Monday, May 19, 2014

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' (2014) directed by Bryan Singer

Watching an X-Men movie in 2014 feels like sliding on a comfy old pair of slippers.  For nearly half my life I've been watching a topless Hugh Jackman quip and smoke his way around wood-panelled mansions, Patrick Stewart rolling around and offering well enunciated words of wisdom and Ian McKellen clearly loving hamming it up in a leather cape and silly hat. After 14 years and 7 films these characters feel like old friends, and though their films have ranged in quality from the good-to-competent (X-Men 2) to the diabolical (Wolverine: Origins) I've always had a kernel of good will towards them, if only because they've demonstrated a consistently great eye for casting.

Days of Future Past is very much an X-Men victory lap, bringing together almost every actor and character that's featured in the series thus far for a twisty-turny time travel caper.  Leaving aside the actual quality of the film for a moment, this is one of the greatest ensemble casts of the last decade, a real embarrassment of riches.  Director Bryan Singer, returning to the series after a decades absence, is supremely confident with the material - the time travelling plot necessitating juggling two ensembles and two entirely different settings all served up with dollops of special effects and quickly sketched character arcs.

There's also an neatly homoerotic element to much this stuff.
The basic plot is essentially a superhero reimagining of Terminator.  We open in a perpetually nighttime, post-apocalyptic hellworld of concentration camps and ruins. Skeletons litter the ground amid lightning strikes and giant, spotlight wielding killer machines.  Taking the place of Skynet are the Sentinels; omniscient invincible robots able to defeat our mutant heroes by copying their powers.  The X-Men have been reduced to a ragtag group desperately trying to survive, though still wearing costumes that look like they're on their way to a rave circa 1998.  As a mark of how bad things have gotten Wolverine has gone a bit grey, Magneto has lost his revolutionary spark and Professor X has never looked balder.

After a bit of super science hand-wavery it's decided that the best course of action is to send Wolverine back to the 1970s to stop the war from ever happening in the first place. Thus the series spirals back on itself to the rebooted cast of X-Men: First Class - where Wolverine has to play Blues Brothers and get the band back together.  With Wolverine as our guide we journey through a Kodachrome tinted soft rock superhero past of bell bottoms, paisley shirts and outrageously wide-brimmed hats.  There's even a villainous Nixon caricature!

Magneto is really nailing this outfit. Supervillainy with style!
It's a pretty convoluted set-up, but Singer keeps things light and most importantly, sustains momentum throughout.  Obvious effort has been expended on creating a dynamic screenplay where character goals are crystal clear at all times.  While the overarching plot of preventing the future war is always on character's minds, we have pleasant little diversions into heist caper, political thriller and even a smidge of rock star psychedelia.  It's a sprawling mess of a movie, but it's an entertaining, well-realised mess sprinkled with sharp dialogue and well-realised action sequences.

Some highlights are an appearance from newcomer Pietro Maximoff, a smart-ass superspeed kleptomaniac who's the centre of an equally beautiful and hilarious slow-mo action sequence soundtracked by Jim Croce's easy listening hit Time in a Bottle. Similarly enjoyable (as always) is Hugh Jackman's Wolverine, who serves mainly to deflate the film's sense of self-importance by making smartass comments through a fug of cigar smoke.  Probably the best thing in the movie is James McAvoy's Charles Xavier, who we learn has been reduced to a reclusive, depressed smack addict living in the squalid ruins of his mansion - a bit like Mick Jagger in Performance.

Wolverine slots so well into the 70s that I deeply want a scummy mutantsploitation flick.
One of the crucial hurdles that the X-Men series has to surmount is that it's all too easy to sympathise with Magneto.  Sure the guy may be bonkers and occasionally sadistic, but with his commitment to direct action and his cinematic superpowers he's an exciting and charismatic guy to be around, whether played by Fassbender or McKellen.  By contrast, the pacifistic liberality of Professor X usually leaves him looking a bit boring.  Mutants are allegorical minorities, and seeing murderous bigots being minced by a smug, hovering man in a silly helmet is deeply satisfying.  

So it's impressive that Days of Future Past puts the legwork in to actually get us onside with Professor X's viewpoint and recognise that Magneto is, as writer Grant Morrison memorably put it, "a mad old terrorist twat with daft ideas based on violence and coercion."  Fassbender still imbues the character with basic decency and a strong conscience but before our eyes we see him warping into a damaged, wounded person for whom the ends very much justify the means.

This is basically Magneto vs Nixon.
Things are pretty sharp visually too.  Singer recognises that after umpteen superhero films we're unlikely to be particularly wowed by Wolverine popping his claws out or Storm creating lightning - so interesting twists are made on their powers to keep things fresh. One particularly effective move is an action sequence shot in handheld faux Super 8.  It echoes the Zapruder footage, and from this new perspective the image of a blue skinned, naked woman with bright red hair is once more scary, alien and bizarre.

It's surprisingly invigorating material for a sixth sequel and by the time the credits roll it feels as if the X-Men franchise has had new life breathed into it.  I'd never consider myself an outright fan of these movies, but purely through their tenacity they've gathered some emotional resonance.  There's a unexpected nostalgia in revisiting the bustling hallways of Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and for a brief moment I'm once more that excited teenager sitting in a cinema in 2000, not quite able to believe that a major studio has made a fun, sharp and exciting blockbuster X-Men movie.


X-Men: Days of Future Past is in cinemas May 22nd.

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