Posted Online: July 07, 2005, 12:00 am

Fantastic Four gets blurry

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By Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Fantastic Four (PG-13) Two hours, 3 min.) *

So you get in a space ship and you venture into orbit to research a mysterious star storm hurtling toward Earth. There's a theory it may involve properties of use to man. The ship is equipped with a shield to protect its passengers from harmful effects, but the storm arrives ahead of schedule and saturates everybody on board with unexplained but powerful energy that creates radical molecular changes in their bodies.

They return safely to Earth, only to discover that Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), the leader of the group, has a body that can take any form or stretch to unimaginable lengths. Call him Mr. Fantastic. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) develops superhuman powers in a vast and bulky body that seems made of stone. Call him Thing. Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) can become invisible at will, and generate force fields that can contain propane explosions, in case you have a propane explosion that needs containing but want the option of being invisible. Call her Invisible Woman. And her brother, Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), has a body that can burn at supernova temperatures. Call him the Human Torch. I almost forgot the villain, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who becomes Doctor Doom and wants to use the properties of the star storm and the powers of the Fantastic Four for his own purposes. He eventually becomes metallic.

By this point in the review, are you growing a little restless? What am I gonna do, list names and actors and superpowers and nicknames forever? That's how the movie feels. It's all setup and demonstration and naming and discussing and demonstrating, and it never digests the complications of the Fantastic Four and gets on to telling a compelling story. Sure, there's a nice sequence where Thing keeps a fire truck from falling off a bridge, but you see one fire truck saved from falling off a bridge, you've seen them all.

The Fantastic Four are, in short, underwhelming. The edges kind of blur between them and other superhero teams. That's understandable. How many people could pass a test right now on who the X-Men are and what THEIR powers are? Or would want to? I wasn't watching ``Fantastic Four'' to study it, but to be entertained by it, but how could I be amazed by a movie that makes its own characters so indifferent about themselves? The Human Torch, to repeat, (ITAL)can burn at supernova temperatures!(UNITAL) He can become so hot, indeed, that he could (ITAL)threaten the very existence of the Earth itself!(UNITAL) This is absolutely stupendously amazing, wouldn't you agree? If you could burn at supernova temperatures, would you be able to stop talking about it? I know people who won't shut up about winning 50 bucks in the lottery.

But after Johnny Storm finds out he has become the Human Torch, he takes it pretty much in stride, showing off a little by setting his thumb on fire. Later he saves the Earth, while Invisible Woman simultaneously contains his supernova so he doesn't destroy it. That means Invisible Woman could maybe create a force field to contain the sun, which would be a big deal, but she's too distracted to explore the possibilities; she gets uptight because she will have to be naked to be invisible, because otherwise people could see her empty clothes; it is no consolation to her that invisible nudity is more of a metaphysical concept than a condition.

Are these people complete idiots? The entire nature of their existence has radically changed, and they're about as excited as if they got a makeover on ``Oprah.'' The exception is Ben Grimm, as Thing, who gets depressed when he looks in the mirror.

The story involves Dr. Doom's plot to ... but perhaps we need not concern ourselves with the plot of the movie, since it is undermined at every moment by the unwieldy need to involve a screenful of characters who, despite the most astonishing powers, have not been made exciting, or even interesting. The X-Men are major league compared to them. And the really good superhero movies, like ``Superman,'' ``Spiderman II'' and ``Batman Begins,'' leave ``Fantastic Four'' so far behind that the movie should almost be ashamed to show itself in some of the same theaters.