Friday, October 14, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse (20th Century-Fox, Marvel Entertainment, TSG Entertainment, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was X-Men: Apocalypse, the latest in the sequence and a quite good movie on its own terms but also oddly disappointing. Directed by Bryan Singer (who made the first two films in the X-Men cycle before turning it over to others, then came back for the immediately previous movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past) from a story by himself, Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — though Kinberg gets sole credit for turning the committee-written story into an actual script — X-Men Apocalypse takes about half an hour of its 144-minute running time (including the typically interminable closing credit roll) before its various story threads congeal into an actual plot, but once it does that the script is surprisingly well constructed for a modern superhero film and one doesn’t get the impression, as one often does in the genre, that the “plot” portions are there only to set up the spectacular action scenes. The film opens in ancient Egypt, where En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac, a marvelously “reversible” name), appears to be leading a cult that is aimed at deposing the rightful Pharoah and installing himself as king not just of Egypt but the entire world, and not just for a normal lifespan but forever.

He can do that because he’s built a pyramid that contains a magic technology through which he can make a gold-colored fluid flow upwards, defying gravity (one of the many special effects in this film that couldn’t have been done without CGI) and enabling him, once his body is so old and decrepit it’s about to croak, to transfer his essence into some other body and thereby continue his existence literally indefinitely as long as he does the transfer in time. (This was also the central plot gimmick of that ridiculously slovenly 1959 Columbia “B” horror film The Man Who Turned to Stone, though in that case the apparatus involved was considerably less spectacular, basically a giant bathtub with electrodes through which the baddies could drain the energy out of a young woman and transfer it to themselves; as I wrote when Charles and I watched that one, it’s hard to get excited about a horror film whose big fright gimmick is the Bathtub of Doom.) The scene then flashes forward to 1983, when the bulk of the film takes place — it’s very carefully not presented as a contemporary story; Ronald Reagan is President and East Germany is still a going concern, though the presentation of East Berlin as a wide-open city where a sinister cabaret owner hosts extreme cage-fights between mutants Angel (Ben Hardy) and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smith-McPhee, who has a tail but otherwise sports a bizarre purplish-blue face makeup and overall appearance that makes it look like they dug up Prince and revived him) seems even for a superhero fantasy to fly in the face of everything we know about the real East Berlin. (If East Berlin had really been like this it would have been the West that built the Wall!) We cut again to the school for “gifted children” — i.e., mutants — run by the young Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a long-haired cutie but one already needing a wheelchair (albeit a high-tech powered one of his own invention that apparently moves by sheer thought — at least there aren’t any visible controls like there are in a real power wheelchair); in the first cycle of X-Men films, made earlier but taking place later, he was middle-aged, bald and played (brilliantly) by Patrick Stewart, though he loses his hair in the final confrontation at the end of this one (oh darn, I’ve just spoiled it).

The film is essentially yet another battle between good and bad mutants: the good ones are Xavier, Raven a.k.a. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, ill-used in this role — in the Hunger Games cycle she was great because she actually got to play a character with some depth, but here she’s just another action heroine who can turn her skin blue at will), Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), whose non-mutant identity is Scott Summers and who discovers his power — his eyes can emit red flares that burn up everything in their path — when he’s bullied at high school by a typical asshole jock (who probably went on to become a Republican candidate for President) and, trapped in a restroom, uses his power to melt the hinges of the restroom door and send it hurling through space until it crashes into his tormentor. (Everyone who was ever bullied in school — including me — probably seized on this scene as a sort of ultimate wish-fulfillment.) Scott hopes he’ll find a home at Xavier’s school, especially since his older brother Alex, a.k.a. Havok (William Till), is already there — only Alex gets killed almost immediately when a bomb set off at the school destroys it. Quicksilver, with his power to move so quickly he can literally stop time (director Singer illustrates this by a number of freeze-frames that might have you wondering if your DVD or Blu-Ray player is working properly), rescues the others at the school but Alex was too close to the blast’s epicenter to be saved.

The bad mutants are Apocalypse, a.k.a. En Sabah Nur, a.k.a. whoever’s body he’s using this week; Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who’d managed to run away from his mutant lifestyle and settle in Poland as a factory worker with a wife and child until he inadvertently “outs” himself at the factory one day (Charles and I couldn’t help but quote the famous lines in Ed Wood’s Glen or Glenda? over a stock shot of a steel mill in operation: “Did you hear about the boy mutant who wanted to be a girl mutant?”) and a group of Polish secret police, or something, attempt to take him into custody — Our Anti-Hero fells them by throwing his daughter’s locket at them with such ferocity it cuts off their heads (here, and in a later scene in which someone is almost beheaded, Singer seems to have been inspired by the real-life beheading videos from ISIS), though alas his wife and daughter are also killed and Magneto is sufficiently embittered he throws in his lot with the baddies; Storm (Alexandra Munroe), who’s discovered by Apocalypse as a thief and shoplifter in Cairo and who, with her lithe body, slender build and magnificent Mohawk hair, is (at least to this Queer boy) the hottest-looking woman in the film; Angel and another mutant he picks up so he can fill out the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (you remember from the Book of Revelation; in the film every manifestation of the Four Horsemen, including the one set down by St. John the Divine, was part of a generations-long campaign by Apocalypse to destroy the world and virtually all its populations so the little bit of humanity that’s left can rebuild a world cleansed of all human corruption).

There are also a few non-mutant humans in the dramatis personae, including a CIA agent named Moira MacTaggart with whom Xavier once had an affair, only he used his powers to burn out any memory of it from her brain (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is about the last movie I expected to see ripped off in a superhero film!) with the odd result that other mutants at the school recognize her and she can’t fathom how they know her name; and Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman), who’s determined to capture the mutants and doesn’t care that some mutants are good and in fact are needed to stop the bad mutants from wrecking the world. Col. Stryker has also got custody of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who says he’s going to do a sequel to the Wolverine origin story and then hang up his adamantine claws forever — I still think Jackman got a raw deal when his marvelous film Australia failed and kept him stuck in roles like this), and in any event he appears in just this one scene as a deus ex machina who helps the other good mutants break free from Stryker’s custody, and doesn’t speak. Apocalypse has the embittered Magneto pull out all magnetic metal from the bowels of the earth, meaning that skyscrapers and bridges crumble and so do ships (though there’s one scene in which Magneto attacks a container vessel and makes the containers do aerobatics while not harming the ship, presumably vulnerable to him because it too would be made of steel; later the good mutants fly into battle on a military plane they’ve stolen from Col. Stryker, and at least one contributor wondered how they could use the plane in the face of Magneto’s power; Charles wondered that, too, but I reasoned that since Magneto’s power is based on magnetism it wouldn’t affect an object made out of a non-magnetic metal like aluminum, which in fact is what most modern-day military aircraft are made of) — director Singer said he wanted within the superhero genre to stage a world-threatening catastrophe like the ones in Michael Bay’s films like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow and Armageddon, and he did. Eventually there’s the expected fight to the death between the good mutants and the bad mutants, though not before Apocalypse has incapacitated Xavier and chosen his body to be his next incarnation — there’s some good, if not great, suspense editing between Apocalypse’s diabolical machine and the efforts of the other good mutants to come and save Xavier, who’s trying to save himself by fighting back against Apocalypse’s mind control (and doing so in sequences in which he still has hair even though the “real” Xavier has gone bald) — and though the overall intrigue ends more or less happily there’s one of Marvel’s trademark post-credits “teaser” sequences in which agents from the Essex Corporation steal a serum vial containing “Weapon X,” the drug that created Wolverine in the first place.

X-Men: Apocalypse is a good film in the modern-day superhero genre, but what I missed in this one that I got in previous episodes in the cycle was the humanity. Marvel head honcho Stan Lee (who not only makes a cameo appearance in this one but brings his wife into it; they’re an elderly couple, he blind, who witnesses the detonation of all the nuclear-armed missiles, flown into space by Apocalypse’s power as part of his effort to cleanse humanity — the idea that a super-powerful being would unilaterally disarm the world by setting off its nukes harmlessly in space was also part of Arthur C. Clarke’s original conception for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but director Stanley Kubrick didn’t use it because he thought it would be too close to the ending of Dr. Strangelove) created X-Men in 1963 largely as a metaphor for the African-American civil rights movement, but later, with the advent of Gay Liberation, it became a favorite comic among Queer people because they, like the mutants, not only had to deal with social hatred and prejudice but also had the dilemma of whether to stay closeted or “come out” in their real identities. Some of the most powerful scenes in the earlier X-Men movies deal with the very real human emotions behind mutant-dom and in particular how they shape the decisions of various mutants either to be closeted or “out,” and whether to fight for humanity or against it. Here there’s very little of that — or of the moral ambiguity of the characters that made the earlier films in the cycle interesting; it’s basically a tale of good-good mutants and bad-bad mutants, and the only good-bad mutant (the Gollum of the tale, as it were) is Magneto, who’s persuaded to switch sides and reverse his assault on human technology because Xavier can offer him what Apocalypse can’t: a family. Other X-Men stories have been strong human dramas while still delivering the super-powered action superhero-film fans crave; this one delivers the action, all right (though most of it looks typically CGI-fake), but not (except intermittently in Scott’s character) the emotions.