Honestly, I wasn’t planning on writing about “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer.” Truth is, I hated the first “Fantastic Four” movie and had, shall we say, minimal expectations for the second one. But as I watched this film, supposedly about the imminent destruction of the Earth, my mind started wandering back nearly a decade to a movie that, while not a comic book, still put an unlikely team of heroes up against that problem and let them work it out. That other film was “Armageddon” and it also dealt with saving the planet with the clock ticking, what it might mean and how we should spend our final moments on Earth if the worst couldn’t be stopped. When the end is near, who are you going to call for help?
Everybody’s been writing about “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” and, even as this is written, it’s pretty much written in stone that it will dominate the weekend box-office. I bring a certain amount of emotional baggage to this one, having a near-mint copy of the original “Fantastic Four” comic book where Lee & Kirby first introduced the Silver Surfer. Basically, for the handful of people out there who don’t yet know, the Silver Surfer is a herald for an awesome cosmic entity known as Galactus who destroys worlds for reasons that are a little unclear. The point is, though, that when the Surfer shows up, you can start the clock on your planet’s destruction. It’s all over but the praying and the countdown. And, talk about bad timing, the Silver Surfer shows up in this film just as Reed Richards and Sue Storm are going to get married and, bummer, they have to drop plans to smoosh cake in each other’s faces and go out to save the world.
The Defending Champion
There are a lot of people out there who actually hate this movie — from Roger Ebert to about a thousand bloggers, all of whom seem to feel that director Michael Bay is the spawn of the Devil and that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been his enabler. Among the handful of screenwriters involved here, there were some good ones, including J.J. Abrams. The plot is basically this: an asteroid “the size of Texas” is about to crash into the Earth and destroy all life. The only way to stop it, NASA reasons, is to blow it up before it hits and to do that they will need to send a team of oil drillers there with a hefty nuke to get the job done. Enter Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Steve Buscemi, Michael Clarke Duncan, and even Owen Wilson. Back at home, throw in Billy Bob Thornton (who plays the best NASA guy I’ve ever seen, in my opinion) and Liv Tyler (Affleck’s love interest and Willis’s daughter). Notice I’m not using the characters names because this is about Big Actors in a Big Movie.
The truth is, in the world of things that might actually happen, I am just a tad more concerned that an asteroid will make life here tough than the chance that a cosmic entity wants to destroy the Earth for the hell of it. But that’s being too smug because, the truth is, you could make a great film out of either premise. So, here are a few other differences in approach.
One of the most basic is the sense of sacrifice. In “Armageddon,” people are giving up families, lovers, and life to give the world a chance to survive. Even when the action is over-the-top, these people are still behaving heroically. In “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surface,” the sacrifice is having a ruined wedding.
The way the military is used is also revealing, even though in both films, they are used as blocking characters to a certain extent. Blocking the Fantastic Four is Andre Braugher’s General Hager who has to be the biggest a-hole I’ve seen in movies in a long while. He constantly berates Reed Richards for not having built scientifically impossible things in mere hours, and is constantly condescending, never seeming to appreciate how dire the situation is and what he is asking. In “Armageddon,” William Fichtner’s Colonel William Sharp at least seems like he knows what he’s doing, and knows that what’s being asked of Bruce Willis is “challenging” at the least. In “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” one of the military characters points a gun at the Fantastic Four and Johnny Storm has to talk her into putting it down. It takes a few seconds and there’s no human emotion whatsoever in that scene. In “Armageddon,” Fichtner points a gun at Willis and makes him swear on the lives of his children that he can do what he says he can do. I always get goose-bumps because, crazy as that situation is, at that moment in the movie it’s real and you care.
That’s really the big difference between the films. “Armageddon” has characters who actually, honestly feel like real people (given the heightened situation) who actually, honestly understand the stakes in what they’re being asked to do. The Fantastic Four characters, in contrast, never seem to give ten seconds of thought to what the extermination of life on Earth will be like. Well, the Thing does, for about ten seconds in a bar, but that’s it.
There are also no surprises in the plot of “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” unless you count the realization that evolved beings like the Surfer have no genitalia. “Armageddon” is full of plot reversals where victories are short-lived, things that were supposed to go one way go the other, and so on. Granted, it’s contrived, too, but it works very well on its own level.
People have pointed out that they could probably have lived a full and complete life without seeing Ben Affleck eating animal crackers off of Liv Ullman’s belly in “Armageddon” and I won’t argue the point. But I will say that there is absolutely zero, and I mean zero, chemistry between Jessica Alba (The Invisible Woman) and Ioan Gruffudd (Mr. Fantastic).
And the winner is…
I’m sure this is going to rile a few people up, but I’m not only saying “Armageddon” is the superior film but I’m saying it with emphasis! Maybe no one will ever read another review I ever write after this, but Bruckheimer and Bay delivered the ultimate popcorn movie in my opinion. I’ve seen it probably six times, usually with my kids who, like me, just enjoyed seeing it repeatedly. We’ve gotten to the point where we can call out lines and start screaming before something happens.
For the simple reason that there are a half-dozen moments of authentic, real, human emotion in “Armageddon” where there are none whatsoever in the competition, it has my enthusiastic decision here. Not every film has to work for everybody. This one just worked for me.