Thursday, May 22, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014)

Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender
Written by Simon Kinberg
Directed by Bryan Singer
Rated PG-13 - Language, sci-fi violence and peril
Running Time: 131 Minutes

In a dark future, mutants and humans have been hunted nearly to extinction by robots known as Sentinels. Nearly indestructible, with the ability to absorb and adapt the powers of any mutant, they have spread across the globe exterminating not only the mutant race, but any human that might one day give birth to a mutant or whose lineage may eventually lead to one.

A surviving band of mutants led by Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Erik "Magneto" Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) escape to the mountains of China to hide. They discover that one of their own, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has the ability to send the consciousness of another mutant several days into the past, alerting themselves to threats in the future. But Xavier has a new, bolder plan - to send someone much farther back, decades even, to avert this disastrous timeline and save humanity. It all started, he says, when Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) murdered Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels.

Pryde warns that a trip that far back would wreak havoc on any mind, so the only mutant capable of recovering from it steps up to the plate: Logan, the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman).

Arriving in 1973, just before a peace summit in France that is to end America's involvement in the Vietnam war, Logan tracks down the young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and finds him a broken man. After the war in Vietnam took most of his students and even some of his teachers, Charles closed his school and retreated into self-pity, with only Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) to watch over him. Hank has nearly perfected his mutant gene suppression serum, allowing Charles to walk again but robbing him of his fantastic mental abilities.

Once Logan has recruited Charles and Hank, there's one more piece to the puzzle before he can complete his mission: He needs the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to help him and Charles convince Mystique to avert her plan to kill Trask. But that will prove harder than anyone anticipates: After all these years, Charles and Erik have the same goals but two drastically different philosophies on how to achieve them.

In 2006, some friends and I went to see "X-Men: The Last Stand." Director Bryan Singer had wowed us with the first two X-Men films, but he had stepped down from the third one to make "Superman Returns." When we walked out of "The Last Stand," the overwhelming consensus was, "That was so lame."

A few years later, the atrocious "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" stumbled its way through theaters while audiences face-palmed harder than Patrick Stewart ever did on the bridge of the Enterprise. But then things started to pick up. "X-Men: First Class" was a great time at the movies, and "The Wolverine" surprised everyone by not only not sucking, but being a totally worthy solo adventure for the character.

And that led us to this. "Days of Future Past," which returns Bryan Singer to the director's chair - where he belongs. This film, rightly, feels like the culmination of a rocky journey. It wraps the entire franchise together into a satisfying whole.

Singer directs with a surer hand than his first two X-Men films, though "X-Men United" is pretty hard to top. This film might not quite reach the highs of that one, but in terms of Singer's technical skill, it's way up there. If you've ever played the computer game "Portal," you'll love every action sequence involving the mutant Blink (Fan Bingbing). Singer knows how to create a frantic, fast-paced action scene without shaking his camera and he uses it to great effect.

The script stumbles in a couple of places. The climax doesn't feel quite as tense as the Cuba sequence in "First Class," but it does the trick. And with so many mutants, most of the characters in the film are little more than cameos. Fans will recognize pretty much everyone, though, from Warpath (Booboo Stewart) and Bishop (Omar Sy) to Storm (Halle Berry) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and some that are too spoilery to mention.

One great new addition to the cast is Evan Peters as Peter 'Quicksilver' Maximoff. Though he got a lot of flak from fans pre-release, he's easily one of the best parts of the film. A scene in which he uses his super-speed to manipulate a group of Pentagon guards into beating themselves up is hysterical and shouldn't be missed.

It's unfortunate, though understandable, that giants like Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen end up having so little to do in this film. But the dark future is just the framing story here - this really is a movie belonging to the class of "First Class" and, y'know, Hugh Jackman (who, seriously, seems to just keep getting bigger and bigger).

But it's once again McAvoy and Fassbender who really make the whole thing special. These two work excellently together, just as Stewart and McKellen do, helping to make the transition between the decades seamless. What's special about these two characters is not that they don't hate each other. Indeed, both seem to desperately want to be friends and be on the same side but they simply can't - they're just too different in their approach to relations between mutants and humans. The script plays with this concept, letting the Stewart and McKellen remark upon their past apart as a regret, while McAvoy and Fassbender pull further and further away.

The script lacks a clear villain, but what it has in its place are themes like hatred and resentment that lead to people taking actions that place humanity on the wrong path. The characters know their future, and they're desperate to stop it, but that means making difficult choices against what their heart may be telling them. Mostly this is personified in Jennifer Lawrence's Mystique, who is intent on killing Trask for his crimes against mutants. The whole future hinges on the choice to kill, or to show mercy - a fantastic idea to base a movie around, especially an X-Men film, since it so perfectly encapsulates the Xavier/Magneto rivalry.

Fans will find a lot to like in "X-Men: Days of Future Past." It's a film that seems built around the conceit of cementing the redemption of this franchise, and it does so quite well.

And just as the post-credits teaser in "The Wolverine" left me eager for this film, the final shot of "Days of Future Past" (after the end credits) has the X-Men comics fan in me totally down for what's coming next.

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