Friday, May 23, 2014

DAYS OF SEQUELS FUTURE: “X-Men: Days of Future Past” Guarantees the The X-Men’s Cinematic Future

Admittedly, 20th Century Fox’ X‑Men franchise (including the spin-offs) has been somewhat floundering in quality since Bryan Singer’s departure from directorial duties after 2003’s X-Men 2. Some have been quite good (The Wolverine) and others…not so much (X-Men: The Last Stand). So much so that a “soft” reboot in the form of Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) was necessitated. Bryan Singer himself has taken a few hits, both professionally (Valkyrie, Superman Returns) and (in recent days) personally. However, X-Men: Days of Future Past ushers in a return to form for both the director and the franchise.
 
The story begins in the not-too-distant future wherein mutants are being systematically slaughtered by giant robots known as “Sentinels”, who were conceptualized in the early 1970s by a millionaire industrialist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) for the sole purpose of their eradication. When Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates him for his slaughtering of mutants in the name of science, it sets of the chain of events that lead to the true “last stand” of Homo Superior.  In a last desperate bid for survival, the few remaining mutants, led by Professor Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Sir Ian McKellan), devise a plot to send the consciousness of Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past in order to prevent Mystique from succeeding in her task. However, in order to do so Logan will have to engage the help of the younger versions of Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively); no mean feat as, given the events chronicled in First Class (2011), the two men couldn’t be any further apart ideologically or emotionally.
 
In a sense, Days of Future Past is Bryan Singer’s Star Trek: Generations (coincidentally starring Patrick Stewart) as he has to juggle elements and casts from two iterations of the same franchise and balance them out.  For the most part, he succeeds where Generations failed. While Hugh Jackman is the ostensible star, every main character is given equal weight; an impressive undertaking as he served only as a producer of First Class and, thus, had not worked with the new cast in a directorial capacity until now. Yet, the film feels like he’s deftly handled those characters this entire time. Given that the bulk of the film takes place in the past, much of the returning regulars from the previous X-Men films, such as Storm (Halle Berry), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore),  and Rogue (Anna Paquin), get the short shrift in screen time. But in their case, quantity does not equate to quality as their characters, and newcomer to the franchise Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, are pivotal to the story in their own ways, as is scene stealer Evan Peters as Quicksilver, the fastest mutant alive. A super speedy smart-ass, he practically owns the movie in just one stellarly-rendered scene that borrows from the climax of the animated film Over The Hedge (2006). 
 
As far as the main players go, the performances are indeed sublime. The real life bromance between McKellan and Stewart adds to their characters’ relationship in the future and heightens the contrast of said relationship of their younger selves. The contrast between the young and old is powerful. McAvoy’s Xavier is self-loathing and depressed, while Fassbender’s Eric Lehnsherr, while still duplicitously arrogant, is much more conflicted and unsure. The tension between them, the hurt and longing, is practically palpable. Interestingly enough, Hollywood’s current “It” girl Jennifer Lawrence’s performance makes one forget that she is the second actor to play the live-action Mystique. As the villain of the piece, Peter Dinklage is rather…ordinary; not that that assertion is an indictment. As Trask, he is Americanized Tyrion Lannister in a polyester business suit; a study in charismatic banality, providing contextual logic to his monstrous actions (only in one moment in the film does his performance seem to slip into "Simon Legree" territory; a hiccup in an otherwise interesting turn). Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy/Beast is given much more to do this time around, with the producers having taken a page from Marvel’s The Avengers, to give McCoy the appropriate “hulk out” moments (though not nearly as satisfying).
 
Hugh Jackman has come a long way since he first donned the Adamantium claws. What’s always interesting about Jackman is that despite the amount of times he’s played the character he always seems to find a new facet to explore.  This time, Logan is the guide instead of the guided. He must mentor the self-destructive Xavier. Despite having the experience and knowledge of Xavier’s history, he is as unsure as the young Xavier is. It is a unique and unfamiliar position for the character to take and Jackman evinces this superbly.
 
The X-Men: Days of Future Past screenplay by Simon Kinberg, (very loosely…I repeat, VERY LOOSELY… based on the comic book storyline of the same name by writers Chris Claremont and John Byrne) coupled with the editing from Singer’s partner-in-crime John Ottman allows for a film that is mostly tight. There are a couple of set up scenes that almost Tarantino-esque (meaning, goes way too long), but they are few and excusable. The time travel theories used in the film are plausible for the story logistics (so long as one does not dwell on them too much). Ottman’s score, as usual, does justice to the film but is eminently forgettable out of context. The special effects are top notch, though 3-D does call attention to some of its weaknesses but it’s not too distracting. Some die-hard X-Men fans may scoff at the design of the Sentinels themselves, but as rendered in both the past and the future they are appropriately menacing.
 
Singer plays fast and loose with continuity, both in terms of history in general and the X-Men films in particular.  However, he does have an eye for detail and a sense of pop culture kitsch of the era (one to particularly humorous effect), and does a good job of tying in some subplots from the previous films, thereby placing First Class and this film firmly into the fold. For anyone who had issues with Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand (and those numbers are legion), let’s just say that this film offers vindication.
 
The film, however, is big...nay, epic...in scope; arguably as much as Marvel's Thor: The Dark World. As the film progresses, it gets bigger in visuals, in scope, and in stakes, building to a resounding crescendo. Despite the change in directors, the sense of anything-can-happen begun in First Class is continued here; especially as the film rushes to its conclusion. And what a finale it is. Singer’s direction is so tight that it literally ratchets up the suspense. Many of the people who will view this film will be more than familiar with the story upon which it is based. However, it is a testament to his skill that despite this, the viewer catches their breath waiting to see how these things play out.  If only Singer had brought this sort of deftness to Valkyrie and Superman Returns. Singer’s predilection towards themes of isolation, segregation, and persecution are on display here, but here they’re tempered with a sense of family. At least to this reviewer, for the first time the characters feel as though they are part of a larger family. Without that feeling, this film would not be as potent.

It’s been a while since I have seen Singer’s previous X-Men films but I can say that I was not as invested in these characters cinematically until this particular film. Despite the fantasy, the film is anchored in very relatable, human emotion. The fans will enjoy the little Easter eggs that pepper the film and the game of “name that mutant” that goes with it. For the non-fans, there is enough action, suspense, and emotion to satisfy. In whole, this is a film on par with Marvel’s The Avengers. The torch has been passed between the original and new cast (though expect to see Jackman as Wolverine in a film or two to come), and with this film, the future of the X-Men franchise on film is practically assured.
 
Sorry, Marvel Studios.

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