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The Rise of Product Placement 

GIMMICKY: New Fantastic Four flick is a commercial exercise.
  • GIMMICKY: New Fantastic Four flick is a commercial exercise.

It’s an encouraging thing to see action movies not explicitly made for kids that nevertheless strive to be family-friendly: no real swearing, no sex or nudity, perhaps a healthy slice of cheese on top. But it’s disheartening to see such a film barely begin to unfold before it devolves into one big crass commercial exercise.

Such is the plight of “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” brought to you by ... oh, hell, by everybody.

Granted, the thing’s not supposed to be Shakespeare, and one could easily make the case that it’s not really art in anything more than a technical sense. Few if any superhero movies are. But here we have a movie, not a good movie exactly, but not exactly a terrible one either, and certainly not as bad as its predecessor. It’s a film that appears to strain honorably for an honest-to-God sense of innocence and wonder and idealism, goofy-ass dialogue be damned, only to have each such moment wrung through the meat grinder of way-too-self-conscious product placement.

Logos are everywhere in this movie, not just in billboards or neon signs, but in places where they shouldn’t logically exist. Uber-scientist Reed Richards’ impossibly high-tech PDA, the one he would have had to build for himself? Got a Nokia logo on it. The famous (to us comic dorks of old, anyway) four-pod flying contraption Richards builds for his team to fly around in? It has a Dodge emblem on the hood that gets its own close-up. Not enough? Well, then let’s have the Human Torch ask if it’s “got a Hemi.” Are you serious with this?

Like it or not, we live in the Age of Aggressive Product Placement (TM) now that advertisers are terrified of the Demon TiVo, and perhaps there’s nothing to be done about it, but how long is it before your sense of wonder is brought to you by S.E. Johnson, a Family Company? Or are we there now?

I suppose we should spend a moment on the story. It’s a faithful adaptation of an old Marvel Comics storyline: Planets are sometimes visited by a mysterious silver-colored alien stranger who glides through space on a long platform (a beacon, he explains later, and the source of his considerable power). After a short how-do-you-do, the planet goes boom and all life on it is destroyed to feed an intergalactic monster named Galactus. The aid of the Fantastic Four is of course enlisted by the military to keep this from happening.

It’s a decent sci-fi action story executed in a script that’s not as terrible as the original “Fantastic Four,” and is helped in no small measure by the fact that we never see Galactus as he is depicted in the comics — possibly the fruitiest planet-devourer ever. It’s good to see that the writers learned from the mistakes of the first script, even better that the director didn’t succumb to the temptation to actually show us what is essentially a large gay Mayan priest just come from a disco, and perhaps excusable that they play a bit goofy to attract a younger audience.

But the bottom line is the script isn’t good, the ending is After-School-Specialy, the acting doesn’t rise above passable, and any disbelief you might be willing to suspend after forgiving all of this will be pimp-slapped by the fine folks at Daimler-Chrysler. So much for the joy of storytelling.

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