans), headed for Victor’s orbiting space station to conduct the experiments. However, a miscalculation sees the cosmic storm arrive sooner than anticipated, and when the station’s shields fail everyone on board is exposed to the deadly radiation and rendered unconscious. After miraculously surviving the storm and returning to Earth, one by one the gang begins to exhibit superhuman abilities. Johnny gains the ability to generate intense heat from the core of his being, Sue is able to render herself invisible and project ‘force fields’, while the elasticity of Reed’s body increases to the point where he can stretch and bend himself into almost any shape. Unfortunately, while Ben gains amazing strength and resistance to injury, he also mutates into a hulking, orange rock monster! With that, the Fantastic Four–Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing–are born.

However, it’s not just our heroes that have been changing. Victor himself has undergone a startling metamorphosis into a being composed entirely of an almost indestructible organic alloy, with the ability to absorb and channel electricity. In true megalomaniacal fashion, Victor Von Doom becomes Dr. Doom and makes his bid for global domination. Of course it falls to the Fantastic Four to stop this new menace, but can they stop fighting amongst themselves long enough to get the job done?

Fantastic Four
I was pleasantly surprised with the film when I saw it at the theatre, because I really didn’t have high hopes. Fantastic Four was labelled a turkey long before it ever saw the light of day, which may have served to colour many people’s opinion of the finished product and resulted in all of the negative reviews. Although it takes major liberties with the true origins of the characters (more of which later), you have to take into account the fact that this is a theatrical interpretation, not a frame-by-frame recreation of the source material. Furthermore, not every superhero film has to be about inner-turmoil and angst. Sure the characters in this film have problems (they have trouble expressing their feelings and bicker amongst themselves), but they choose to make the best of things and get on with the business of saving the world in a very public fashion. This is another welcome departure from all of those movies featuring ‘misunderstood’ heroes–the Fantastic Four don’t hide behind the anonymity of secret identities; they are who they say they are. However, unlike the mutants of X-Men or your Friendly Neighbourhood Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four aren’t reviled, they’re adored.

It helps that there is a good rapport between the various members of the cast, with each playing their parts well. The standout performance has to be Chiklis as the tragic figure of the Thing, but Chris Evans is also well-cast as the cocky young Johnny Storm. I was initially concerned by the choice to hire a young Welshman to play the part of Reed Richards, but as I said before this is an interpretation, not a direct translation and it works surprisingly well. As one might expect, Alba is the weakest link (I can’t really take her seriously as a geneticist), but I’m guessing she wasn’t hired for her thespian talents. Ex Home and Away actor Julian McMahon is suitably evil as Doom, although his character is the most far-removed from his comic book counterpart. In the comics Doom and Richards were indeed friends and colleagues, but Doom had no super powers as such (unless you count sorcery). His face was scarred in a failed experiment, for which he blamed Richards, prompting him to hide behind an imposing mask. His nuclear-powered armour is what grants him much of his power, as it allows him to fly, shoot energy bolts and project a personal force-field. Still, however much the change upsets the die-hard fans it works well in the context of the film. In fact, it’s possible that the movie incarnation was inspired by Victor Van Damme (a.k.a. Ultimate Dr. Doom), who had some of the characteristics of the Doom we see in the film.

Fantastic Four
Although the story is somewhat flat, moving from one set-piece to another, this is a fault shared by many other comic book movies. The original X-Men was, for want of a better word, boring for much of its runtime, only really beginning to reach its true potential towards the end. As with that film, the first entry in the Fantastic Four series is necessarily heavy on exposition, setting things up nicely for more worthy sequels should the go ahead be given. Still, as a piece of entertainment the film works remarkably well, with the decision to keep the running time fairly brief proving to be a wise one. Things move along at a cracking pace and I found myself thoroughly engrossed for much of the picture, so much so that the closing credits seemed to roll by all-too-soon. You can’t really ask any more from a popcorn flick.
 

Video


Fantastic Four is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, enhanced for 16:9 displays and progressively encoded for good measure. The screen-shots really don't do the image justice, but this is yet another fine effort from Fox. It's not up there with the very best available, but colour rendition, contrast and shadow delineation are all very good. It's getting harder to criticise transfers nowadays, as the quality of pretty much every new release would once have been described as 'reference' quality. It takes something very special to earn that accolade nowadays, and while Fantastic Four is perfectly lovely it doesn’t really distinguish itself from any other recent release. It’s for this reason, and not because of any glaring technical issues, that I settled on the score of eight out of ten.

Audio


First just let me say that I was expecting to receive the two-disc ‘Special Edition’ of the movie, as this is what other websites have been provided with. Unfortunately all I got was the single-disc effort (which was also, rather strangely, labelled as a ‘Special Edition’ on my check disc). Why is this annoying? Well for a start the DTS track mentioned in the reviews of the Special Edition is completely absent from this disc. That’s the first black mark.

Fantastic Four
What we do get is a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 track that delivers the goods when it counts. Things start off fairly quietly, but once the cosmic storm hits it all begins to change (and not just for the characters). There’s plenty of directionality throughout the action scenes—especially during the latter stages of the film, as the Human Torch scorches around the soundstage—and some powerful bass to add that much-needed bit of ‘oomph’ to the proceedings when Doom and the Thing go toe-to-toe. The track also handles the subtleties well, with some great ambient effects pulling you into the comic book world. Johnny Storm’s trip to the motorcycle stunt track sticks in the mind as a good example of this, with fine use of the rears for crowd effects and the like. There were no issues with the dialogue, which remains nice and clear throughout. The only real letdown is the score, which just doesn’t have the same ‘A-list’ feel as the Spider-Man or X-Men franchises.

Extras


As mentioned above, I only received the single-disc effort, which contains only a handful of supplemental features. It’s a pity, as the lack of extras definitely had a detrimental effect on the disc's overall score.

The main menu offers you the chance to take an ‘Inside Look’ at the forthcoming X-Men 3 by way of a terribly short promotional piece of fluff introduced by none other than Avi Arad. Clocking in at a little under two minutes, the featurette offers little insight into the production, with most of the footage coming from the previous films in the franchise. There are, however, a few storyboards that detail Magneto’s destruction of a bridge, complete with cars flying off in all directions. Still, it’s a pretty woeful bit of promotion by anyone’s standards.

Fantastic Four
The real special features are slightly more engaging. First up we have a cast commentary featuring Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis and Jessica Alba. The track is driven by Chiklis, who is the only one to offer any really useful information. Among other things we get to hear about his run-in with an extra, his admiration for Chris Evans’ ability to adlib most of his lines, and how hot it was in the Thing suit. The actor was the only one of the group to have any prior exposure to the comic books, which is something that really comes across in the commentary as he enthuses about the series and Marvel in general. The other participants are less forthcoming, at least with anything of any interest. Alba, for all of her good looks, has one of the most annoying voices I’ve ever heard on a commentary, not to mention a tendency to overuse the word ‘bananas’. Gruffudd chimes in now and again to talk about his experience of working on a large-scale Hollywood movie, and there’s one amusing anecdote about his parents’ visit to the set on a day when they were shooting a scene inside of an elevator—hardly the location to impress the folks!
 
Next is ‘The Fantastic Tour’, which runs for a little under twenty four minutes and is the only substantial extra aside from the commentary. This Jessica Alba ‘produced’ piece is a whistle-stop tour of some of the many press events and premiers that the cast had to addend as part of the promotional work for the film. There’s plenty of hand-held camerawork from Alba herself, as she ‘interviews’ her fellow cast members in various situations. We get to see the cast attending premiers in Mexico, New York and London, along with footage of Alba with a fat lip (after walking into a door). This featurette is ok for what it is, but it’s not weighty enough to offer any real insight into the behind-the-scenes goings-on.

Finally we have a couple of music videos—for Ben Moody and Anastacia’s ‘Everything Burns’ and Velvet Revolver’s ‘Come On, Come In’—and a soundtrack spot. If music videos are your thing you might get something out of these songs, but I wasn’t particularly impressed by either of them (although the videos are quite good as they feature panels from the comic books). The soundtrack spot is just an advert for the album.

Fantastic Four

Overall


Fantastic Four is a fun popcorn movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s not up there with the best of the superhero flicks ( Blade, Spider-Man 2 and X-Men 2), but it does sit nicely alongside films such as Hulk and Hellboy as a fun way to spend ninety minutes. Fox again delivers a reasonable disc with nice audio-visual presentation, but the extras on this release are sadly lacking and the omission of DTS is, quite frankly, inexcusable. I’m sure the bonus material on the two-disc release is substantially more entertaining, and I strongly dislike the practice of offering cut-down versions of films on DVD so that the price of the ‘Special Edition’ can be artificially inflated.

Time was when a two-disc release would have retail price of £19.99, but nowadays you’re lucky if it’s under £24.99. It’s pure greed on the part of the studios, who have already made huge sums of money from what is, let’s face it, the fastest selling consumer electronics product in history. Still, at least we get a choice. Just be glad you don’t live in America, where Fox routinely releases bare-bones discs only to announce feature-laden sets a few months down the line. Another black mark against the release is the way in which you are expected to endure patronising FACT propaganda, a series of adverts for other Fox releases, a trailer for the Fantastic Four game and even an advert for bloody Maltesers before you even get to the main menu! I wondered if I’d mistakenly been sent a rental disc. Is it any wonder that some people resort to stealing the films when they’re filled with this crap? Anyway, I’ll get off of my high horse long enough to suggest that you give Fantastic Four a chance, but if it were me I’d be opting for a cheap region three copy of the two-disc edition rather than this single disc affair.


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