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"Fantastic" Voyage

It's Clobbering Time at the Box Office With Fox's Bigscreen Adaptation of the "Fantastic Four" Comic

"We're exposed. We're in the public eye. We're dealing with how you handle instant fame. And exposure. Loss of anonymity. Everyone else is a little more reserved. But I'm a little bit more up-front about my want of the spotlight."

Sounds like a typical Hollywood actor so far...

"You know, we have our ups and downs as people as well as superheroes," continues Chris Evans ponderously before catching himself with a chuckle: "That sounds so ridiculous."

Though Evans is referring to the characters in the summer tentpole action/fantasy "Fantastic Four," the line between life and art begins to blur as four on-the-rise actors transmogrify into superstars. And they didn't even need radiation to do it -- just the blood, sweat, tears and multimillions of 20th Century Fox's publicity machine.

The adaptation of the long-running Marvel Comics series is positioning itself as the next "X-Men," despite starting with a smaller (but no less dedicated) fan base. None of the principal cast members -- Evans as Johnny Storm, Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Johnny's sister, Sue Storm, and Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm -- read the comic growing up. "I was not even aware of this comic book or these characters," the Cardiff, Wales-born Gruffudd freely admits (his American co-stars nebulously indicate having been equally oblivious, but don't have the "I'm from Cardiff, Wales" free pass to come right out and say it). "If you mention it to people," Gruffudd has found, "either they're avid fans or they've never heard of it."

But one doesn't have to dress up in blue spandex at a ComicCon to appreciate a big-budget popcorn flick with beautiful stars who spend the film mastering an amazing array of superpowers, making out with each other and smushing cars into balls and hurling them at anyone who gets in their way.

It all started out with four scientists minding their own business, trying to save the world. They go up into space to study a cosmic cloud that may hold the key to the cure for disease. What do you mean, "the cure for disease," you may ask. That's a little over-generalized, you might sniff. Don't interrupt; we're just getting to the part when the cloud suddenly changes its course and hits the ship, exposing the astrophysicists to radiation that alters their DNA. Fortunately, it does this in a very creative and cinematic way.

"Each one of us is doing something different [at the moment of impact]," Evans explains. "A heat gasket blows and hits me in the arm; Reed is trying to hold a door shut, stretching his body out; a vapor steam lock hits Sue Storm; and Ben Grimm is outside of the spaceship in a spacesuit, and molecules of the cloud actually break their way into his skin. So that's the reason for each of our different outcomes."

That and the fact that four Things -- giant creatures made of hunks of rock and prone to "clobbering," which is what poor Ben Grimm turns into -- wouldn't look good in the skintight bodysuits. Even Jessica Alba couldn't sex that look up. She does, however, manage to tantalize even when translucent in her alter ego as Invisible Girl. Evans heats up the screen as the Human Torch, who's able to produce flames at his fingertips, and Gruffudd stretches his acting ability as Mr. Fantastic, whose body becomes elasticized.

How one makes the most of such abilities is something the quartet must figure out. "We're clumsy with our powers at first," says Evans. "We don't quite know how to use them. We're knocking things over, I'm setting my clothes on fire. The Thing is trying to sit in chairs and breaking them and breaking through doorways. It takes us a while to work as a unit and as a team."

The characters' attributes led to some challenges for the actors portraying them as well. "I had great empathy for the character of the Thing, because I was also trapped in a body I didn't want to be in -- that costume!" says Chiklis. "Sixty pounds of latex." Asked if he wishes he were standing somewhere else in the spaceship when the cosmic cloud hit, he heartily laughs, "I thought of that every day! When I was sweating and in the seventh circle of hell in my suit! I had to be the orange guy. Look at Ioan -- he's, like, pretending to reach in one direction, and then the CGI takes it from there."

Gruffudd, meanwhile, had the task of passionately kissing Jessica Alba -- while she wasn't there. "With all the technical abilities that we have, I still had to use good old-fashioned mime," Gruffudd laments. "And of course you're surrounded by a crew that's stifling their laughter whilst you're doing it. It's a lot of concentration needed not to laugh yourself."

As Invisible Girl, Alba sympathized with her character, who disappears every time she experiences any heightened emotion. "My character feels invisible in a man's world," she reflects. "She often feels like she's not heard, she's not seen. Her voice doesn't matter. So when she's upset or she's angry or she's embarrassed, she goes invisible. And it's incredibly frustrating to her, because it's usually at the peak of an emotion. And I found that very frustrating acting, because I guess it felt how it would feel!"

The only one who seems to be enjoying himself is Johnny Storm, who's dubbed himself the Human Torch. When a sexy nurse takes his temperature and the thermometer reads 209 degrees, he isn't alarmed, but suavely replies to her exclamation, "Ooh, you're hot!", with a seductive "Thank you -- so are you!" He decides that he likes the attention, leaks the foursome's powers to the press and comes up with their aliases on the spot. "Although Reed Richards doesn't like the fact that Johnny's gone out into the public, he rather enjoys the name that he's been given," Gruffudd concedes with a laugh, though acknowledging it puts a bit of pressure on him: "I've got a lot to live up to now. When people meet me, they'll be like, 'Well, he's not so fantastic,'" he jokes.

Although things come to a head to the point that Mr. Fantastic is wrapping himself around the Thing to prevent him from using his clobbering powers on the insufferably fame-hungry Johnny, all four soon pull together to battle their nemesis, Dr. Doom -- the billionaire who funded their expedition and was on the ship when the cosmic cloud hit. Having hidden behind an alloy shield, he is now made of indestructible metal. Not to mention bent on world domination. "The whole movie's about the dysfunctional functional family," says Alba. "The brother-sister relationship, the love relationship, the [best friend] relationship -- it's about having a family that's all of a sudden faced with all of these bizarre things" -- and uniting to overcome them.

"In keeping with the style of the comics, it's very light and funny and very family-oriented," says Gruffudd. "It's fun. And colorful. It's a purer story -- good versus evil."

There is also some poignancy -- "shades of Cyrano, shades of the Elephant Man," as Chiklis puts it -- in the mourning of the loss of their former selves. While the Four come to embrace their new identities, Reed is still mortified that his experiment indirectly turned his best friend into the Thing. "The journey that Reed has in the movie is that he is desperately trying to find a way of turning us all back to normal because of what he's done to Ben," says Gruffudd. Reminded that in its 40 years of existence the comic book has never managed that feat, Gruffudd reflects brightly, "That's true. We've got a good few movies yet."

"The Fantastic Four." Starring Ioan Gruffudd, Chris Evans, Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis. Directed by Tim Story. Written by Michael France, Mark Frost and Simon Kinberg. Produced by Avi Arad, Michael Barnathan, Chris Columbus, Bernd Eichinger and Ralph Winter. A Fox release. Action/Fantasy. Opens July 8.

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