FANTASTIC PHWOAR! It's Taken 10 Years to Bring the Fantastic Four to the Big Screen - Now Special Effects Have Caught Up It's Been Worth the Wait

Article excerpt

Byline: By John Millar

AFTER Superman, Batman,Spider-Man and The X Men finally come the superheroes fans had almost given up hope of ever seeing on the big screen . . . the Fantastic Four.

This bizarre quartet are Mr Fantastic, who can stretch his body like a piece of super-strong elastic, Invisible Woman, who can disappear and create forcefields at will, the Human Torch, whose body becomes a searing fireball, and The Thing, a monstrous creature who is built like an orange you-know-what brick house and has the angry catchphrase: 'It's clobbering time!'

Since they first smashed their way on to the comic book pages in 1961, these four have gone on to become the stars of the longest running series in the history of Marvel Comics. There's also been a TV cartoon series.

The idea of four very different superheroes was a package that excited Hollywood, but making a movie version provided film bosses with a huge headache.

Ten years was spent trying to get the right script together and the 20th Century Fox team had to wait until they had in place the computerised technology that might make the crucial Fantastic Four special effects possible.

Then, of course, there was the search for the actors who would portray this family of superheroes. Welsh heart throb Ioan Gruffudd, seen recently as Lancelot in King Arthur, was cast as Mr Fantastic, a role for which George Clooney was once a hot favourite.

Sin City star Jessica Alba is Invisible Woman, Michael Chiklis of hit TV cop series The Shield flexes his muscles as The Thing and Chris Evans, who starred opposite Kim Basinger in Cellular, gets all hot and bothered as the Human Torch.

Casting was completed when Julian McMahon, Aussie star of Nip/Tuck, was encased in metal as the villain, Dr Doom The final and vital part of the film's jigsaw was a commitment to be faithful to the comic books. So the movie, described as a dysfunctional family overcoming their problems and vanquishing evil, shows how the Fantastic Four came to be.

During a voyage into outer space scientist Dr Reed Richards and his crew - astronaut Ben Grimm, Reed's former girlfriend Sue Storm and Sue's hot-headed younger brother pilot Johnny Storm, are caught in a radiation storm.

Their DNA is altered and they discover they now have special powers that make them the Fantastic Four. And yet, despite the long-running success of the comic books, Ioan Gruffudd admits when he meets the Record in Las Vegas that he had never even heard of the Fantastic Four.

'I was not a comic book reader. My heroes were Welsh rugby players,' says Ioan.

'So this was a new adventure for me, researching the comics that span 40 years and getting the chance to play this incredible character, Mr Fantastic.'

Initially Ioan was also a bit was worried that his character's powers of elasticity might look too unreal or even silly. But he was reassured by director Tim Story.

'Tim explained that Reed's power was going to be very strong, masculine and sinewy,' says Ioan. 'We would see and hear his muscles and bones stretching, not just his skin, and it actually would be painful each time Reed stretched. It wasn't going to be an effortless power.'

There certainly was nothing effortless about the transformation Michael Chiklis had to endure to become The Thing.

The actor had to suffer more than any other cast member because The Thing is not a computer-generated character.

Each day Michael had to spend three hours being glued inside a latex costume that weighed more than 60 pounds and have prosthetic make-up applied.

He says it was like being inside a pressure cooker.

'The first day that I actually put on the costume was a very intense, frightening experience,' says Michael.

'I'm not a phobic person at all so when I felt that claustrophobic feeling, it really caught me off guard and was quite unnerving.

'It actually crossed my mind that I was not going to be able to do the role. So that night I called a psychiatrist and spoke to her about what had happened to me.

'I asked her for some help in how to deal with all that trepidation and she gave me some really excellent tools to use to keep me in the moment.'

Michael admits that right from the start he had a fair idea of what he was letting himself in for because he was an avid reader of the Fantastic Four comics.

'I am the aged member of the cast so I was a big fan of the Fantastic Four in my teenage years.

'Between 13 and 15 I pretty faithfully went down to the store and got my Fantastic Four comic. I loved Ben Grimm in particular.'

JUST about everything to do with bringing The Thing to life was daunting. Even the seemingly simple act of having a rest during filming was tricky if not impossible.

That's because once he was inside the costume, Michael couldn't lie down or even sit on a chair. 'And I couldn't stand all day,' he says.

So a device known as The Rack was built in which Michael was cradled and could lie backwards at a 45-degree angle when he was not required on camera.

'The Rack was a slant board that I had to go in between shots. So I would be on The Rack and Julian McMahon would come over and make me laugh.'

The plus side of this exhausting costume meant it was not terribly hard for Michael to imagine what it would be like to be The Thing, a man who finds himself trapped in a body he doesn't want to be in.

'For me it was all about the suit,' he says. 'As soon as they put me in that make-up it gave me everything I needed.

'It's awkward to walk in never mind run and be an action man in.

'So it gave me my walk and my characters' inner feelings.'

Ioan stresses, though, that Michael's portrayal of The Thing is much more powerful than simply seeing an actor playing a guy in a suit.

'There is the humanity that comes across so strongly because we have a real actor portraying real emotions. When we were doing scenes together it was sometimes so heart-breaking,' says Ioan.

An amusing bonus is that Michael and the rest of the Fantastic Four cast have had toys made of their film characters.

'There is a lot of talk about how The Thing is going to be the No 1 toy and the No 1 Halloween costume,' says a smiling Michael. 'It's exciting to be the guy who played The Thing.'

Just like Ioan, Jessica Alba was not a comic book fan.

'I knew about the Fantastic Four but my heroes were characters like Wonder Woman,' says Jessica, who also adds that everyone in the movie did their own research into the iconic figures.

She says: 'We read all the comic books to understand the history of the Fantastic Four characters.'

Although she enjoys doing action scenes, Jessica didn't have any physical routines to do in this movie.

She explains: 'I didn't have to do any action.

'She disappears and puts up forcefields. So I just tried not to look stupid doing that stuff.'

Chris Evans was also new to the comic book world but he realised straight away that this was the role of a lifetime.

'It's every little boy's dream. What little kid didn't tie a towel around his neck and jump off the couch like a superhero?' he says.

'I could tell Johnny was going to be a blast to play. He lives for the fast cars, the fast women, and the applause.

'Did I forget to mention he can burst into flames and fly, too? There's not much more of an attention-getter than that!'

Growing up in Australia, Julian McMahon watched the Fantastic Four cartoons before going to school. 'Dr Doom always fascinated me,' says Julian. 'So to be offered the role was an opportunity I just couldn't pass up.'

Now the hope is that the Fantastic Four will become a film franchise.

In fact, the cast are all signed on for a sequel, which means that if this film is a hit, Michael Chiklis will have to face that costume again in another movie.

'I am going to cross that bridge when I get there,' grins Michael. # Fantastic Four is released in cinemas nationwide on July 22

THE HUMAN TORCH

HIS LATEST FLAME: Chris Evans is the Human Torch. He says that he knew his character would be fun to play. 'He lives for fast cars, the fast women and the applause,' says Chris. 'Did I forget to mention he can burst into flames and fly, too

THE THING

MONSTER MASH: Star of TV cop series The Shield, Michael Chiklis is unrecognisable as The Thing, whose catchphrase is: 'It's clobbering time!' Every day the actor had to endure three hours of being glued into his enormous 60lb costume

INVISIBLE WOMAN

BUBBLE TROUBLE: Jessica Alba, the star of Sin City, this summer's other big comic book movie hit, plays the role of the Invisible Woman. She can disappear at will and erect forcefields to defend herself from the Four's arch-enemy, Dr Doom

MR FANTASTIC

STRETCH YOUR IMAGINATION: Ioan Gruffudd, most recently seen playing knight Lancelot in Arthur, landed the role of Mr Fantastic, a part for which George Clooney had been hotly tipped. Mr Fantastic can stretch his body as though it were elastic

CAPTION(S):

IT'S A FAMILY AFFAIR: The Fantastic Four hit the big screen thanks to Jessica Alba, Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis and Chris Evans; THE VILLAIN; BAD: Nip/Tuck star Julian McMahon plays Dr Doom