Written by: Danny Lewis, Special to CC2K
Some comic book movies are cool. Take The Dark Knight: pretty awesome, right? It would be hard these days to find someone who would be willing to endure the beating that they would get from saying anything less. Others, not so much. Remember Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer? The blockbuster movie of last summer it was not. But it did give the silver screen the Silver Surfer.
The Silver Surfer never really worked for me as a traditional superhero. That’s not to say I don’t like the character, but he was never really the type to stop random muggings or bust up bank robbers. He was more prone to soaring above mountains and cities, keeping to himself and musing on the nature of life. Traveling the universe, seeing its wonders and beauties and suddenly being confined to a single planet for an act of kindness would be a bit of a shock. He really had no reason to be anything but resentful of humanity for his sacrifice. At the same time, being the herald of Galactus, the purple-armored, quarter-mile tall devourer of worlds wouldn’t exactly leave someone bubbly and happy for long. There’s something about having the job of finding lush, thriving planets for your master to eat that might make you feel just a little bit guilty. He’s a great big bundle of pathos and angst, and he was easily the best part of that dumb, goofy movie. Aside from his shiny surfboard and cosmic powers, the Silver Surfer doesn’t quite work with the splashy explosions and spandex. Generally, the Surfer works the best in his element as a benevolent but tortured observer and commentator on our human follies and tragedies, and once in a long while, our wonders.
Interestingly enough, John Turman, the same writer who wrote Ang Lee’s Hulk and received a story credit on Rise of the Silver Surfer, wrote an unproduced script for a full-length Silver Surfer movie twelve years earlier. While the script is very much a product of the nineties (I kept seeing Fox Mulder and Dana Scully while I was reading it), and the parts of the plot and lots of the dialogue are high on the cheesiness scale, it’s not that bad of a movie. In fact, it has a lot of really great ideas of the Surfer as an alien being as opposed to the Surfer as a superhero. There’s no Fantastic Four to be seen here outside of a quick glimpse of a comic book cover, but there is an Alicia Masters and there is most definitely a Galactus. Alicia’s relationship with the Surfer echoes her comics relationship with Ben Grimm, as she is able to empathize with the Surfer and allow him to empathize with humanity as well. Their bond goes deeper than language, which is useful as the Surfer does not know a word of English until about two-thirds into the script, and she is instrumental in convincing the Surfer to intervene with Galactus on humanity’s behalf. There are a few other major human characters in the script, but they are more stock characters than anything else, with the protagonist as the womanizing SETI employee who doesn’t believe in aliens, the reclusive but quirky nerd, and the xenophobic general with a stick up his ass.
The two coolest parts of the script are the interpretations of our beloved ETs, the Silver Surfer and Galactus. The script does not really treat itself as a superhero movie, per say, but more as if Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a baby with Independence Day. The Silver Surfer is the ultimate outsider; he has an otherworldly appearance, cannot communicate directly for most of the film, and does not even see the way we see. As the Surfer is almost a battery for the Power Cosmic, he sees everything in terms of life energy (sentient beings rating the highest, rocks the lowest) and does not distinguish between different life forms until he meets Alicia. It is this treatment of the Surfer, as a curious being with absolutely no initial connection to humanity that gives a realistic but eerie image to the eventually benevolent alien. As the movie progresses, it becomes clear that the Surfer learns by mimicking others, as he learns to speak English and comes to identify with the inhabitants of the Earth, but his first contact with human life is frightening and disastrous. Discovered by a gang from the area that the Surfer first touches down, they attack him with guns and knives to find that neither weapon has an effect on him. Curious but unharmed, the Surfer takes their weapons and mimics their actions, pulling the trigger of an empty gun and slashing with the knife. Although this results in the deaths of the two (and he brings them back to life later in a Space-Jesus moment), there is no malice about his actions. He goes about these as if he thinks that they are greetings of some kind, apparently unaware of the significance of these actions.
In the same vein, Turman treats Galactus as a force of nature that is oblivious to the beings living on the planets he needs for sustenance. Galactus is a being of energy, a purely amoral creature that just wants its next meal. There is nothing personal about his actions destroying the human race: he just wants lunch. He does not even notice when the military sends its best fighter planes to attack him, but ignores them as if there was a pesky gnat flitting around your head. As one character says, he doesn’t even realize that they are there. This is in contrast to the version that made it to film, where Galactus is a giant space-cloud with a face that wants to eat the planet. This version has a humanoid-shaped Galactus that travels in an enormous starship, albeit made of indescribable matter. Like the Surfer, Galactus does not know English, nor would he even bother to make himself understood to humanity if he did. The Surfer only qualifies as marginally more important to Galactus than the humans because the Surfer is his herald. In the end, it is not even the Surfer’s pleas that divert Galactus, but Ethel Merman (I said it was cheesy). As it turns out, Galactus speaks a language based on binary code, and as the script states, music is not based on mathematics. Even though, in the real world, music is actually based on mathematical ratios, tempos, and so on, the point here is the distinction between the cold, amoral universe of Galactus and humanity’s emotional capacity as seen through music (although if the first song I ever heard was “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” I’d probably just go ahead and eat the planet anyway). Finally, the biggest difference between these Galactuses (Galacti? What would the plural be?) is the relationship between master and herald: while the climax of Rise of the Silver Surfer ends with the Surfer easily killing Galactus, here the Surfer is only able to talk to his master, to plead with him, and not even all that well. While Rise of the Silver Surfer ended with the ambiguous deaths of the Surfer and Galactus, here Galactus departs the world with the Surfer seemingly at his side before brutally confining his herald to the Earth. After all of the Silver Surfer’s beautiful monologues about the beauties of the universe, to see him shot down so callously and quickly by his master is tragic given the emotions he has rediscovered in humanity.
While this script is nowhere near perfect, it captures the essence of the Silver Surfer as a contemplative being rather than a fighter. There are plenty of battles between the titular character and the US Air Force, but the Surfer himself remains an enigma for most of the movie. Essentially, this is a superhero movie treated like an alien movie, from the standpoint of a guy on the street that is more amazed by the sheer existence of a silvery, flying man than by a superhero that saves lives. The Surfer does not spend his first visit to Earth stopping bank robberies and supervillains, but by examining humanity from an outsider’s perspective, curious about our nature and our culture. He sees some of the worst of humanity in our fears, our pettiness, our selfishness and greed, but also the capability we have for empathy and for love. He’s Superman without the emotional attachment and no investment in the Earth, and frankly, that makes his actions very powerful. This is not a superhero movie, but you know what? It could’ve made a pretty good flick.