Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Film Review: X-Men - Days of Future Past

This movie is a high-concept big gamble.  It is a time-travel scifi superhero action movie that attempts to bridge two ends of a franchise that has had a diminishing box office.  Bryan Singer, director of the original has returned to make a film that is meant to be a linchpin nexus for the entire series.

And he delivers.

The plot centers around series star Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).  In a dire future, remnants of the original X-Men trilogy are running for their lives from the invincible robot mutant hunters known as the Sentinels.  Their only hope lies in sending Wolverine's mind back into his body from the 1970's.  In that era the mutant Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murders Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) the inventor of the Sentinels.  This sets off a chain reaction that leads to this dystopian nightmare.  In the past, Wolverine must get a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) work together to reach Mystique before is too late.

The biggest detriment to the movie is its under-use of the original X-cast of characters.  Fantastic actors like Sir Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, and Ellen Page feel way under utilized.  It is clear early on that this is primarily a sequel to X-Men: First Class rather than too X-Men: The Last Stand.  The scenes with an older reconciled Professor X and Magneto are powerful and touching.  And while Kitty Pryde plays a crucial role, she seems to serve as only a bridge to get Wolverine to the First Class cast.  For example, Colossus (Daniel Cudmore) has his third appearance in the franchise.  But he barely has any lines.  Most of the future cast feel like glorified cameos.  This includes new and fascinating characters like Blink (Bingbing Fan).

The other issue is a smaller one regarding pacing.  I might be the only person in the world who prefers Brett Ratner's X-Men to Singer's.  One of the main reason is that Ratner knows how to film action sequences well and how to pace them throughout a movie.  Singer tends to slow the narrative down a bit too much.  There are some wonderful moments in the film.  There is as action scene with a super fast mutant named Quicksilver (Evan Peters) that is not only fun and inspired, but it might be one of the best sequences in the entire X-movie universe.  There are also some wonderfully creative moments of mutant power usage, like Magneto suturing the back of his head without hands.  But I wanted more of that.  I wanted more of that creative spectacle and Singer was a little stingy.

Having said all of that, when Singer does bring it, it is spectacular.  While I wanted more action, the story itself paces well.  There is a lot of story covered in a short amount of time.  And the story takes some lovely turns.  Some might find them predictable, but I enjoyed how the trajectory of the character's goals constantly shifts based on the circumstances.

This movie is a marked improvement over First Class.  My biggest problem with the movie was how horribly Xavier was written.  His rants about hope rang false because of his life of privilege.  It became quite annoying for him to constantly lecture holocaust survivor Magneto.  When we meet Xavier in Days of Future Past, he is even less likable, but he is easier to connect with because of the suffering he endured at the end of First Class.  He is a man who has been crippled, abandoned, and betrayed.  Now his words of hope no longer feel like lectures but appeals of conviction.

The performances are also some of the best in the series.  I was not a fan of Lawrence's Mystique in First Class.  I found her to be a bit stiff and vacant, something that is uncommon to most of her performances.  But now, her talent is on full display.  In fact, Mystique is the heart of this movie.  She can become anything and so is the symbol for the unwritten future.  We see the struggle in her soul as she leans towards Xavier or Magneto.

Jackman brings his A-game again as Wolverine.  While he doesn't get as much a chance to let loose as he did in The Wolverine, he reminds us how much his character has developed since the first movie.  Even though they give older Wolverine some gray hair, Jackman does not seem to age in the role.  I cannot imagine anyone else playing him.

Fassbender does a wonderful job again of filling McKellen's shoes.  He is the villain that you can't bring yourself to hate.  He is dispassionate about his murderous plans.  He does not kill out of hate but out of a desire for species preservation.  He comes off as admirably honest in his cold cold blood.  And Dinklage has thankfully reached a place in his career where he is cast not because he is a dwarf but because of the power of his performance.  Trask comes off as villain-ish, but with an almost hopeful, Utopian disposition.

But my favorite thing about the movie was how well it incorporated the theme into the plot.  It holds up in stark contrast better than any of the other X-movies the philosophy of Magneto and Xavier.  As a Catholic I found some wonderfully insightful story elements here:

Magneto is pure pragmatism.  Morals principles are unimportant, as is human (or mutant) connection.  That which will bring about the perceived "greater good" is always preferred even it is deemed morally evil.  Individual persons are nothing compared to the needs of the many.  He is the Jack Bauer of comic book characters.  Xavier, on the other hand, believes that the principles are what matters.  He comes from a classic sense of virtue.  The choices we make shape our soul.  The fight is not one of mere survival, but in becoming something more than who we are.  Evolution for him is about moral growth.

What makes this theme work so well is that it ties together the ultimate flaw of pragmatism (you cannot know the future with certainty) with the future is shaped by our moral choices.  I found this to be very illustrative and enlightening.

Overall, this was one of the most enjoyable X-Men movies to date.  With The Wolverine and now X-Men: Days of Future Past, this franchise feels like it has received a second wind and can carry that momentum forward to their next adventure.

4 out of 5 stars.

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