In an alternate reality, a Fantastic Four film could have hit the cinemas decades ago. They could have beaten X-Men and Spider-Man to be Marvel’s first heroes on the big screen.
Alas, this was not to be.
In 1994, The Fantastic Four was aiming for a theatrical release, but the movie would never see the light of day. It is the one film Roger Corman would produce but never get a release Largely made to keep the property rights, the film negatives would be burned at the behest of Avi Arad. However, bootleg copies would keep the movie alive. Soon, it would become popular at conventions and on the Internet.
The Fantastic Four starts with Reed Richards, Ben Grimm, and Victor von Doom in college. Reed and Victor are working on a science project. The plan is to harness the power of a solar energy comet called Colossus. Sure enough, the experiment goes wrong in the middle of the storm. Reed manages to survive unscathed, but Victor gets caught in the blast. At the hospital, Reed and Ben are left shaken as Victor is thought to be dead.
Ten years later, Reed is ready to fly into outer space. His plan is to study Colossus’ energy source, and Ben will be the pilot. Since they need a crew, they recruit Sue and Johnny Storm. Before the mission, a leprechaun-type imp called The Jeweller steals a gem that will harness the solar energy. It’s never explained who or what he is, but I digress.
Upon crashing to Earth, the four discover they now have powers. Reed can stretch like rubber, Sue can turn invisible, and Johnny has flame-related powers. Of them all, Ben is the most affected, as he turns into a rocky created called The Thing. The group is taken to quarantine by underlings of Doctor Doom posing as the military. After a period of confinement, they decide to make an escape.
At the Baxter Building, Reed theorizes the power of Colossus has made their character flaws into their greatest strengths. Sue designs the famous blue costumes, while Ben sulks off by himself in the underbelly of the city. A chance encounter with the Jeweller leads to a confrontation with Doom, who plans to destroy New York with a giant laser. From there, the Fantastic Four heads to Latveria for a final confrontation.
Sure, the VFX is limited. Production values are low. But the heart of the Fantastic Four can be felt. The actors give it their all, and one can tell they’re enjoying it. Another noteworthy feature is the film’s score, which has a very James Horner feel.
Alex Hyde-White depicts Reed’s intelligence and obsession, but he gets to showcase a dramatic side. Michael Bailey Smith is likeable and affable as the human Ben Grimm, while Carl Ciarfalio provides a steady, surly Thing. His first scene is one of confusion, anger and horror as he discovers the extent of his condition.
Rebecca Staab’s Sue is pretty faithful to the comics version. Finally, Jay Underwood brings a welcome comedic performance as Johnny Storm. While he might overact at times, his humorous, carefree persona is not irritating. Indeed, his take on the Human Torch is akin to what Seann William Scott would have been like as Johnny.
The one who’s really into it is Joseph Culp as Victor von Doom. During the opening scenes, he plays the college age Victor as vulnerable but driven to succeed. Yet as Doctor Doom, he becomes a more theatrical presence, and his laugh is chilling. However, the only drawback is Culp delivering his lines with a microphone inside the mask. This results in a muffled, sometimes garbled sound. Some moments are clear and audible, while others are hard to hear. As a result, he has to compensate with flourished hand gestures to accentuate his performance. Ironically, Culp’s take on Doom is pretty spot on, in comparison to future actors who would play the role.
Director Oley Sassone keeps the focus on the characters and the plot. One can tell he’s a fan of the Fantastic Four, because he includes various nods and references to the source material. The origin of Reed, Ben and Victor attending the same college is there. Kat Jennings has a supporting role as artist Alicia Masters. Despite appearing in the last act, the costumes are pretty faithful to the comics. Also, the famous Fantasticar (or “Flying bathtub”) makes a cameo.
That being said, there are a few decisions that prove frustrating. The Jeweller’s subplot feels tacked on to the story. His decision to kidnap Alicia and marry her doesn’t make sense. Nor does the inexplicable scene of the Thing briefly reverting to human form after Alicia says she loves him. Some of the dialogue can be a little silly at times, such as Ben’s “Hi, Mrs. Storm. Can Johnny and Susan go into outer space with us?” line. Due to a tight budget, we only get to see Johnny “flame on” as the Human Torch in the last ten minutes of the film. Even so, the result is one of 1980s-era computer effects.
The irony of The Fantastic Four is that it has become famous for its’ unreleased status. Furthermore, unlike later films, it holds up as being faithful to the source material. The actor does a great job embodying their characters, and the film has the feel of the Stan Lee-Jack Kirby run. While effects and production values are low, one cannot deny this is a genuine effort to capture the Fantastic Four on film.
Here’s hoping that one day The Fantastic Four will be seen for what it tries to do. All the cast and crew put their hearts into the making of this film, which makes it more than its low budget status. And that in itself is fantastic.