by Lucius Shepard
June 20, 2007
Under ordinary circumstances I would begin by slagging the producers, the director, the retard actors, everyone associated with Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver. I’d mention their impoverished intellects and impotent imaginations. I’d ridicule their children, slander their girl/boyfriends, talk trash about their house pets . . . and maybe I’ll get around to that. But first of all I have to admit something: I was all geeked up for this one. In some aberrant plane or dimension, I’ve painted myself silver and fabricated a board from papier mache, and I’m strolling into the theater at the head of gibbering fanboy army. I mean, the Surfer, man. The Herald of Galactus, the gigantic dude in the mauve-and-black power suit who treats planets like hors d’oeuvres. Owner of an FTL fully chromed board and a body to match, resembling the niftiest hood ornament ever. Talks like he’s carrying a portable reverb unit through which he intones neat stuff such as, “All you know is at an end.” Has a mystical, Christ-like cachet and possesses nearly the same absence of expression and inflection as Clint Eastwood.
How cool is that?
So you might assume that I was hoping the movie didn’t suck.
Since making Barbershop, a clichéd yet charming little picture about the barbers and clientele of an African-American barbershop, director Tim Story appears to have had something crucial removed at a lobotomy clinic. His subsequent movie, the formulaic dud Taxi, sought to make a star out of a second-rate comedian named Jimmy Fallon, and compared to Rise of the Silver Surfer, Barbershop had the gravitas of Dostoyevsky and the emotional nuance of Jane Austen. We’re talking about a movie based on a comic book here, about what is commonly described as “summer fun” (review-speak for “schlock”), but using any standard you select, Surfer grades out at a solid F. Given an end-of-the-world scenario, several competent actors, and a heroic villain with the potential for mystery and intrigue of the Surfer, Story and script hacks Don Payne and Mark Frost (both of whom once did credible work, Payne on The Simpsons and Frost on Twin Peaks and Hill Street Blues) have turned all this into an affect-less jumble of scenes. Story seems to have no idea of how to evoke a mood, let alone sustain one, and thus the specter of cosmic doom plays out as if it were a problem only a tad more consequential than a wedding-day zit on Sue Storm’s (Jessica Alba's) forehead, what with the draining of the Thames, the near-destruction of the London Eye, and the splintering of the Great Wall of China being treated as annoying impediments to her union with Mr. Fantastic, Plasticman clone Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffud). The plot can be best summarized as a headline:
WORLD ENDS—STORM-RICHARDS NUPTIALS POSTPONED.
I can’t recall a single issue of the comic that generated less suspense or, for that matter, had less of a kinetic feeling.
The Surfer (played by Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence Fishburne) first appears as a comet circling the Earth, causing snow to fall in Egypt, seas to harden, and enormous craters to open in the crust. The FF soon learn that the comet has left a trail of dead worlds in its wake—it looks as if our world is next. In their efforts to thwart this menace, the FF is assisted by General Hager (Andre Braugher, a fine actor who, though utterly wasted here, does his best to enliven the lazily written dialog, but essentially has a Time of Death stamped on his forehead), and by Dr. Doom, embodied (yet not enlivened) by Julian McMahon of Nip/Tuck, who plays the FF’s old nemesis as if alternately possessed by fits of boredom and pique. Chris Evans is provided the opportunity to display his torso (recently voted the third hottest body on Gay.com) in his role as the Human Torch, and the talented Michael Chiklis rumbles along as the Thing, mostly in the service of comic relief . . . but since the film is basically a poorly made sitcom, there is scant relief to be had.
The FX range from good to shoddy. In one sequence, the Torch chases the Surfer through the canyons of Manhattan and then into the upper atmosphere, where the Surfer, with an off-handed gesture, discards his unconscious body, allowing it to fall back toward the Earth. That gesture perfectly captures the ambiguous essence of the Surfer’s character and the sequence succeeds in bringing the comic to vivid life. But this along with a few other moments are the only times that the words “vivid” or “life” can be associated with the picture, and whoever decided to transform Galactus into the Mother of All Dust Bunnies . . . Well, let’s just say that it was an unfortunate creative choice. True, portraying the Eater of Worlds as he was in the comic would have looked dopey onscreen; but a vast figure could have been suggested, embedded in the debris storm that surrounds him, and this would have had a far more sinister effect.
The sole value of movies like Rise of the Silver Surfer, flavorless, odorless, soulless product, is that they provide a register for the flatlining of our culture . . . not of its intelligence, really, but of its will to excel and to strive. We have ceased as a nation to demand of our government other than that we be permitted to survive each successive administration. Instead of desiring to confront the significant challenges that face us, we cling to the status quo as if it were a raft on a stormy sea. In the realm of entertainment, we increasingly seek out the undemanding, saying that life is challenging enough and when we go to the movies, we want to be entertained, thereby equating entertainment with comfort food. Only the most dewy-eyed of Pollyannas would claim that the world is not in trouble, that the fabric of society is not developing a few rips, yet it might be more interesting, more entertaining, and certainly more pertinent, to examine the culture through the lens of a camera, rather than burying our heads in buckets of buttered popcorn.
I once had a Swedish editor tell me, after buying one of my books, that he was going against the grain of Swedish publishing by purchasing a science fiction book, because the Swedes didn’t believe in the future. This view is borne out in two recent Scandinavian films, both winners of multiple awards and now available on DVD. The first, The Bothersome Man, a curious and disturbing film directed by Norwegian Jens Lien, may be a depiction of the afterlife, either hell or a misbegotten heaven, or it may simply be a bleakly comedic view of urban life, perceiving it to be a river of hopelessness barely contained beneath a veneer of modernist décor and empty relationships . . . or it may be all of the above. Its protagonist, Andreas (Trond Fausa Aurvag), a distraught-looking 40-year-old, appears to throw himself in front of an oncoming train after watching a couple making out in a subway station. The next moment he’s getting off a bus at a café in the midst of a desert where, shortly thereafter, he is picked up by a driver and conveyed to an unnamed city and a new job as an accountant in a successful firm whose purpose seems, to say the least, poorly defined. His boss and co-workers treat him with a vague amiability, and before long he finds himself in a kinda-sorta arranged marriage with an interior designer, Anne-Britt, whose lacquered hair and compliant manner go well with their furniture. Anne-Britt and Andreas fall into a routine centering around dinner parties, making home improvements, and bouts of sex that can best be described as mechanical.
The world Andreas finds himself in has a distinct Prisoner vibe, but is even more surreal. Everyone smiles and is unrelentingly even-tempered, yet is infected with a lassitude that verges upon the moribund. Sex is joyless, food is tasteless (literally), alcohol doesn’t get you drunk, and there are no children. And when Andreas accidentally slices off a finger, he discovers that it grows back. Afflicted by the ennui and despair that initially drove him to attempt suicide, he makes another attempt, throwing himself once again in front of a subway train; but he survives with nothing to show for it except a bloody shirt. Soon thereafter he notices cracks in the veneer of city life, beginning with a literal crack in an acquaintance’s cellar, the exploration of which leads him to a partial understanding of his circumstance and to think that there may be a way out.
If you have seen Lang’s Metropolis, Goddard's Alphaville, or Andrew Nicol's Gattaca, then The Bothersome Man may seem to tread upon familiar—perhaps overly familiar—ground, and, at times, appears to be too much in love with its own cleverness. But Lien’s dystopian vision (leavened with a deadpan humor reminiscent of the films of masterful Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki) is achieved with such confidence and skill, such an economy of dialog and a cold precision of image, it overwhelms these flaws and impresses itself on the brain with the force of a recurring nightmare.
Roy Andersson makes TV commercials, the best commercials in the world, according to no less a personage than fellow Swede, director Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, his picture Songs from the Second Floor, the most acclaimed Swedish film in many years, might have been made by Bergman in the midst of a belladonna trip. Using amateur actors (his protagonist, Lars Nordh, who plays Kalle, a merchant who has burned down his store for the insurance, was discovered shopping at Ikea), Andersson evokes a generic, modern-day city and a whiny, pasty-skinned populace whose single apparent virtue is their brutish endurance. In a series of loosely connected vignettes, we see a crowd of business types parading through the streets, beating each other with knotted ropes; we meet refugees from an enormous and perhaps permanent traffic jam; we encounter a magician who has cut into a man’s stomach while essaying the saw-someone-in-half trick; a crucifix salesman who wonders how he ever thought to make money off a “crucified loser”; a group of burghers who, in an effort to ward off the end times, sacrifice a bright young girl by pushing her off a cliff; the ghost of a suicide to whom Kalle owed a large sum of money, a debt that caused the man to take his own life; Kalle’s catatonic son who went mad from writing poetry in praise of the enervated and the doomed; and a centenarian general who squats on a bedpan in a crib, salutes the memory of Herman Goring, and—alone at night—cries out for help.
Andersson’s beautifully composed shots, striking images, and elegant, static camera made the film worth watching for me, but I can’t recommend a picture that is little more than a carnival of despair. It occurred to me while watching that this wallowing in the gloom of the millennial West may be what passes for comfort food in Sweden, and that Andersson’s grim austerity and absurdist dialog were the cinematic equivalents of Rise of the Silver Surfer's trashy brightness and vacuous banter. The two films were engendered, it seems, by the same cynical worldview, only packaged differently, the first as an art film that won the Jury Prize at Cannes, the other as disposable product that will win a week or two at the box office, yet both testifying to an abject hopelessness, to the abandonment of art as a tool for change, and to our overall surrender to the implacable forces that threaten us. I imagine them as two cheerleading squads, one wearing uniforms sporting an N for Nihil on their chests, slack, unenergetic blonds raggedly intoning some dire chant, saying essentially the same thing as do the second squad in a bouncier, perkier style, shaking their pom-poms in a dumb show of delight and fraudulent enthusiasm, and with, I suppose, a W emblazoned on their sweaters.