Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) – Review

Review: X-Men: Days of Future Past gets a lot of things really right, but still does not quite bring the X-Men franchise up to the same level as The Dark Knight Trilogy or recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films (such as The Avengers, Iron Man 3, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier).

In an attempt to bridge the X-Men films of the early 2000s with (the initially intended reboot) X-Men: First Class (which sees many of the characters as their much younger selves), Days of Future Past employs a time travel narrative to send Logan (Wolverine) back in time (or his consciousness) to warn young Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherrr of the dangerous path Raven (Mystique) is on; one that will see the world destroyed by Sentinels (giant robots that initially target mutants but then begin rounding up and/or killing all of humanity). Director Bryan Singer (who directed the first two films in the franchise) returns to the helm (after First Class writer-director Matthew Vaughn bowed out). Singer changed a lot of the elements of Vaughn and writing partner Jane Goldman’s initial story so that he could again bring back his original cast. The results are a mixed bag.

A lot of what Singer does with the film is fantastic. He certainly has a love of and flare for the characters and what they can do. The action scenes, especially those in the future, are phenomenal, exciting, and get at a lot of what is really cool about seeing the X-Men using their powers as a team to combat an enemy. The new mutants introduced in the future (particularly Bink) are also very well done, though with limited screen time. It might be nice in a future installment of the franchise to again see these characters (if that is even possible now). The style of the film is also very good, as Singer takes full advantage of the 1973 setting and juxtaposes it against the future visually. Though he makes a brief appearance as well, Peter Maximofff (Quicksilver) is also a lot of fun and steals his scenes. Again, Singer does a great job with the X-Men themselves and showcasing their abilities in a very entertaining and visually impressive manner. It terms of its visuals and action scenes, Days of Future Past is the most thrilling and absorbing of the franchise to date. These elements alone also create what is ultimately a strong comic book film, but the film also has a lot of issues that do hold it back.

The first thing that strikes the viewer as the film ends (something that is often tricky with time travel narratives) is that if the X-Men in 1973 do succeed in altering the future then every other X-Men film (other than First Class) is thus rendered irrelevant in terms of their stories affecting how the characters mature and grow in the future. Essentially by Singer bringing the two franchises together as one, he has erased his own films from the X-Men timeline as well as last year’s The Wolverine (which does not seem very forward thinking by Fox). Yes, those films can still exist on an alternate timeline, but they are still nonetheless greatly devalued. It just seems that it may have been better served to just leave the two sets of films separate as unrelated entities instead of forcing them together. The Days of Future Past story very easily could have been told solely with the original cast or with the new cast. Bringing the two casts together, while cool, ultimately seems to inflict more harm on the franchise than good (though, to be honest, the franchise was in tatters anyway thanks to a few poor films and timelines that make no sense).

This leads to the next point. The film suffers from Wolverine fatigue (and this may just be my own bias), as this is his sixth appearance as the lead character in an X-Men related film (plus he has a cameo in First Class). Fox does not seem to trust the franchise being able to succeed without him (and maybe they are right), and thus he is thrust into the narrative, ultimately not really serving any purpose other than being a plot device, spending most of the film just standing around as a bystander to the real action and drama. This issue also stems from Singer’s need to merge the two sets of films. Because Wolverine does not age (or ages very slowly), he is the only choice as the character to have his consciousness sent back in time (as he will look the same in 1973 and 2023). The comic book version of Days of Future Past features Kitty Pryde sending her own consciousness back in time to her younger self. Had the two sets of films remained separate, it would have been interesting to see a richer, fully fleshed out Kitty Pryde interact as a much needed leading female character (as really, Mystique is the only female character of substance), sending her consciousness back from the Sentinel-ravaged 1970s to the 1960s (say before Magneto is implicated in the assassination of JFK leading to the US government asking Trash to build his Sentinels to deal with the mutant problem). As is, this film, like almost all the X-Men films, sort of just becomes another Wolverine film; although, his character serves no purpose once he informs Charles Xavier of the impending doom of all mankind (which happens in the first act; and thus he stands around for two acts doing nothing important or interesting – he is not so much a character, but something that allows the plot to move forward).

First Class takes place in 1962 and Days of Future Past takes place in 1973 and the plan is for X-Men: Apocalypse to take place in the 1980s. This creates another issue. Ten or eleven years pass between the events of First Class and Days of Future Past and yet the narrative picks right back up as if only a small amount of time has passed (a couple of years maximum); not to mention that the characters have clearly not aged ten years (as it has only really been three years since First Class). The jump forward in time seems to have only been done so that Singer could feature 1970s style elements and include the setting of the Vietnam War, but the setting does not actually matter to the narrative and thus feels like an unnecessary choice (that logically makes less sense once one actually thinks about the fact that ten or eleven years passes between the two films – which means Erik Lehnsherr has been sitting in that cell for at least nine years and Raven has not been able to find and kill Bolivar Trask in the same amount of time; when Lehnsherr gets out of the cell it seems as if he has only been in there a short while and it seems as though Raven is just now on the hunt for Trask; basically, the timeframe just does not seem to make narrative sense and is not supported by what is shown on screen). This is a case of style over substance (which usually does not make for a better film).

The plots over all three of the original X-Men films revolve around Xavier and his X-Men trying to stop Lehnsherr (Magneto) and his Brotherhood. Charles believes in mankind as a whole (that they are good) while Lehnsherr fears what man will do to the more evolved mutants and thus wants to preemptively strike against them (he believes they are bad). First Class was interesting because for most of the narrative, Xavier and Lehnsherr work together. In Days of Future Past the audience is again shown a united Xavier and Lehnsherr in the future, but once the narrative reverts back to 1973, the film quickly once again becomes an X-Men versus Magneto story, which has become somewhat tiresome as they are all essentially the same (as depicted on film at least). Thus, the narrative of this film plays as mostly uninteresting. Xavier and Lehnsherr do the same dance yet again while Wolverine stands off to the side marginally involved. Only Raven has an interesting character arc, as she must decide if she is ruled by her hatred of humanity (stemming from her own insecurities about being a mutant) or if she can mature into someone who can hope that one day mutants will be accepted in society (it is a battle within her between Xavier and Lehnsherr’s ideologies). The other prominent character is Hank McCoy (Beast), but he is not really given anything to do dramatically (other than have a few angst-filled looks aimed towards Raven). The rest of the X-Men are either included as plot devices (like Kitty Pryde and Wolverine) or to make cameo appearances.

The film’s villain (if he can be called that, as the villain quickly really becomes Magneto) Doctor Bolivar Trask is also not really given much to do dramatically. He basically just wants to make weapons that kill mutants and also experiment on mutants, presumably solely because they are different. His character is sadly fairly thin and lacks substantial motivation.

The narrative overall being essentially the same as the three original X-Men films leaves the film dramatically a little uninteresting, despite the great visuals, style and action. Wolverine sort of being the main character but having no dramatic arc or purpose after completing his mission in the first act also greatly hampers the overall narrative. Thus, the film feels very slow in a lot of moments. It may even feel tedious, which is strange because there is again so much to like and it is very entertaining and spectacular overall visually. The big issues with the film all stem from it having a poor narrative structure (even though Days of Future Past is one of the best X-Men stories in comic form). The choices Singer and his creative team make end up hampering the film (and franchise) for seemingly not very good reasons. Yes, it is cool to see the original cast and new cast in the same film, but the cost is a film that is not nearly as good as it could have been and a franchise that has now mostly been made pointless (as the events of all the films other than First Class have now been erased from the current timeline, unless you are Wolverine and remember everything but know nothing about the new timeline you are in thereby making any Wolverine moments between 1973 and 2023 pointless from a character perspective as the Wolverine that wakes up in 2023 is not the same as the Wolverine that exists between 1973 and 2023 – hooray time travel narratives!!!).

While this review does seem to feature quite a bit of complaining on my part, I want to reiterate that Days of Future Past is a good, fun film overall. It is easily the second best X-Men film to date (just behind First Class) and comes very close to being a great film; it just cannot overcome its many narrative shortcomings. My complaining stems from my love of the X-Men and desire to see them get a truly great film (or set of films). I do have high hopes for X-Men: Apocalypse but also have some concerns. Chiefly, I am not sure jumping forward another ten years is going to work for the narrative (as it certainly does not in this film); plus the film is rumored to again include time travel elements (as Apocalypse narratives in the past often have), which could make the resolution of this film moot (as this film has done to most of the past X-Men films). I am also sort of bummed that we could not see Xavier and Lehnsherr’s characters develop more fully as young men in the 1960s (which is probably America’s most interesting and turbulent time period, and also one that works quite well as a mirror to the mutant struggle with its civil rights struggle). But oh well.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Days of Future Past is director Bryan Singer’s ninth and probably his best film to date (as I have said many times before, I think The Usual Suspects is vastly overrated). As stated in the review, Singer does a marvelous job with the action and the X-Men themselves in terms of showcasing their powers. The action set pieces take center stage as the film’s greatest achievement. It is too bad that Singer could not have also devised a stronger narrative structure to support his remarkable visuals and grand spectacle. That said, I am looking forward to seeing X-Men: Apocalypse and what Singer does with it.

Composer John Ottman brings back a lot of the musical score and themes that he did for X-Men 2. It is particularly recognizable in the future sequences. For the 1970s scenes, however, I did miss the great score and themes that Henry Jackman brought to First Class and wrote for the characters. It is too bad that they could not be incorporated as well. The score during the 1970s is very forgettable and is often overshadowed by the era-specific soundtrack. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does fantastic work on the film. The change in look and style between the future and 1970s is dazzling. I also enjoyed the look of old film stock when TV feeds and character hand-held camera footage are used. Production designer John Myhre also does very strong work. The future is mostly just rubble in darkness, but his style choices for the 1970s are very fun and cool. In particular, I like Bolivar Trask’s office.

Overall, the cast is very good; most of whom only have very small roles. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are both great reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto. They feel right at home and can convey so much without much screen time. Even though I think the film would have been better off if Singer had not brought the two series together, it was really cool to see them again. Ellen Page plays Kitty Pryde (also reprising her role from X-Men: The Last Stand); and while she mostly serves as a plot device (the one who transfers Wolverine’s consciousness back in time), she does bring some dramatic weight to the role. Peter Dinklage is wonderful as Bolivar Trask. The character is underwritten and somewhat sidelined as an afterthought, and yet he still brings a lot to the character, creating a man who hates the mutants maybe because of his insecurity about his own looks. Like Page, Dinklage brings dramatic weight to a fairly thin character.  Evan Peters has a ton of fun with Peter Maximoff and his scenes almost (or do) steal the film. Nicholas Hoult’s Hank McCoy is fine, but his character is almost nonexistent in the narrative. Jennifer Lawrence is very good as Raven and benefits from having what is probably the film’s most interesting character arc. The role takes advantage of Lawrence’s strengths as an actress, such as her immutable will and charisma. Michael Fassbender is again brilliant as Erik Lehnsherr. He is able to convey the complexity of his inner struggle without dialog maybe better than anyone else in the main cast. He also carries himself wonderfully, displaying the sheer force that Magneto can be. James McAvoy is good has Charles Xavier because he delivers a character that truly does care about humanity and has deep moral feelings; but unlike Stewart’s interpretation, McAvoy is a bit more sharp witted and playful. Hugh Jackman turns in his typical Wolverine performance, but does not really benefit from a narrative that sidelines him dramatically for most of the film (even though he has the most screen time).

Summary & score: X-Men: Days of Future Past is both a fantastically impressive X-Men film and a narratively disappointing one. 7/10

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