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X-Men: Days of Future Past

Theatrical Review


20th Century Fox ; 131 minutes

Director: Bryan Singer


Written by on May 22, 2014 




The world that opens X-Men: Days of Future Past is a dismal, barren wasteland, stacked tall with the bones and corpses of extinguished super-beings while chameleon-like robotic warriors steal their impressive powers. This is the future segment of Bryan Singer’s new X-Men adventure, and if you’ve achieved comic-book movie fatigue, as I have, it’s hard not to see it as a kind of metaphor for the current blockbuster landscape. Into this, come Dr. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), those patriarchal mutant warhorses, who plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the 1970’s via the powers of Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), which will start a chain reaction unleashing an army of Sentinels equipped with the blue-skinned shape-shifter’s abilities.

Got all of that? Sure, the narrative legwork in the early minutes of Days of Future Past can be a bit convoluted and labyrinthine but it’s mostly there to set-up a time-travel story in the vein of Back to the Future or The Terminator. The added wrinkle is that the audience has already met both sets of these characters and has reasonable investment in them across the board. The early 80’s comic storyline that the film draws its title from was more ground-breaking and intricate than what we see here, but once you accept the concept’s employment as a knowing and intentional reset of the franchise’s system, it becomes lots of fun to play along as time gets tinkered with.

Fun is an element that’s been missing from a few of the previous X-Men movies, ones that mired themselves in a sullen outsider perspective while soaking in routine scenes of super-charged individuals flinging their powers at one another like some sort of cracked Vegas floor show. For my taste, none of the previous pictures—even the better ones like X2: X-Men United—managed to really cash in on the promise of this particular universe, most running out of steam as the action-packed finales kicked-in. What works here is Singer’s commitment to this world—at all points along its varied alternate realities—and the characters, who have finally become more interesting than their costumes.

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On deck first, trapped in a dystopic nightmare that looks like Skynet took over the Grid of Tron:Legacy, are the old guard, led by Stewart and McKellan, who have few lines but command the screen with faces that need no extra make-up to convince us these embattled comrades have seen their fair share of pain and war. Halle Berry, Shawn Ashmore, and Ellen Page join new faces like Omar Sy’s Bishop and Bing Bing Fan’s Blink, who can open doorways in the fabric of reality, characters and action tumbling out on three different visual planes simultaneously. These future scenes mostly exist to add an air of familiarity and charm to the exposition-packed prologue, and to offer a stage for special-effects heavy fight scenes that would otherwise overwhelm the more character-driven segments set in the 70’s.

Not surprisingly, the bulk of the film rests in that tumultuous past with James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender taking over for Charles and Eric in their prime. Both actors add a sense of bruised bravado and conflicted urgency to their characters, which enhances the stakes of their mission. They must reconnect with the estranged Mystique—cast off and emotionally bullied by both men—for the sake of the future. That the plot revolves around a single kill from a character balancing on the beam of villainy is a refreshing change from some far-flung, world-shattering escapade. Of course there are big special effects set-pieces—my favorite involves Magneto encircle a certain iconic building with his mighty powers—but the best scenes are smaller, more nuanced affairs that really explore what having an extraordinary power amidst the mundane would really feel like.

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Singer offers up a different texture for these scenes, one that reminds of Zack Snyder’s work on Watchmen, with visually inventive tableaus peeking inside the mutant perspective. An exciting prison break—intended to spring Magneto, who’s doing time for a certain assassination—involves new mutant Peter Maxinoff, Quicksilver (Evan Peters) using his super-speed to flummox a squad of armed guards. Set to Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle, Quicksilver’s blink-of-an-eye maneuvers are slowed down to capture the way he processes the crawling ebb of normal folk. Peters take on the zippy mutant is so energetic that when he exits shortly thereafter, the film’s momentum briefly drags.

Hugh Jackman’s Logan is once again the audience eyes and ears into mutant life. An outsider and loner in the early films, this time through, Wolverine serves as witness, disciple and eventually apostle, carrying Xavier’s message of hope back to the person who needs it most, himself. Jackman has spent so much time living in this role that he convinces just by showing up and being. This time through he’s got more to work with though, and the growth the character has experienced over the course of the other films adds impact to every scene. Jennifer Lawrence and Peter Dinklage, forming two sides of a dangerous stalemate between humans and mutants, do fine work but have limited characterizations to work with.

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There are some issues of internal logic and film continuity at play here, but the emotional journey the film offers is a satisfying one and by the rules they have set up, Singer and company tell a good story. There’s a goofy boldness to the way they take the current awkward trend of rebooting a popular series and make it the literal goal of the mutants themselves.

When Logan strikes out into the past, he seems to be striving not to just to mend the apocalyptic future, but erase the events of Brett Ratner’s The Last Stand. By dealing with these things up-front, X-Men: Days of Future Past frees itself up to indulge the world its lovingly created. The result is a highly entertaining film, a reminder of how good escapism can both elate and engage us, and a tasty piece of pop-art that translates the mythic quality of comic-books to the big-screen without losing any of their vitality.

X-Men: Days of Future Past opens in wide release on Friday, May 23rd.


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