Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (20th Century Fox) is an off-brand superhero movie, the cinematic equivalent of one of those generic breakfast cereals with a badly drawn squirrel for a mascot. It's miscast, underwritten, muddily shot, and slackly paced, but there's something captivating about its unabashed shittiness. At the height of the trend toward moody, self-reflexive, slickly produced comic-book movies with A-list casts, Fox just cranks out this seeming refugee from Saturday-morning television (at moments, Silver Surfer feels like a worthy subject for commentary on MST:3000) and plonks it on the screen, as if to say, "Yo suckers, you like superheroes? Watch this!" And if the mystifying success of the first Fantastic Four is any indication, we will. The new film's PG rating and 92-minute running time make Silver Surfer highly marketable as a family movie, though small children might be disturbed by a few violent sequences and an apparent reference to the "ticking bomb" argument for military torture.
Silver Surfer has at least one advantage over the first installment: Now that the tepid quartet's origin myth has been established, the screenwriting team (which, incredibly, includes a former Simpsons writer, Don Payne) no longer has to spend the first hour drearily taxonomizing their various names, nicknames, and superpowers. But as the movie's reviewer, I guess I do: Reed Richards, aka Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd), can stretch his body into any shape. Sue Storm, the Invisible Woman (Jessica Alba), can disappear and create force fields. Her brother Johnny, the Human Torch (Chris Evans), can turn his whole body into a flaming missile. And Ben Grimm, the Thing (Michael Chiklis), for some reason, doesn't turn into anything: He just is a superstrong rockpile-looking guy, all the time. Having come to terms with their fantastic-ness in the first episode, the Four now live together in the fabulous Baxter Building, where they're preparing for Reed and Sue's upcoming wedding.
The only thing worse than rain on your wedding day is when, just as you're about to exchange vows, the entire globe's existence is threatened by a planet-eating monster called Galactus. (Isn't it ironic?) This insatiable creature, which resembles a giant tapeworm made of space dust, is churning inexorably toward Earth, snacking on Saturn along the way. But it sends an envoy in advance: a melancholy naked guy on a surfboard who's made of the same liquid-mercury substance as the villain in Terminator 2. Exactly what the Silver Surfer must do to ready the Earth for consumption is unclear: season it? Marinate it in a red-wine reduction? The important thing is, the Four have eight days to figure out the source of the Surfer's power, neutralize it, and save the world from destruction.
As the new HBO series John From Cincinnati explores, there's something about the very act of surfing that connotes an otherworldly mystery. The Silver Surfer looks marvelous navigating the skies on his board (though his Ken-doll bump of a pelvis is distracting—couldn't he have worn supershorts?). Laurence Fishburne voices the character in his best Matrix drone, playing the intergalactic villain as a stoner guru who could easily carry a movie of his own.
For a gang of superheroes, though, the Fantastics are kind of underachieving. The impending apocalypse doesn't prevent them from spending long stretches of screen time bickering, and the closest any of them comes to a catchphrase is the Thing's oft-repeated "Ah, crap!" Even encased in a foam-rubber suit, Michael Chiklis manages to give the Thing a nice lumpen sadness, his watery blue eyes peering forlornly from behind the rocklike mask. But as the Human Torch, Chris Evans is so forgettable I've had to look his name up three times in the course of writing this review.
Jessica Alba, whose blank, cushiony face and pneumatic body make her the very template of the Maxim girl, has honed her acting skills since the first F4 movie. She's still awful, but not laughably awful; she might be able to pull off a self-mocking turn as a Bond girl, for example, an Ursula Andress to Daniel Craig's Sean Connery. But the poor child has zero chemistry with slim, cerebral Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who looks uncomfortable to the point of sheepishness as Mr. Fantastic. Gruffudd was great in the British miniseries The Forsyte Saga and the recent film The TV Set. If he has any career savvy (let alone shame), he's calling his agent right now, trying to get out of Fantastic Four III: They Call Her She-Hulk.