VANCOUVER, British Columbia — It’s a dark, drizzly afternoon in this otherwise endearing Canadian city, and the cold has your teeth chattering so much that even a Tim Horton’s coffee isn’t helping. As your breath hangs out in front of your face, you walk onto the Vancouver Film Studios lot, past a few fully dressed aliens from “Battlestar Galactica” who are making chit-chat, and locate soundstage J3. You see a sign reading, “For security reasons, this door must remain locked and SHUT at all times!” affixed to a door pegged open with a crushed paper cup. You let yourself in. It’s a miserable afternoon to be in Vancouver, but it’s a perfect day to go surfing.(Click here for an enlarged photo of the silver surfer.)
Invading the set of next summer’s big-budget sequel “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” the first thing you notice is the family atmosphere. Returning director Tim Story and the various castmembers — most wearing T-shirts and hats boasting old movies they’ve worked on, from “Daredevil” to “D-Tox” — tease each other lovingly, and right at the center of it all are the ones they call Yo, Jess, Chickie and Chris. For this flick, however, they have two other co-stars that comic book geeks have been waiting decades to see onscreen.
Walk into the middle of the enormous J3 stage and you see the inanimate member of these characters, propped up 20 feet in the air and surrounded by lime-green walls and floors. It’s called the Fantasticar, and it’ll eventually become the high-flying, multi-segmented vehicle that Reed Richards (a.k.a. Ioan Gruffudd, a.k.a. “Yo”) will invent in “F42” to serve as their Batmobile. On this day, however, it looks like a giant, silvery carnival ride.
“Oops! I broke the car!” shrieked Jessica Alba (a.k.a. Sue Storm, a.k.a. “Jess”) as she climbs a ladder into one of the convertible’s four seats and strikes her character’s force-field pose, banging loose a piece of Plexiglass with her elbow. The crew is as fast to patch it up as it is to place two mattress pads under Alba’s spandex-clad rear end (yes, she giggles, one of the world’s sexiest woman needs a booster seat). Alba rocks along to her iPod as she holds up an earpiece to one of the car’s “secretly hidden” mics between takes.
While Jess fidgets with her blond wig and blue contact lenses, let’s go over the basic reason why things have come down to this: After saving the world from (Doctor) Doom in “Fantastic 4,” the sequel picks up with the New York rooftop wedding of Sue Storm and Reed Richards. Hundreds of guests are at the lavish ceremony (with the notable exception of “F4” creator Stan Lee, who’s turned away by security during one of his trademark cameos), which is promptly disrupted by a muscular silver man flying past on a surfboard. Soon, the group realizes that Silver Surfer is creating enormous silver craters all over the world, laying the groundwork for his planet-devouring overseer Galactus to come along later and suck the life out of Earth. Chasing the fast-moving figure from Washington, D.C., to London to Shanghai and beyond, the Fantastic Four must figure out whether the Surfer is good or evil, and how they can stop his mission.
As Story prepares the scene, a door to stage J3 opens and in walks a vision that — to comic fans, at least — might be more beautiful to them than the sight of their first-born child. It’s a statuesque, Zen-like figure, covered head to toe with dark gray muscles and enshrouded in a trench coat. The Silver Surfer has just entered the room.
Later, an on set special-effects maestro will give a peek at his laptop, displaying a drool-inducing chase between Chris Evans (a.k.a. Johnny Storm, a.k.a. “Chris)” and a fully realized Surfer, who turns glass to liquid as he slides down the side of a sleek building, leads Storm through a crowded Holland Tunnel and eventually gets the better of him once they fly so high that Storm’s flames are extinguished. In today’s Fantasticar scenes, however, the Surfer needs a ride from his quasi-friends, since a plot by Doom has robbed him of his luster in more ways than one.
Yo sits in the front seat of the sleek vehicle, while Jess and the one they simply call “Surfer” ride in the only side-by-side seats in the middle. The rear seat will eventually house the Thing (a.k.a. Michael Chiklis, a.k.a. “Chickie”), while a flame-spitting stick stands in for Evans’ character flying next to the Fantasticar. The vehicle itself has few discernible edges and boasts black seats with red Dodge Ram symbols. The giant symbol of an encircled 4 rests on the hood in the same color as the rest of the car, and the vehicle is the combined product of three distinct, smaller vehicles that it splits into with a flick of Reed Richard’s switch (Alba and the Doug Jones’ Surfer shoot their scenes in the broken-out middle section the next day).
Noticeably, the Fantasticar has no weaponry. “The drivers are the weapons,” someone says when the question is asked.
“Clear the car,” Alba shouts playfully, removing her iPod earphones as Story readies the crew. “Watch your noggins and make sure I’m in focus!”
An enormous fan kicks in, blowing back the hair of Gruffudd and Alba. A technician grabs hold of what looks like a child’s science project — a small boxy object on top of a basic board — and the enormous carnival ride mimics its every move. Yanking the small box to the left sends Alba jerking in the same direction, while tilting it back leaves the statuesque Surfer staring straight up into the sky. This goes on for several minutes, as the actors fight off a nonexistent Doctor Doom and occasionally even try to deliver dialogue to each other.
“OK,” a stand-in for Evans reads, summing up the situation of the four, now turned five. “We’re now officially enemies of the United States of America. Victor’s out there somewhere with unlimited powers, and we’ve got a giant intergalactic war that’s about to destroy our planet in less than 24 hours.”
“I was once called Norrin Radd,” the sullen Surfer explains.
Alba responds, “Nice to meet you, Norrin.”
Even on this raw, drizzly Vancouver day, it’s difficult to miss the silver lining: The surfer has arrived.
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