Call me a heretic, but I actually liked 'Fantastic Four.' Having missed the film when it hit theaters last year, it wasn't until I sat down for this Blu-ray review that I became aware of how much the film seems to be hated by hardcore comic book movie fans -- at least if you read the IMDB and web reviewers. Perhaps it is the film's more winking tone, or its overly photogenic actors, or the somewhat spotty effects, but no one seemed to like 'Fantastic Four' much. I found it a perfectly fine, fun ride -- the kind of lighthearted superhero movie they don't seem to make much of anymore, at least in this ultra-serious era when the phrase "comic book" has been replaced by the far more PC "graphic novel."
In case you are one of the three or four people unfamiliar with the original 'Fantastic Four,' it is a pretty standard comic scenario. During what is supposed to be a benign space exploration mission, five scientists are genetically altered by cosmic rays. Leader and inventor Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud) is suddenly able to bend his body in amazing ways. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba) gains the power of invisibility, while her younger brother Johnny (Chris Evans) can control fire, even turning his entire torso into a human fireball. And mild-mannered pilot Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is turned into a super-strong rock creature. Together, Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Woman, the Human Torch and the Thing become the Fantastic Four -- and instant media stars. Which is good news for the world, as the fifth member of the team, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon) has turned to the dark side, reinventing himself as the diabolical Dr. Doom. Can the Fantastic Four defeat Doom and save the day?
I think the reason 'Fantastic Four' may not have been fully embraced by the fan community is because unlike such recent comic book efforts as the 'X-Men' and 'Spider-Man' series, 'Batman Begins' and 'Superman Returns,' it is not particularly dark or serious. Though not a parody nor intentionally campy, 'Fantastic Four' does have a light-hearted tone, with its most broad moments akin to the slapstick excesses of the original 'Superman: The Movie' and the theatrical version of 'Superman II.' That means 'Fantastic Four' also skews a bit younger in appeal, which would explain why the film was such a hit with tween viewers last summer but largely dismissed by older fans.
I found the approach refreshing. Quite frankly, I'd much rather watch a goofy and cheerful film like 'Fantastic Four' than the dour and pretentious mishmash that was 'Superman Returns.' It is also a pleasure to see a comic book film where, for once, the superheroes are not totally tortured souls, and are actually given a few precious moments in which to enjoy their newfound powers. 'Fantastic Four' is hardly as satiric as the old "Batman" television series, but in spirit, they are close cousins. And the good-looking cast didn't bother me, either. Alba and Evans may not give Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep a run for their money, but they both look good in their skin-tight uniforms -- and if I were a superhero, I certainly wouldn't want to be ugly.
Having said all that, 'Fantastic Four' is not a great movie. Perhaps it is not even a good one. All the soap-opera melodrama (Reed and Sue's growing love affair, Johnny's cocky K-Fed routine, Ben's sentimental fling with a blind newspaper reporter) is not very believable. I also felt Dr. Doom could have been a bit scarier, and his formulaic plot to take over the world (or whatever) is admittedly uninspired and forgettable. Still, I find it hard to hate a film as silly and innocuous as 'Fantastic Four.' I guess I'm one of the few (at least in my generation), but I'm actually looking forward to the upcoming sequel.
Unlike the first two Fox Blu-ray launch titles I've reviewed, 'X-Men: The Last Stand' and ' 'The Omen,' 'Fantastic Four' is the first not encoded in AVC MPEG-4, but rather MPEG-2. It is also a BD-25 single-layer disc, which doesn't leave much wiggle room. Yet despite these limitations, I was generally pleased with this 2.40:1 widescreen and 1080p transfer.
Clicking around various web reviews of the standard-def DVD of 'Fantastic Four,' many reviewers complained of a lack of detail and in particular video noise marring that release. I found no such problems with the Blu-ray version. The source material is in excellent shape, with not a visible speck of dirt or the like. Blacks are perfect throughout, and contrast consistent across the entire grayscale. The image is also not overly harsh, and contrast is a bit hot at times, but nothing unusual in today's world of computer-enhanced blockbusters. Detail is also strong, with a nice sense of depth, even in long shots. The image is rarely flat or two-dimensional, so all in all, this is a nice win for Blu-ray.
However, I did personally have a couple of problems with the overall visual look of the film. I have no way of knowing whether this was intentional or not, but the transfer looks a bit dark to my eye, with the fall-off to black quite steep, hampering visible detail in dark scenes. And colors, while stable and clean, are somewhat oversaturated for my taste. Fleshtones too, often look too pasty, if still the proper shade of orange. The movie could have looked more natural and film-like had these tweaks been reduced a bit, but again, this all could very well be intentional, and my personal taste is not shared by all. So, setting aside my own aesthetic nitpicks, I'm still giving this one a healthy four-star rating.
As I mentioned in my review of Fox's 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' the studio's first batch of Blu-ray releases are the first-ever Blu-ray releases to feature DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio soundtracks. Unfortunately, as of this writing, no current Blu-ray players or A/V receivers offer DTS-HD decoding. That will change very soon with the arrival of the PlayStation 3 and other players and receivers, but in the meantime, there is no way to access the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on this disc at full resolution. So what you are going to hear without DTS-HD decoding is the core, lossy DTS soundtrack at a healthy 1.5mbps.
Having said that, the downgraded version of 'Fantastic Four' does very nicely on its own. The film has quite lively sound design, with the kind of whiz-bang fun you'd expect from a big-budget comic book flick. Dynamics are excellent, with very natural and rich frequency response across the entire sonic spectrum. The .1 LFE really delivers some powerful deep bass frequencies, and I was impressed how the low end extends beyond just loud sound effects to the score and even the Thing's more intense growls. Surround use is active and engaging, with the bridge attack and Doctor Doom battle sequences particularly effective. There are some noticeable moments where a complete 360-degree soundfield is created, with excellent transparency between channels and fine sonic details readily apparent in the rears. I'm sure this mix will sound even better in full DTS-HD Master Audio, so check back soon to see an updated version of this review.
'Fantastic Four' hit standard-def DVD flush with extras, but perhaps due to Fox using a BD-25 and MPEG-2 compression on this Blu-ray release, hardly any of those goodies have been carried over.
The only real extra is a screen-specific audio commentary with stars Michael Chiklis, Ioan Gruffud and Jessica Alba. I was really quite surprised with this one -- often actor tracks can drag or turn into mutual admiration societies, and while there is some of that here, it is a very lively conversation nonetheless. Chiklis definitely leads this track, acting as both interviewer and cheerleader at the same time. There is a wealth of fun info divulged, from working with the complicated special effects (in particular the Thing's gigantic latex suit), to various alternate scenes and takes that didn't make it into the finished film. And though Chris Evans, aka the Human Torch, is absent, his cast mates waste no time in having a bit of (good-natured) fun at his expense. Even Alba's sometimes chirpy and seemingly airheaded comments ("Like, there really is a lot of talent up in Vancouver!") come off as endearing instead of annoying. A genuinely good listen.
Aside from the commentary, the only other extra is a trailer gallery with spots for 'Fantastic Four' plus other Fox Blu-ray launch titles including 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' 'The Omen' and 'Kingdom of Heaven.'
'Fantastic Four' is a film that is disliked by many, yet made a ton of money at the box office. I quite enjoyed it, and found it a nice respite from the more pretentious comic book movies that have come out as of late. As a Blu-ray release, though, this is a tougher sell. Quite simply, Fox's high $39.95 list price is a bit steep for any catalog title, let alone one as supplement-deprived as this one. Sure, the transfer and soundtrack are nice, but there are better deals available on Blu-ray. Unless you can get this one at a good discount, I'd have trouble recommending it for a purchase.