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Friday, May 23, 2014

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past is Fox's attempt to right the ship. The X-Men series has been in a moribund state ever since Brett Ratner stepped on board the set for the third entry in the franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand, a fairly embarrassing feature that was then followed three years later by the even worse X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Recent offerings with Matthew Vaughn and James Mangold at the helm have won many critics back, but the damage had been done with audiences, leading to lower and lower box office totals (when adjusted for inflation). With their hopes heightened for a return to box office glory given the success of the Marvel Movie Machine in recent years, Fox brought back the one man who was able to bring them dollars and critical acclaim, Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films in the franchise. In return, Singer has created one of the better X-Men films to date, but it's not without its problems.

The plot takes a bit to describe given its twisty-turny nature, but here's the gist: ten years in our future, the world is policed by giant hunter-killer robots called Sentinels, who place mutants and human sympathizers in death camps. The remaining X-Men including: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Charles Xavier (Patrick Stuart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Storm (Halle Berry) and a few others whose screentime is of varying quantities, are what remains of the resistance. Using some magical hoodoo with her powers that really doesn't make much sense, Kitty sends Wolverine into his body in the past (to 1973 specifically) at Charles' and Magneto's behest to circumvent Mystique's (Jennifer Lawrence) successful assassination of the creator of the Sentinel Program: Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Along the way, Wolverine meets Younger Charles (James McAvoy) and Younger Magneto/Erik (Michael Fassbender), and learns that not only will the assassination need to be halted but he'll have to find a way to get these two once-friends to work together despite the ever increasing gulf between them and their very different ideas regarding stopping Mystique. Wolverine/Logan is a man caught in the middle of a very desperate situation.

The story may sound like a bit of a head-scratcher, and indeed, its complex nature does require far more exposition than is seemingly needed just to make sure the audience is keeping up; but X-Men: Days of Future Past's greatest strength is in just how propulsive its story moves and is willing to embrace bigger concepts. The time travel influences here range from Doctor Who to The Terminator and they're handled with aplomb, particularly given the task at hand here is to basically reboot the entire series into workable shape for Fox to have multiple directions and variations in which to pull a number of films from. Even on a meta-textual level, Singer seems to be aiming for a brightening of the franchise that he himself turned toward the dour with his earlier entries. The dark apocalyptic landscape of the framing story eventually giving way to the brighter and more hopeful past, which will compose this series' future, is in a sense a brighter flavor of blockbuster purging itself of the "grim and gritty" and dour elements that have permeated these superhero films of late.

Singer's balance of both stories keeps the film zipping along, and the action, particularly in the far future side of things, is quite exciting. While none of the lesser known mutants get to make much of an impression as actual characters, their power-sets lead to quite a few fun moments. Of particular note, is a X-Man named Blink whose abilities are reminiscent of the video-game Portal. The action is shot very cleanly, as there's never a moment where you're unsure of what occurred in front of you, and there's not a shakey-cam in sight. This heavy focus on special effects does come at a cost to character development though, as stated above, which in turn undercuts any sort of metaphorical value the film might have. X2, Singer's last universally admired film, was lauded for its ability to connect the plight of mutants with that of the LGBTQ population. You won't find anything of the kind here, as this is a movie whose only reference is within its own comic book confines.

Singer also adopts period details of the 1970's in a different fashion than Vaughn did with X-Men: First Class where the 1960's setting was given a cursory glance in a few clothing choices and music cues, but with a script that never quite felt like it was on the same page. Singer is able to take on the slightly grittier 70's in a more organic method, not allowing the period to dominate the proceedings, but at the same time it never comes as a distraction if a piece of dialogue or fashion choice seems out of place, as was consistently the case in the previous film. It's a bit of a trade-off, as one of the delights of First Class was the way Vaughn's cinematography and color palette framed his film as an almost James Bond-esque adventure, but Days of Future Past has a slightly more generic "this is the 70's by way of today's sensibilities" in its lensing. Neither is necessarily better than the other, one just happens to have more style while the other gets the smaller details down in a better fashion.

On top of the immediacy of its core plot, the cast is where things take a definite shine. Singer, in paring down the cast of First Class to its strongest pieces (Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, and Nicholas Hoult) and adding Jackman, his MVP from the earlier films, there's a nice chemistry struck between those core players. This is particularly true amongst the lead trio, as Fassbender and McAvoy are able to pick up right where they left off in First Class and Jackman could play Wolverine in his sleep at this point. Few of the other mutants make much of an impression, even Stuart and McKellen, fine actors that they are, don't get to do much beyond deliver the above stated extremely belabored exposition and broadly stand and pose. On that note Storm gets maybe a few sentences to utter, and don't be fooled by Anna Paquin's name in the credits either, whose "blink and you'll miss it" cameo is almost laughable.

The biggest disappointment overall is in the portion I was looking forward to the most, and that's Dinklage. His Bolivar Trask is underplayed, which is not a bad move when framed with some proper motivation, but the audience never gets a chance to learn anything about the character. Instead of what could have been a fascinating little portrayal just feels like Dinklage is showing up to collect a paycheck. This series has had a few strong villains with Brian Cox's William Stryker as a particular favorite, so it amazes me to see so little attention paid to Trask overall. Also, there's a strain of perhaps trying to chew off too much by the close of the film, where a particular set-piece (Magneto lifting the entirety of RFK stadium) is designed to parallel actions occurring in the frame story, but doesn't make any real sense as a part of the narrative its a function of. There's a point where the third act begins to feel like needless grandstanding that likely sounded better on paper. This, compared to the much more effective, and film high-point, Pentagon break-out scene, can't help but come across as a bit of a let-down for everything that was building up in front of it. Though in how the script wraps its way to a conclusion hits some rather satisfying notes, if opening up a few new questions around its own retroactive continuity.

Regardless of a few quibbles, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a fun piece of popcorn cinema with a plot that displays some level of intelligence and re-sets the table for the entire X-Men franchise going forward in a way not too dissimilar from the 2009 Star Trek. In most regards, Singer's return is a successful one, and the long Ratner-shaped shadow that cast a pall over these movies from 2006 onward has finally been exorcised.

I give it a B.
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