Sunday, November 16, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the most recent film in the X-Men cycle, X-Men: Days of Future Past (that really is the title — I’d somehow got it in my head that the last word was “Passed,” like the title of the Moody Blues’ second album, recorded in 1967 and really the starting point of progressive rock), which was released theatrically and then on DVD earlier this year. It was originally hailed as the return of director Bryan Singer to the X-Men cycle — he’d directed the first two X-Men films before quitting the series to direct the flop Superman Returns (2006) — but his participation in the promotion was abruptly cut short when he was sued for sexual harassment by two young men who claimed that years before he had invited them to parties at his big Hollywood mansion, drugged them and raped them. The plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past began life as a sequence in the X-Men comic books by Chris Clairemont, whose work has provided the basic plots for three other X-Men movies (X-Men 2, X-Men: The Last Stand and the origin story The Wolverine), though three people — Simon Kinberg (who also produced the film), Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn — were credited with the “original” screen story and Kinberg alone with the screenplay. It’s a time-travel story in which — contrary to the understanding at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand (third and last in the original sequence before they made two Wolverine origin stories and the attempted “reboot,” X-Men: First Class) that humans and mutants had reached a modus vivendi and the world was moving towards at least tolerance, if not acceptance, of its mutant sub-population — at the beginning, in the year 2023, there’s been a worldwide Holocaust against the mutants and only a handful of them are left.

They’re being hunted down by Sentinels, plastic robots invented in 1973 by a diminutive defense contractor named Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, the go-to guy these days for little-person parts), who became convinced that if humans didn’t wipe out the mutants while they still had the chance, the mutants would wipe us out and Homo sapiens would join Homo neanderthalensis on the scrap-heap of evolution. The conceit is that Raven, a.k.a. Mystique (she has dual handles depending on whether she’s being a good mutant allied with Professor Charles Xavier or a bad mutant allied with Erik “Magneto” Lehnsherr), killed Dr. Trask at the Paris peace conference in January 1973 where Trask had gone with President Richard Nixon (played on screen by Mark Camacho but voiced by Lex Lang) and other dignitaries to celebrate the signing of the agreement that would end the Viet Nam War. She hoped that this would put an end to Trask’s experiments; instead it backfired and the government gave Trask’s company scads of money to complete the Sentinel program and loose the robots on the world’s mutant population. So Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik (Ian McKellen), once again allied now that they and about three others in a mountain redoubt in northern China are the only mutants left in the world, concoct a plan to send Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, once again getting top billing in an X-Men movie), back in time to 1973 to stop Raven/Mystique from killing Trask and derail the Sentinel program before it has a chance to start. It’s actually a good premise for a film if you can buy the time-travel gimmick (Charles said he has a problem with time-travel stories in general and even more of a problem with ones that involve going back in the past and trying to change history than ones like the pioneer, H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine, that involve going into the future and having a look at what history humankind made for itself); though the big action scenes between mutants and Sentinels at the beginning and the end of the film are virtually incomprehensible, in between the movie is surprisingly well constructed and Singer is a good enough director that even at a 131-minute running time the film holds your interest and doesn’t seem padded.

Somehow, though, I just didn’t like it anywhere nearly as much as I had X-Men: The Last Stand, which got the worst reviews of the X-Men series (mainly because Brett Ratner replaced Singer as director) but which I think is the best of all of them, just as I think the least well-reviewed of the Twilight movies, New Moon, is the best of that series (mainly because director Christopher Weitz made it like a 1930’s movie, with slow, steady pacing and long intervals between cuts; the conventional wisdom is that a movie aimed at teenage audiences today has to be cut at the pace of a music video, but Weitz ignored that nonsense and had a huge hit with those very audiences). Somehow the plot premise of X-Men: The Last Stand (the mutants are offered a drug which will “cure” them and turn them into normal humans, and this forces every mutant in the world into a crisis of conscience in which they either accept the “cure” and give up their powers or assert themselves as out-and-proud mutants) had far more emotional resonance with me than the new-Holocaust plot of X-Men: Days of Future Past. Days of Future Past has its own set of problems, including the dual casting of several roles to indicate the same characters in 1973 and 2023 — and though Michael Fassbender as the young Erik seems like he could conceivably grow up to be Ian McKellen, at no time did James McAvoy as the young Xavier convince me he would ever have the gravitas of Patrick Stewart. (There’s an interesting bit of “doubling” in that at one point in the film the characters watch a Star Trek rerun featuring Stewart’s predecessor as that show’s star, William Shatner.) It also doesn’t help that we’ve been watching Ian McKellen co-star with Derek Jacobi in Vicious, a British TV sitcom about two Gay men who have lived together as a couple for 48 years and bitched at each other the whole time; all too many of McKellen’s exchanges with Stewart here reminded us too much of Vicious for us to take them as seriously as Singer and his writers wanted us to.

There were some grand scenes in Days of Future Past, notably one in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) gets his fellow X-ers out of a trap by using his mutant power, super-speed, to catch all the bullets before they can do him and his fellow mutants damage — and Singer stages this by slowing down the action so we can see it and accompanying it with Jim Croce’s song “Time in a Bottle,” the sort of campy touch I miss in superhero movies now that they’ve become all too Serious with a capital S. I also liked the conceit that Magneto was being held in a plastic prison in the Pentagon for having assassinated President John F. Kennedy — supposedly, with his powers to control any metal object, he was the one who made the Warren Commission’s “superbullet” do right-angle turns in mid-air and wound both Kennedy and then-Texas Governor John Connally — and that in his defense he says he was actually trying to save the president because JFK himself was a mutant (an interesting twist on the gimmick of Ronald Reagan being a space alien in John Carpenter’s underrated masterpiece, They Live). For the most part, though, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a decent enough comic-book superhero movie but one with fewer resonances than the first three X-Men films, and despite Singer’s vaunted reputation as a major director of non-comic book movies, this time around he didn’t maintain the delicate balance between delivering on the expectations of the summer blockbuster audience and building on that framework to address real ideas and emotions. Also, quite frankly, as much as I like Hugh Jackman (and as heartbreaking it is that his best screen performance came in a film, Australia, virtually nobody saw), the Wolf Man-derived angst act Wolverine is constantly going through is really getting tiresome by now!