With a little help from my mutant friends
- Reel Run
May 30, 2014-
It was a good 14 years ago that moviegoers around the world—at least those of us who hadn’t read the comic books—were first introduced to the primary group of mutants in the X-Men universe, when the franchise made the leap to the big screen with X-Men. Directed by Bryan Singer, that first installment had been something of a trailblazer—and I’m not just referring to how it singlehandedly made bushy sideburns cool again. The movie was among the initial few in Hollywood to get their hands on the up-and-coming digital tools that were accelerating in sophistication, and it had combined that CGI magic (at a time when it was still surprising to see metal claws shooting out of someone’s knuckles) with memorable characters played by great actors and a weightier script than such films are generally hewn to. In this way, X-Men was the forerunner of the many big-budget, effects-heavy superhero blockbusters that have come to flood theatres at this time every year—and, in fact, still holds its own compared to much of what the genre has offered up in the last decade.
Singer did stick around for the second film, X2, much bigger in scope and a more-than-worthy follow-up. But then he decided to move on (although, considering what he got up to in the following years—a disappointing Superman semi-reboot and a few other projects that failed to make much noise—it probably wasn’t the smartest decision), leaving the next four films in the hands of others, with mixed results. Number 3, The Last Stand, was dutiful to the point of tedium, and the fourth—which traced the origins of one of the mutants—was an even bigger clinker. Things seemed to pick up with First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn; if nothing else, the 2011 film brought into the X-Men fold two very classy acts—James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender. Momentum was maintained with The Wolverine in 2013, which had a restrained sort of charm. A decade since he signed off, however, Singer is now back, helming the series’ newest installment, and suffice it to say, he should never have left.
Days of Future Past opens somewhere in the future, a time when the world has been riven by hatred and mistrust. Anti-mutant sentiment, we learn, has progressed to the point where these gifted folks and their human allies are being picked out and eliminated by a slew of practically indestructible robots, the Sentinels. Meanwhile, high up in a mountain hideout, X-Men leader Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has been strategising with his fellow mutants—including the testy Magneto (Ian McKellen)—on how best to deal with the threat at hand. It is ultimately decided that Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) must use her ‘phasing’ abilities to send someone’s consciousness back to the past, so as to stop the Sentinels from ever being invented. That someone ends up being Logan aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), because he’s the only one who could survive what is certain to be an excruciating hurtle through time. And so he’s off, to 1973.
Logan has some fairly simple instructions: Bring together the estranged younger versions of the professor (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), find Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and prevent her from making a mistake that will lead to the Sentinel programme, and the war. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. The 70s, it turns out, represents a rough patch in everyone’s lives—Xavier is lying about in a drug-addled stupor; Magneto is locked up in a cage in the Pentagon (don’t ask why); and Mystique has been striking out on her own, not really in the mood to listen. Still, Logan must persevere in trying to mend rifts or at least facilitate a fragile truce, and quickly too, if their kind is to be saved from certain extinction.
The central premise in the X-Men series has always been its defense of a minority marginalised for its ‘otherness’. Unlike many other superheroes generally hailed as saviours, these mutants have forever been a target for the fear and revulsion of the general public, prompting many to draw likenesses between them and real-life groups suffering discrimination (although one could argue that few of these groups could emit deathly beams from their eyes or turn one into a block of ice). How to respond to the prejudice then forms the running ideological conflict here: Do they, like Xavier would have it, integrate into human society and coexist as best they can, while downplaying their skills? Or do they take Magneto’s way instead and leave their less-evolved cousins behind, reverting to world dominance?
Compelling enough though the metaphor might have been, at seven films and counting, it’s certainly stretched to its limit by now. One senses that strain in Days of Future Past, where all the major arguments feel like they’ve been déjà vued, and nothing new is added to the debate, really. Speaking of déjà vu, while the time-travel plot-device here—always a fairly tricky thing to navigate—has proven useful in bulking up the cast, it’s a path ridden with many a hole in logic, the kind you’re better off not dwelling on for too long.
Granted, logic isn’t really a huge priority when you’re watching an X-Men film, and the cast makes sure to keep your attention riveted, so that you’re not asking too many questions they can’t answer. The actors have always been the series’ greatest asset—Stewart and McKellen are both old pros and have played off each other wonderfully in all the films, able to make even the most ridiculous of plot points seem plausible, as do McAvoy and Fassbender as their younger selves. It is the latter pair that this new film mostly focuses on, along with their reluctant mediator, Jackman, and all three are a thrill to watch. But a few others, however, are given the short shrift, including Lawrence, who, despite being a primary catalyst in the story, doesn’t get nearly enough screen time as her character warrant, or Peter Dinklage (of Game of Thrones) who is underused as a genetics mastermind—although, to their credit, both make the best of what little they have to do.
Among the clear strengths of Days of Future Past are the excellent visuals it boasts, especially in 3D, with some scenes absolutely spectacular to look at. An example would be a hilarious kitchen set-piece featuring a quirky new character played by Evan Peters, rendered in bullet-time slow-motion a la The Matrix. Although barely a few minutes in length, the whimsical bit—playing out against Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, is one of the film’s most memorable sequences—and well reflects the makers’ general approach towards digital effects and CGI. Even in moments of sheer computer-contrivance such as this one, the characters still manage to shine through, a fact that instantly lifts the production above most of its contemporaries.
It’s hard to say how hardcore fans of the comic books will feel about the liberties screenwriter Simon Kinberg has reportedly taken with the source material by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. But for those of us who didn’t know of a Wolverine before Jackman, and have been following the film franchise as a separate entity altogether, Days of Future Past is a well-told, excitingly visualised chapter in the lives of our favourite on-screen mutants. Free, for once, of the baggage of backstory, it’s a film that trots on at a good pace, laced with necessary doses of humour, and visible affection and chemistry between characters—a tall order for a superhero project these days. While not quite drumming up the same impact as his first forays into the series, it certainly marks a grand comeback for Singer, serving to wipe out the bad taste left in our mouths by some of the middle installments. The mandatory sequels appear to be in safe hands—for now.
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Director: Bryan Singer
Actors: Hugh Jackman,
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender
Genre: Superhero adventure
Published: 31-05-2014 09:34