July 11th, 2005


War of the Worlds

This weekend I saw both "War of the Worlds" and "Fantastic Four" (back to back, on a digital screen!)

The best part of "War of the Worlds" was the preview for "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe". While it was clearly an FX extravaganza in summber-blockbuster style, "War of the Worlds" lacks a substantive plot that would be engaging to the viewer. Here's the story, in a nutshell - "Oh, giant alien machines are attacking. Let's flee for ...uh... Boston, where your mother is. Because nothing bad happens in Boston."

And indeed, they do - and indeed, nothing bad happens in Boston. Along the way, people are vaporized, the September 11th attacks are directly referenced with a wall of notes for missing people, and humans are generally mean to each other, and kind to each other, or just crazy. There's very little along the lines of a story, and instead - the movie consists of one harrowing near-escape after another. The action is exciting, it's true. But the effects aren't so spectacular that they'll stick with me - as I was leaving the theatre I could feel my memory of the film evaporating. Some of the sound design was quite remarkable, evoking a more palpable sense of dread than any of the visual effects.

I think it says a lot about both Tom Cruise and Spielberg's movie that my sincerest hope, throughout the film, was that Tom Cruise would meet some horrific end at the hands (err...robotic tentacles...) of the aliens. Alas, despite several close calls, he did not. Maybe the most enjoyable part of the experience was wondering, "Oh man, wouldn't it be cool if the giant tripod thingy grabbed him up, yanked him by his ankle to dangle in front of the big eye thingy, and then the cockpit opens, and there's Katie Holmes saying, "Call me Xenu!" " Now that would have made it worth seeing.

I give "War of the Worlds" four rings out of five in the "One Ring Scale" where one ring is the greatest movie of all time, and five is abominable. Four rings means "easily missed". I'm not sure "War of the Worlds" is even worth a rental.

Fantastic Four

There are good comic book movies, and there are bad comic book movies. Previously, my theory on what the difference between good movies and bad movies was revolved around how character-based they were. A superhero that a viewer can identify with, who has an inherent humanity that exists outside of his or her panties-and-cape identity. Good superhero movie - "Spiderman". Sure, he can swing from webs and hang on walls, and he clearly enjoys it. But he also can't manage to get the girl, is always broke, and has the same sort of family drama that we all had as teenagers. Good superhero movie - "Hellboy" - sure he's super strong and nigh invulnerable - but he still can't talk to girls without getting tongue-tied. We can see ourselves in their places, and so it makes for a good movie. Bad superhero movie - "Daredevil" - nobody has much of a reason to do the things that they do, they just flail away at each other witlessly. Bad superhero movie "The Fantastic Four". And were it not for "Daredevil" - it might be the worst superhero movie ever.

Curiously, it's not the characters that make this a bad movie. The one place it succeeds in is breathing some life into all of the four - Reed Richards is brilliant but believably indecisive, and obviously uncomfortable in the role of leader that people see him in. Ioan Gruffuydd (who I will always like because he was Horatio Hornblower in the A&E movies) does a fine job of being both faintly charismatic and yet hesitant to act decisively. His constant companion, Ben Grimm is aptly played by Michael Chiklis, who deftly transforms his snarling misanthropy on "The Shield" to a gruff but sensitive misanthropy. He's a tough guy, tougher than any of the ol' Yancy Street Gang - but kids shrink from his rocky visage, it's clear it really hurts. Jessica Alba is bland as Sue Storm, but eventually hits her stride in trying to spur Reed "Mr. Fantastic" on. Actually, Ms. Alba is so pretty it kind of hurts, and when she and Reed are in the lab, and she has her "smart girl" glasses on, I think I had minor heart palpitations. But, physical beauty aside, her performance is hit-and-miss. She is believable in some spots, and awkward in others. Chris Evans has a gimme as Johnny Storm, who is a 2-dimensional character that's hard to miss. He's one of those "XTREME Dudez" that is into sports that have "x" in the title. And his character is, too.

The worst of the lot is Julian McMahon as Victor Von Doom. He's a bad guy... uh... just because. Because the bank bailed out on his business? We're told that he's brilliant, but we don't really know why, he certainly does idiotic stuff all the time. His villainy is without explanation - he just kills people for no particular reason. The people he kills are also generally innocent bystanders, too - they just happened to be in the way. Is Doctor Doom the worst comic book movie villain ever? Might be, might be - there's certainly no rhyme or reason to anything he does. Villainy for its own sake is unbelievable, and the flimsy excuse of being jealous of Reed Richards just doesn't explain him. Also, we don't really know why he's on the space station on which the accident occurs that gives the Four their powers (and him too) other than it's necessary to explain why he has superpowers. Even though he didn't in the comics. And was still a scary badass. But anyway...

Despite having likeable characters played by fine actors (and Jessica Alba, in glasses. Also in sexy underwear. But alas, not in sexy underwear AND glasses. But maybe that's for the best. I do'nt know if my heart could take it.) this movie was witless. There's no particular plot, other than the acquisition of superpowers, and then being attacked by Victor Von Doom for no particular reason. There are a few humorous moments, but much of the humor is decidedly adolescent. Johnny Storm puts foam on Ben Grimm's hand, and then scratches his nose. How droll!

It also suffers from Hollywood Coindicdence-itis. See, New York City is a big city. The biggest in the country, in fact. So, even though Reed and co. know that the Thing is headed back home, they still have to find him in a city of 10 million people. So when there's a traffic accident on a bridge caused by the Thing, and they all just happen to be there, it's awfully unlikely. Even more ridiculous is that they all instantly know that it has something to do with him, instead of being yet another accident in NYC. And is rendered totally risible by the fact that, somehow, getting through the crowd to the front of the action has something to do with Jessica Alba stripping naked. How exactly can an invisible person get through a crowd, that a visible person can't?

There's lots of stuff like this - the right person always just happens to be in the right place to do the right thing (even if the "right thing" makes no particular sense.) People do things that we're warned will have dire consequences, and then shrug them off without explanation. Von Doom steps in an operates machinery invented by Mr. Fantastic without a hitch, and somehow just knows that if he jams his fist into it, he'll become more powerful. The whole thing is just stupid - yet another example of how a movie with great effects (The Human Torch flying through downtown NYC, chased by a heat-seeking missile looks flat out amazing), good actors, and all the ingredients for greatness, is torpedoed like a flat-top at Midway by a script so idiotic that it must have been penned, if not actually by Beavis and Butthead, then by their even dumber cousins that live in Hollywood, and were given cushy jobs by some rich relative.

what a letdown. But hey, Jessica Alba!