Thursday, May 22, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

The third entry in the X-Men film series, 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand, was so reviled by critics and audiences that it nearly killed the entire franchise. It took 20th Century Fox five years to get things back on the right track with X-Men: First Class, an energetic prequel that creatively reignited the mutant saga, and now the studio is back with X-Men: Days of Future Past, an ambitious sequel that combines two generations of cast members into one film. Bryan Singer - largely responsible for sparking the current wave of superhero films thanks to his work on the first two X films - is back in the director's chair here, and though some have questioned whether he still has an eye for action after after the disappointing Jack the Giant Slayer, Singer uses this film to reestablish himself as one of the best comic book movie directors working today. X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only an outstanding science fiction/action film, it's also the best X-Men movie yet.

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage

In the future, mutants are on the brink of extinction. The Sentinels, a group of mutant-hunting robots, are deployed to kill every mutant on Earth, and they don't stop there: they're also able to tell if regular humans will one day give birth to a mutant, and the Sentinels don't like the sound of that, either. Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry), and a handful of other mutants are on the run, hiding in exotic strongholds until the Sentinels inevitably come and kill them all. But what's the big deal - they're just a bunch of robots, right? Shouldn't be a problem for the combined superpowers of some of the coolest mutants on Earth. Well, except for one pesky little problem: the Sentinels can evolve and create a defense against each mutant's power, essentially rendering them defenseless.

The film opens with a harrowing raid scene by the Sentinels, during which they brutally murder a bunch of mutants - familiar faces we know and care about from previous movies, like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) - in gruesome and vicious fashion. Singer drops us into the action immediately, creating a wasteland futurescape reminiscent of The Terminator and using the Sentinels as his own army of Schwarzeneggers (they "absolutely will not stop, ever, until [the X-Men] are dead").

But our heroes have a secret weapon: Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). Along with being able to walk through walls, she has the ability to send someone's consciousness a few days back in time. Just as the Sentinels burst in, murdering everyone on sight, Kitty saves the day by sending Bishop's (Omar Sy) consciousness back to his former self, who then warns the rest of the group that the Sentinels are on the way so they can move on to a different hiding spot. Rinse, repeat.

The only way to break the cycle is to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to 1973, when the vengeful Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) killed Sentinel inventor Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). Instead of stopping his Sentinel program, his death spurred the government into funding it, and with the shape-shifting Mystique captured and experimented on, Trask Industries also manages to use her DNA as the essential piece of information that allows the Sentinels to adapt. Wolverine has to stop Mystique from killing Trask, but he needs the help of young Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to pull that off: trouble is, those two guys aren't exactly friends after the final events of X-Men: First Class. A drugged-up Xavier is laying around in his abandoned mansion with Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Magneto is in a prison cell a hundred floors under the Pentagon. Looks like Wolverine has his work cut out for him.

There's so much story to get through that Singer doesn't have time to make the meaningful connections between mutants and minorities that he did in his first two outings (ironic, considering this film's time-heavy storyline). The Sentinels first appeared in the comics back in the mid-1960s, but writer Simon Kinberg knows they're becoming more and more realistic as our real world technology catches up to the fantasies of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Kinberg doesn't have many opportunities to slip in underlying themes between all the set pieces, but there are some nice moments concentrating on a fear of technology overtaking humanity sprinkled throughout the film; it's a fairly standard sci-fi trope, but it serves its purpose here. Structurally speaking, there's a great ticking clock element straight out of The Matrix that builds suspense as the Sentinels track the future X-Men while Wolverine's body is being held in stasis by Kitty Pryde. And of course, time travel is a convenient way to erase mistakes of the past (cough cough X-Men: The Last Stand cough) and reset the whole franchise for whatever the studio wants to do with it moving forward. (Another sequel, X-Men: Apocalypse, is already in the works, as evidenced by a post-credits scene here.)

This story could easily get bogged down with complexities, but Singer manages to keep things crisp, clean, straightforward, and easy to follow. The film drags a bit before its climax, but showstopping action sequences like the introduction of the speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaking Magneto out of prison and Blink (Fan Bingbing) utilizing portals to fight Sentinels in the future practically ooze confidence; Singer is completely in control of this world, and he knows it and its characters better than any other director who has tackled an X-Men movie thus far.

McAvoy, Fassbender, and Lawrence again form the heart of the film, and the reason I like this movie more than First Class is because I love both the young cast and Hugh Jackman's Wolverine. He had a hilarious cameo in First Class, but seeing him mix it up with the up-and-comers is fun, and it finally gives Logan a chance to crack a smile again after being so damn dour following the events of X-Men 3. You feel the connections between young Charles, Erik (aka Magneto), and Raven (aka Mystique) in a big way, and their shared history informs all of their motivations in a way that makes sense both emotionally and psychologically. Peter Dinklage is fine as Trask, but as with all of the X-Men franchise's human villains, his character unfortunately isn't menacing or interesting enough to leave much of a lasting mark. Trask is almost better as just a shady corporation than a man, because Kinberg doesn't give him the necessary backstory to fully justify his crusade.

But balancing twice the number of characters that appears in The Avengers is a tough thing to pull off, and all things considered, the creative team knocked it out of the park with X-Men: Days of Future Past. It's truly a spectacle film, filled with great moments, memorable scenes, iconic imagery, and a story that will make X-Men fans very, very happy. This is without a doubt the best X-Men movie to ever hit the big screen. Until next time...


Cinderella K said...

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Marlene Detierro said...

Does a fine job of portraying the broad-strokes emotional storytelling that popcorn movies are best at... very fun and very operatic, large and imposing and dazzling.

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