Friday, May 23, 2014

Future Shock: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST


Its first entry was released 14 years ago in the summer of 2000, making Fox’s X-Men the only superhero franchise to not be concluded, rebooted, remade, or canceled. There have been spin-offs and prequels, but all have fit into one universe, separate and distinct from the other superhero franchises crowding into the multiplexes with increasing regularity. Perhaps because their cinematic origins predate the flat, noisy, homogenous sci-fi slugfests that make up so much of the subgenre, the X-Men movies have managed to retain their idiosyncrasies. Following the plight of mutants, people who are born with strange and varied powers, from as helpful as telekinesis or regeneration, to as useless as a frog-like tongue, there’s an obvious and potent metaphor at the center. A minority group fights for the right to peacefully coexist with the majority. These movies work best when they tap into that real emotion and empathy.

The first sequel, 2003’s X2, has a quiet and unexpected scene in which a teenager comes out as a mutant to his family. (“Have you ever tried not being a mutant?” is his mother’s response.) It’s moving and human, an example of the kind of scene few other superhero movies have room for. Director Bryan Singer, who helmed the first two entries, got the series off on the right note, with slickly designed thrills and the characters showing off their powers in grounded yet comic-book ways, while taking the metaphors very seriously. It’s a good combination. After 11 years and 4 films of varying quality without him, the franchise is once again under Singer’s direction with the latest, X-Men: Days of Future Past, an attempt to bring together the various strands of timelines and plotlines the series has accumulated.

Days of Future Past is serious, a little silly, and geekily detailed. Simon Kinberg’s script features authentically comic-bookish storytelling, quickly lining up a thinly sketched conflict, presenting the powers, winding up the scenarios and then getting tied in time-travel knots before exploding in big full-page spreads of colorful commotion. It begins in a dystopian future where Sentinels, giant mutant-killing robots, have gone wild. Ruthless machines, they’ve turned the world into a wintry hellscape not unlike the future of The Terminator, filled with stray skulls and bands of resistance fighters. It is this dark future from whence the cast of the first few X-Men pictures, including on-again-off-again allies Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), must send the ever-repairable adamantium-claw-wielding Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to prevent the mass-extinction.

Conveniently, that sends him back into the 1970s where the characters of X-Men: First Class, including young Prof. X (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), are about to inadvertently lay the groundwork for the Sentinels. The key line comes from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to project Wolverine’s consciousness back into his 1970’s body. (See, I told you this was comic-booky.) “Whatever you do becomes our past,” she says to him. That line frees the movie from real-world history and its franchise backstory. Anything can happen. The movie includes the Vietnam war, Paris peace talks, and references to the Kennedy assassination. Richard Nixon consults fictional weapons manufacturer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, sporting a great 70’s stache) and unscrupulous scientists. It’s a free and excited blend of alternate history and retcon loop-de-loops enjoyable enough to distract from how completely incomprehensible it is the more you think about it.

It’s a movie that embraces possibilities for fun throwaway details in its plot. A Paris disco blares a Francophone cover of a Motown hit. How many blockbusters have time for that? It’s a movie in which a bunch of great actors chew over dopey expository dialogue and earnest character work with such gravitas and enjoyment that it reads as simply entertaining. The movie takes itself the right amount of serious, willing to wink in amusement at itself. Take this exchange between the fuzzy blue mutant known as Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and the time-travelling Wolverine. Beast: “In the future, do I make it?” Wolverine: “No.”

It’s all treated sincerely enough to keep the plot gears turning, characters intriguing, and action interesting. The filmmakers have thought through the ways various mutant powers can be used in action sequences, allowing the movie to escape the sameness that creeps into these kinds of movies. If heroes and villains are capable of great sci-fi/fantasy feats, why do so many movies of this type culminate in endless point-and-shoot, punching bag calamities? Any old hero can do that, no superpowers required. Here there are fine pop visuals, including a great sequence with a super-fast mutant who can zip around a room and take out a whole squadron of bad guys in the space of a blink. At one point Singer slows the action down, letting him get through a confrontation while all the regular-speed folks are moving so imperceptibly as to not be moving at all. It’s a neat concept cleverly staged.

Most welcome is the way the plot hinges on preventing violence to save the future. It doesn’t come down to a knockdown drag-out fight, but rather a race-against-the-clock to prevent an inciting incident that will lead to bloodshed decades later. There’s no shortage of action, with the shape-shifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) playing the part of globetrotting villain and the 70s X-Men giving chase while, 50 years in the future, X-Men ready themselves for a confrontation with a massive fleet of Sentinels. But the thrust of the film is still the metaphoric, with mutants continuing to stand in for any oppressed minority group fighting over how best to fight for rights and protections. Days of Future Past adds to the mix commentary on drones, with the mindless robots meant to protect going horribly bad, and drug addiction, featuring a subplot with a character hooked on a substance that dulls mutant powers presented in a way that looks a lot like heroin.

That’s all just flavoring, though. After a certain point, Days of Future Past doesn’t have time for quieter human moments. It’s content to borrow emotion with quick flashes of previous entries as it hurtles to the plot contortions necessary to tangle together the various loose ends it’s required to bring together in order to move the franchise forward. This is a movie that slowly loses cleverness as it creaks towards necessary plot points and tidy franchise care. Its time travel narrative carefully clears one table while setting two or three more. That wore me out by the end, and makes my head spin trying to piece together the web of alternate universes and timeline fractures implied by the events. Those burdens hold this solid entertainment back from being one of the X-Men’s best.

Of course, maybe the novelty has just worn off. This one has the feel of a curtain call about it, bringing everyone back on stage for one last bow. It’s warm and comfortable to see old cast members returning, even as it’s coasting on the nostalgia of seeing actors inhabit characters they haven’t in nearly a decade. In the feeling of completion that’s brought about by the end, it feels like a satisfying series finale. And yet, barring catastrophe, it will go on. I’ve had affection for these movies, the first two buying a lot of goodwill through subsequent highs and lows. But after this one acts far more enjoyably like a conclusion, I’m not sure how much more I want or could take. At any rate, the X-Men will go on, borne back ceaselessly into days of future past. This entry is fun, even as it adds layers of complication and continuity wrinkles in the name of streamlining and simplifying. The characters are sharp, the acting sharper, the metaphors workable, and the spectacle bright and clear. It hits its marks well.

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