Let’s take a look at the first go-round for Marvel’s First Foursome, the never-released 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR feature. Ironically, as much as this move has been pilloried by the fan press over the years (and I’ll plead guilty to that as much as the next guy), it may actually be a more faithful and better acted adaptation of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s most famous comic-book creations. Don’t believe me? Well, let’s take a look…
First a word about the film’s inception: as the story goes, back in 1993 German producer Bernd Eichinger held the production rights to the property, and they were about to lapse. The scuttlebutt in Hollywood was that Chris Columbus, fresh from the success of the HOME ALONE movies, wanted to make FANTASTIC FOUR his next project and was waiting for the rights to lapse. At the same time if Eichinger didn’t get going on production , he would lose his option, so he called in famed B-movie schlockmeister Roger Corman to produce the film. One thing about Corman – he’s nothing if not efficient, and before long the movie was filmed and in the can, only to never again see the light of day. Reportedly, Eichinger’s gamble had worked: not wanting a low-budget version to be released before theirs, the producers of Columbus’ version bought up the film only to keep it locked away. Of course, eventually Columbus lost interest in the project and FANTASTIC FOUR would languish in limbo for nearly a decade before the current FOX project finally got under way last year. So how bad is the ’94 FANTASTIC FOUR? Well, I’ve got a feeling we won’t be thinking it’s so bad come next week, but let’s stick to the subject at hand.
Directed by Oley Sassone (who has since gone on to a career of primarily TV direction, including a handful of HERCULES and XENA episodes) and written by Craig J. Nevius and Kevin Rock, THE FANTASTIC FOUR is a surprisingly decent little piece of escapism. Not to say there aren’t problems – there are, problems by the bucketload. The dialogue has more than a few real groaners, the plot is needlessly padded out with a dull B-story and a secondary villain, and the special effects occasionally are so low-rent to be beyond belief. But (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) the movie does a remarkably good job of capturing the heart and soul of the characters, something I haven’t yet gotten from what little footage I’ve seen of the new film. Is this a great superhero movie? God, no. But for what it is, it’s not a bad little movie, and it’s clear that all the people working on it had no idea that their production was being done primarily as a negotiating tool, because you can tell they’re trying to make the best movie they can with what they’ve got.
The movie opens with Reed Richards (Alex Hyde-White), Ben Grimm (Michael Bailey Smith) and Victor Von Doom (Joseph Culp) in college, where Reed and Victor are working on a device to harness the energy of the mysterious comet “Colossus.”
Reed and Ben, by the way, live off-campus at Storm boarding house, where they’ve grown close to their landlady’s two kids, Johnny and Susan, who even at the age of 10 already has a crush on Reed. (Sharp-eyed viewers may recognize young Sue as Mercedes McNabb, later to play the vapid vampire Harmony from BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and ANGEL.) Despite Reed’s warnings about some of Victor’s calculations, they proceed with the experiment, which swiftly goes kablooey, with only the arrival of Ben Grimm preventing Victor from being killed immediately, although he does wind up hideously scarred. Victor is whisked away by a couple of mysterious types who turn out to be his lackeys, while Reed and Ben are left to believe him dead.
Hyde-White and Smith are good here as a college-age Reed and Ben, and Culp plays Victor’s regal haughtiness pretty well. The scenes also lay a nice bit of background regarding Reed and Victor’s friendship, although it never quite pays off the way it should.
The film jumps ahead 10 years, as Richards, now a successful scientist and inventor, plans to fly a space shuttle into orbit for a second try at harnessing the “Colossus” energy. Ben, having served as an Air Force pilot, is recruited by Reed to fly it. But who else to fill out the crew? Here’s one of the places the film kind of falls down a bit, as Ben’s idea is to recruit Johnny and Sue, since “they know more about Reed’s research than anyone,” since they were living with him in college. It’s a really an almost unacceptable reach, but (and here’s where the casting saves the day again) Jay Underwood and Rebecca Staab look so right as the hot-headed Johnny and the shy, lovestruck Sue, and do such a good job of bringing the characters to life, that once the four actors are together, the viewer just kinda buys into it, and you forget just how stupid it is to bring your untrained girlfriend and her kid brother along on a space mission. I mean, look at them.
No costumes, no flashy set, and Ben Grimm isn’t even covered with orange rocks yet, but they’re immediately recognizable as the Fantastic Four. That’s good casting.
There’s a whole business with a really big diamond that Reed plans to use to refract the Colossus energy, and a plot by the returned, now-armored Doom to steal the diamond (for his own plan involving the Colossus energy and a really, really big laser gun), and the introduction of another villain, the sewer-dwelling Jeweler, who wants the diamond for himself – anyway, it all ends up the way you’d expect: the radiation hits the ship and the ship crashes to Earth, with its passengers forever changed.
Here’s where the budget really starts to hurt. The first manifestations of Johnny and Sue’s powers don’t look too bad, but Reed’s stretching looks to be achieved mostly by quick-cutting camera angles and the “WRRRRRRRRRRRRNT” stretching noise we’ve all heard from a million cartoons growing up.
Actually, it looks like the entire special effects budget went to the Thing costume and animatronic head, which, I have to admit, looks pretty damned good. On what must have been a real shoestring of a budget, the folks at Optic Nerve Studios made one hell of a Thing.
In fact, I’m gonna come right out and say it – the Thing looks better here than the one I’ve seen in the trailers. Not only is he bigger, he looks less like a rubber suit, and his face looks like – well, he looks like Jack Kirby’s Ben Grimm, which I think is supposed to be the point. And considering the limits of the animatronic mask they had, the Thing’s head is remarkably expressive.
It’s also here, by the way, that Hyde-White really begins to nail his performance as Reed Richards, combining a quiet, calming confidence in his role as leader with the perpetual distractedness of a man who’s constantly being interrupted by his own genius.
Anyway, Doom realizes that Richards and company are alive, and arranges to have them picked up by his men disguised as the army, and takes them back to his castle for study.
Eventually, they begin to grow suspicious and decide to bust out, using their new powers in battle for the first time. On the way out, they encounter Dr. Doom for the first time, and discover his giant laser cannon.
While the Dr. Doom costume is just about as comic-book-faithful as you can get, Culp really overdoes it with the physical acting once he’s in the suit, wiggling and waving his arms with every word, like some sort of crazed supervillain mime.
As the FF breaks out, some of the effects work better than others. The Thing looks fine beating up Doom’s goons (and we even get the first of a couple uses of “It’s Clobberin’ Time!”), and an animated flaming hand for Johnny Storm actually looks halfway decent.
Reed Richards doesn’t quite do so well, as seen here with his devastating “stretchy-foot” move:
Back at the Baxter Building, Reed comes up with a bit of armchair psychology about their powers – how the hotheaded Johnny got the fire powers, and the shy Sue now fades away, while he himself, who always tries to do to much, gets stretching powers. Yeah, whatever. Ben Grimm doesn’t seem to be buying it either, and leaves in a huff, bitter that he’s the only one permanently disfigured by his powers. Through a staggeringly coincidental series of events, Ben winds up taken in by the Jeweler’s band of underground sewer freaks, just as the Jeweler is about to marry his hostage, the blind sculptress Alicia Masters, who just happened to meet Ben Grimm just before that fateful spaceflight. Even more coincidentally, Dr. Doom just happens to attack at the same time, looking for the diamond that will allow him to harness the Colossus energy for his big-ass laser.
Unfortunately, just as Ben is about to throw down with Doom, his powers mysteriously fade away and he returns to normal, in a moment of visual effects that actually looks pretty convincing.
That moment must have used up what was left of the budget, as when Ben’s powers come back a few minutes later, it’s accomplished through a cheesy smash-cut and a whirling frame editing effect that looks more like a transition on the old ‘60s BATMAN TV show.
All fired up, Ben returns to the Baxter Building, where Reed, Sue and Johnny have just received a televised ultimatum: surrender or he’ll destroy New York with the giant laser (and to prove he means it, he shows the same footage of an atomic-bomb test that we’ve all seen in a million TV shows and movies. Seriously. It’s even got the shack being blown away. Smells like public domain to me…)
Luckily, in the few hours Ben’s been gone, not only did Sue design and create superhero costumes, but Reed apparently found time to invent and build the Fantasticar, and before you know it the Fantastic Four are zipping off to Doom’s castle.
Good intentions aside, the team’s inexperience shows when they get captured about fifteen seconds after sneaking back into Doom’s castle, trapped in force fields so Doom can siphon their powers from them.
Unluckily for Doom, it looks like he went a little cheap on his contractors, because Reed manages to wedge his stretchy foot between the force field and the floor of the “laser-cannon room,” and kicks the force-field ray away, allowing them to escape. And look at that realistic foot…
While Johnny starts launching the fireballs, Ben knocks over the goons like bowling pins…
…and Sue even uses her force-field powers for the first time.
Before Reed can stop it, Doom manages to trigger the laser, forcing Johnny to fully “flame on” for the first time, hurtling through the air in an attempt to overtake the laserblast. It’s a nice attempt, but still comes across looking pretty fakey, as digital effects weren’t quite able to pull of stuff like this 10 years ago, especially with a budget that’s about what the new FANTASTIC FOUR movie probably spent on gum.
Still, the “artist’s model” version of the Torch manages to stop the laser blast and save New York. Meanwhile, Ben finds Alicia and the two are reunited in a tender moment that works surprisingly well, with the animatronic Thing face again doing a very good job of “acting.”
The film closes out with a big climactic fistfight between Reed and Doom, which, in all honesty, is more than a little weak.
It’s just three stretchy punches, and then Doom folds like a house of cards, tripping over the balcony and hanging on by his fingertips, forcing Reed to decide whether or not to save his old friend.
Reed tries, but the weight is too much, and he’s left holding the empty steel gauntlet while Doom hurtles to his death. And in one of the most hamfisted lead-ins to a sequel ever, the gauntlet starts to crawl away by its fingers as Reed and Sue leave. Whaat? Why would his glove move? At least try to make sense…
For the big happy ending, we get the wedding of Reed and Sue, in which Reed, Johnny and Ben wear their formal spandex tights, and the happy couple depart in a limo, allowing for this truly painful ending with Reed’s stretchy arm waving goodbye through the sunroof. Yeesh.
Granted, there’s a lot here to make fun of, but you know what, there’s more than a few things to like here, too, not the least of which is the engaging performance of the four leads, who do their best to elevate the occasionally cheesy dialogue and chintzy-looking props with real emotion and heart, and succeed more often than not. The relationship between Reed and Sue is believable and kinda sweet, and Smith’s limited screen time as Ben Grimm goes a long way toward investing the Thing with his necessary humanity, allowing the puppeteers to do the rest. Even the score, which was reportedly done for practically nothing as a favor, is very effective, conveying both the action-adventure derring-do and the nostalgic, family feel that the story needs.
So is it a great movie? No, of course not. But it’s certainly better than it’s been given credit for, present company included. If you ever stumble across it, give it a chance. I think you’ll be surprised.