D: Oley Sassone / 90m
Cast: Alex Hyde-White, Jay Underwood, Rebecca Staab, Michael Bailey Smith, Joseph Culp, Ian Trigger, Kat Green, Carl Ciarfalio, George Gaynes
College friends Reed Richards (Hyde-White) and Victor Von Doom (Culp) have built a machine that they hope will harness the energy from a passing cosmic phenomenon, but their experiment backfires and Victor is horribly injured. Believed to have died from his injuries, Von Doom is spirited away to his home country by two of his followers.
Ten years later, the cosmic phenomenon has returned and Reed has built a spaceship to take him and a hand-picked team – his friends Ben Grimm (Smith), Sue Storm (Staab) and her brother Johnny (Underwood) – near enough to it that they can collect data about it. Reed acquires a large diamond that will allow them to harness the power of the phenomenon’s cosmic rays, but on the eve of the flight it’s stolen by a criminal called the Jeweler (Trigger) who replaces it with a fake. As a result, Reed’s ship is bombarded by cosmic rays and forced to crash land back on Earth. The four survive but discover the rays have altered them in different ways: Reed can stretch his body, Sue can turn invisible, Johnny can control fire, and Ben has been changed into an orange-skinned stone-like creature (Ciarfalio).
Picked up by Doom’s henchmen (posing as Marines), the four are held at Victor’s mountain hideout (where he is now known as Doctor Doom). They use their newfound powers to escape and head back to New York, where they try to work out what to do next. Ben leaves and ends up being inducted into the Jeweler’s gang. While there he learns that Doom needs the diamond for a laser cannon that he wants to use to destroy New York. When Doom subsequently steals the diamond, Ben alerts Reed. Together they all don costumes Sue has created and travel back to Doom’s mountain hideout, where they attempt to stop Victor from carrying out his plan.
Famous for being the Marvel movie that’s never been released (but which can be seen on YouTube), The Fantastic Four makes for fascinating viewing. It’s as bad as bad can be – though there are worse movies out there – and plays like a Saturday morning serial, but without the tension of a cliffhanger moment. Its low budget, let’s-make-it-to-keep-the-rights approach stifles any creativity, and even though a lot of the origin material is taken directly from the comics, there’s a spark missing that keeps The Fantastic Four from being more than just a curiosity.
On the positive side, the movie does move at a good pace, and most scenes don’t outstay their welcome, but there’s very little energy within them. The dialogue is clunky and/or chock full of needless exposition, and the cast don’t always succeed in making it sound convincing. Some of the sets have that “one puff and they’ll fall down” look to them, and the photography by Mark Parry is often static and poorly framed, making some scenes so bland and uninteresting to watch that you end up pitying editor Glenn Garland (also an associate producer) for having so little effective coverage to play around with.
The whole sub-plot involving the Jeweler and his “dregs of society” underlings feels forced and his philosophical musings feel like they’ve been drafted in from an amateur Shakespeare production. Doom has two senior henchmen who do the bulk of his dirty work for him, but are about as threatening as day-old kittens, while Doom himself is too prone to posing and making fancy hand gestures to be menacing; he’s like the camp uncle who only gets to visit at Xmas. As for the Fantastic Four themselves, Reed’s elasticity is used at one point to trip some of Doom’s henchmen; Sue’s invisibility is sometimes only partial, leaving her head and/or upper body exposed as in the good old days of silent cinema; Johnny acts like a gosh-darn college student who wants to put on a show in the old barn; and Ben as the Thing gets to say, “It’s clobbering’ time!” on three separate, yet underwhelming occasions.
With all this it’s no surprise that the cast – apparently unaware that the movie wouldn’t be released – display all the vitality of actors attending a read-through. Hyde-White aims for gravitas but misses by a mile, making Reed seem out-of-touch instead (even when Sue is practically throwing herself at him). Staab matches him in terms of banality, and delivers her lines with a breathless urgency that befits an ingenue rather than an actress in her Thirties. Underwood has plenty of energy and enthusiasm but doesn’t know what to do with it, his wide-eyed mugging making Johnny look like an idiot. And Smith isn’t on screen long enough to make much of an impact (Ciarfalio does much better in the Thing suit, even without his own dialogue). With these four making very little impression, it’s left to Culp to provide the unintentional laughs, and once inside his Doctor Doom outfit, he does so with camp abandon.
Watching The Fantastic Four it’s hard to believe that even the Seventies’ Spider-Man movies that were made for TV are better viewing experiences – but they are. It’s also difficult to work out just what the $1 million budget was spent on, what with the shoddy sets, the below-par special effects – Johnny’s full-body Human Torch effect is rendered as animation rather than live action – and the “don’t touch too much” props (though, surprisingly, the costumes are not that bad). With Sassone unable to provide much in the way of capable direction, it’s amazing that the movie can be construed as anything even close to entertainment, but even with all its failings some fans may well be prepared to forgive much of what makes the movie so bad in the first place.
Rating: 2/10 – with its behind the scenes machinations finally revealed in Doomed! The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s “The Fantastic Four” (2014), the actual movie retains its standing as one of sci-fi’s greatest misfires; made for the sake of it, The Fantastic Four continually trumps each terrible scene with another – and that’s some feat in itself.