Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

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Maybe it has something to do with seriously diminished expectations, but "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer" is an improvement of sorts over the lifeless 2005 edition.

There's actually a semblance of a story this time around and the special effects no longer look like they came out of a cable network's 1990 budget.

Sure, the dialogue can still get pretty clunky, nobody bothered to give the four lead characters any personality and hard-hitting action sequences clearly aren't director Tim Story's strong suit, but none of that seemed to matter to the family-heavy crowds that made the original a $155 million hit.

And, with a running time hovering around the 90-minute mark, it's definitely not bloated, which is more (or is that less?) than you can say about some of this summer's overstuffed blockbusters.

While the Silver Surfer component will likely get a rise out of offended fanboys, the PG-rated picture should once again lure sizable audiences, critics be damned.

Combining story elements from several Marvel Comics issues, "FF2" begins with the upcoming marriage between Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) and Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), which is being hailed by the swarming media as The Wedding of the Century.

But their nuptials are disrupted by a series of earth-shattering events that signal the end of the world as we know it.

So much for trying to live a normal life, as Reed and Sue, along with Johnny (Chris Evans) and Ben (Michael Chiklis), are required to embrace their super-egos, namely stretchy Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman, Human Torch and rock-solid The Thing.

This time around, they not only have to deal with a neatly recovered Dr. Doom aka Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), but also The Silver Surfer (voiced by Laurence Fishburne, predigitally embodied by Doug Jones), a gleaming but troubled intergalactic soul who scours the galaxies for fresh celestial bodies to consume.

Norrin Radd, as he's known back on the home planet, rides one rad surfboard, but he's really just the messenger, acting at the behest of his planet-hungry master, Galactus.

The problem is, as voiced by Fishburne, the ultra-Zen Silver Surfer ends up sounding a lot like that guy on that old '70s novelty song, "Desiderata," the one with the soothing spoken voice, intoning, "You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here."

Needless to say, unintentional titters ensue.

On the plus side, incoming writers Don Payne, a writer on "The Simpsons" and Mark Frost ("Twin Peaks"), have managed to inject some welcome satire into the sequel, especially in the beginning with those jabs at the celebrity-smitten media and product endorsements.

But they haven't bothered to give the Fantastic Four much to work with beyond their basic rubbery/invisible/fiery/rocky attributes. In their civilian clothes, Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben are all cursed with the same trait--something more along the lines of wooden.

And although director Story once again lets the special effects do the bulk of the action-related heavy-lifting, it's nice to see racially relevant casting with the involvement of Fishburne, Andre Braugher and Kerry Washington, even if the latter two also have to work with underwritten characters.

Behind-the-scenes, the special effects people have kicked things up several notches with the introduction of the sleek Silver Surfer and The Fantasticar, the foursome's flying vehicle that debuted in 1962's "Fantastic Four No. 3," where it was dubbed "the flying bathtub."


FANTASTIC FOUR: RISE OF THE SILVER SURFER
20th Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox presents in association with Constantin Film and Marvel Studios a 1492 Pictures/Bernd Eichinger production.
Credits: Director: Tim Story
Writers: Don Payne and Mark Frost
Story: John Turman and Mark Frost
Producers: Bernd Eichinger, Avid Arad, Ralph Winter
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Kevin Feige, Chris Columbus, Mark Radcliffe, Michael Barnathan
Director of photography: Larry Blandford
Production designer: Kirk M. Petruccelli
Music: John Ottman
Co-producer: Ross Fanger
Costume designer: Mary Vogt
Editors: William Hoy, Peter S. Elliot
Cast:
Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: Ioan Gruffudd
Sue Storm/Invisible Woman: Jessica Alba
Johnny Storm/Human Torch: Chris Evans
Ben Grimm/The Thing: Michael Chiklis
Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom: Julian McMahon
Alicia Masters: Kerry Washington
General Hager: Andre Braugher
Voice of the Silver Surfer: Laurence Fishburne
Running time -- 92 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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