STRANGE things are happening on planet Earth. A bay in Japan freezes solid. It snows on the Sphinx. All the electricity in Los Angeles turns off just like a light. Some are starting to wonder, a breathless TV journalist intones, if the hand of God is involved.
Not quite. Place the blame on the hand of Hollywood, always eager to put the planet in peril in the service of yet another superhero sequel, in this case "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer."
Almost alone among comic-book adaptations, the "Fantastic Four" films, both the eponymous original and this one, manage to be less sophisticated than their original source material. While the comic was hip enough to last for more than 500 issues and nearly 44 years of continuous publication, the movie treatments, both directed by Tim Story, are no one's idea of must-see cinema.
Yet it must be said that it's something of a relief to confront a comic-book movie that is neither hip nor wised up. Earnest, gee-whiz and foursquare, this simple and intentionally inoffensive sequel gets points for being easy to take and scrupulously avoiding obvious sources of irritation.
The new "Fantastic Four" also features the screen debut of one of the great comic-book figures, an entity iconic enough to get his name into the title. Yes, it's the Silver Surfer, someone so cool and elegant that he takes the Four's collective breath away. "Aw," says the Torch, impressed against his will, "That is cool."
Before we learn the Surfer's story, however, we get to reacquaint ourselves with the Four: aside from Torch, a.k.a. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), who can fire up at will, there's his sister Sue (Jessica Alba), able to create force fields and turn herself into Invisible Woman. Her beau, Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), can stretch himself into any direction as Mr. Fantastic, and his rock-like pal, Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), isn't called the Thing for nothing. As those who saw the first film will remember, Sue and Reed are in line to get married. The new "Fantastic Four," written by Don Payne and Mark Frost, goes in for some gentle skewering of our celebrity culture as the potential ceremony gets turned into "the wedding of the century" by a shameless (is there any other kind?) media.
It is just about now that the Silver Surfer, he of the buff body and the ability to wreak havoc with "the universe's ambient cosmic energies," appears on the scene. A Zen-like entity of few but always enigmatic words -- "All that you know is at an end" is a big sentence for him -- the Surfer has the kind of movie-star presence even movie stars dream about.
Gifted with powers other beings can barely imagine, the Surfer seems to want to do nothing on Earth except dig a series of enormous craters. This activity soon attracts the attention of the U.S. Army, personified by gruff Gen. Hager (Andre Braugher) and the Four's old nemesis, the ever-resilient Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon).
The Surfer, his few words voiced by Laurence Fishburne, has the further good fortune to be played, with the aid of a motion-capture suit, by Doug Jones, a marvelous physical actor who was unforgettable as both Pan and the Pale Man in Guillermo del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth."
One of the few superhero movies to be legitimately rated PG (for "sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo"), "Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer" hinges on whether the Four can dissuade the Surfer from his service to the dread Galactus, a particularly malevolent interstellar force. The outcome is not exactly in doubt, but that's the whole idea, isn't it?
"Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." MPAA rating: PG for sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In general release.