Saturday, June 7, 2014

"X-Men: Days Of Future Past" Review: Traveling To The Past Has Saved This Franchise's Once Bleak Future


The X-Men franchise has become a complete mess over the past 14 years. We got a good start (X-Men), a better follow up (X2), a pathetic third entry (X-Men: The Last Stand), a hopelessly misguided attempt to capitalize on a popular character (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), a fantastic fresh start (X-Men: First Class) and a better executed but still lacking Wolverine focused movie (The Wolverine). At this point you are either completely confused by the timeline, characters and plot of the franchise or you really just don't care anymore.

Well, 20th Century Fox and writer/director Bryan Singer have a cure for that ailment and it is called X-Men: Days of Future Past. In quite possibly one of the most ingenious marketing moves and bits of sleight of hand in a very long time, Singer has made a film that at first appears to be the movie comic and Wolverine fans everywhere have been salivating for, while in actuality he uses their expectations to wipe the slate clean by erasing everything that came before it using one of the most beloved and revered storylines from the X-Men comics. His decision will likely piss off a lot of fanboys (especially Wolverine's fan club), but there is no denying that it is a decision that has saved the franchise from an early grave. Read the full review after the break.

Review Vital Stats:  
Theater: Arclight Pasadena
Time:10:40 pm, May 25, 2014       
Projector Type: Digital 2D         
Film Rating: PG-13                     
Film Runtime: 2 hr 11 min    
Studio: 20th Century Fox

Biases:  
Loves: X2, X-Men First Class
Likes: X-Men (2000)
Neutral:  The Wolverine, Using Wolverine as the main character every single time
Hates: X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins Wolverine
Time for...: Someone else to play Wolverine


The year is 2023, the Earth is in ruins from a long standing war between mutants and the Sentinels, robotic golems who hunt mutants, adapt to their powers and kill them in an attempt to rid the world of their kind. The only problem is that the Sentinels have grown beyond their programming and are now able to detect the mutant gene in humans before it is passed on to their children making all humans their targets. With only a scant few mutants left alive and the war all but lost, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) form a plan to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to the past in an attempt to stop the war before it ever happens. The only problem is convincing their younger and more rebellious selves to work together to prevent this horrible future from ever happening.

Usually relegated to the sci-fi genre more than anything else, time travel is a staple story telling device that can either be used to help us explore past events with characters that have a more modern mindset, used to show us one of an infinite possible number of futures that could show our prosperity or our eventual downfall or the more popular (of late) rewriting history for a fresh start. Highlights of films that have used this effectively range from The Matrix (the first one only), The Terminator and even lighter fare such as Back to the Future and the entirety of Doctor Who's fifty year run. But the one film that resembles Days of Future Past (henceforth known as DOFP) the most is what J.J. Abrams did with the 2009 Star Trek reboot.


What Abrams and company did with their reboot was an inspired bit of genius. He rewrote the entire history of Star Trek, but avoided pissing off purists and fans of the original films by creating an alternate timeline instead of simply erasing everything. The results were beyond perfect and allowed a new era of Star Trek to begin while keeping its long history intact. Unfortunately, Bryan Singer couldn't find quite as elegant a solution and instead of creating an alternate timeline has chosen to just pretend everything that happens after 1973 never happened, or at least not in the way we remember.

We hardly ever see time travel used is in our superhero stories, or more to the point, our superhero movies. But if there is one comic book franchise that is best suited for time travel, it is without a doubt the X-Men. Not only because they have a well established history with the genre on the printed page, but because in the X-Men universe it wouldn't seem all that unusual if we suddenly found a mutant who had the ability to send the conscious mind of an individual 50 years in the past and meld it into their younger self. Creating a world where you can create any character gifted with whatever plot device you need to carry out your story is only one of the many benefits that the X-Men franchise has over all the other superhero comics out there.

But the "how" isn't nearly important as the "why" and in the case of DOFP, the "why" is the reason the film succeeds as a standalone film but nearly crumbles under the pressure of all the failed films before it. Bryan Singer and 20th Century knew they had ruined the franchise and were looking for anyway to fix what they broke. While most would have been happy if they would have just given the reigns back over to Marvel Studios, Fox would then be losing out on a lot of future revenue so that was never going to happen. Instead they opted for the more popular approach widely known as the franchise reboot.


When X-Men: First Class failed to catch on, which itself was a reboot of sorts, the only step left was to reset everything. Unlike Sony and the Spider-Man franchise though, who openly admitted to starting over, Fox decided to pull the wool over the eyes of everyone by pretending this was just another entry into the franchise where in fact it is a complete reboot. If you loved some of the previous movies, liked some, hated others or possibly loathed a couple, it doesn't matter anymore. Why? Because according to Bryan Singer and DOFP, none of it ever happened.

With the sole exception of First Class, DOFP effectively renders the entire franchise pointless. Sure, some could say it is a clever way to reestablish itself while not entirely pissing everyone off, but the truth is that it is a lazy and deceiving way to push aside all their failures and hope nobody notices. Sadly, the mess they created left them with no other alternative and the end result is a film that is much better than it should have been but no where near the greatness is could have been.


Let's start with the positive points shall we. First and foremost, this is a direct sequel to First Class. Considering that is the best film in the franchise (even now) it was a wise decision to keep the focus primarily on the younger version of the characters. However, since that plan didn't go over so well before and resulted in the series' least financially successful entry, Singer opted to include fan favorite Wolverine into the mix and the results are er...mixed.

Whatever the fascination is with the character Wolverine is beyond anyone's guess at this point. He seems to be the only character that will get people in those seats come opening day and Singer used that ace up his sleeve like a true grifter. You see, even though Wolverine is plastered all over those posters and ads like he is the star of the show, he really isn't. Yes, he is in the movie but for most of the film he is taking a back seat to the much more interesting and better developed friendship between Magneto and Xavier that was forged in First Class and elaborating on their falling out with each other.


Their endless debates on how to go about fighting the ever increasing war on mutants is always fascinating, mostly in thanks to the nuanced performances by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender who have now hijacked these characters from Stewart and McKellen. They have taken these characters and made them their own. McAvoy's drugged out Xavier is a much more complicated and conflicted figure than we have ever seen before and it makes him a much less reliable leader, but also a much more interesting character.

Fassbender's Magneto doesn't get nearly as much attention as Xavier in regards to character moments, but what he lacks in personal moments he more than makes up for with action. Magneto has always been the guy you love to hate. He is doing all the wrong things for all the right reasons and here he may go a bit too far, resulting in a powerful moment where the fate of humanity lingers in his hands, but given his reasons it isn't too difficult to sympathize with him, even more than with Xavier. Knowing that his actions are fueled more by his anger than the clarity of thought that Xavier tried to instill in him makes him the unstable element that threatens to destroy everything they are fighting for and adds an immense amount of pressure to an already dire situation and a ton of engaging drama.


There are of course plenty of other mutants running around as well who help spice things up, both old and new. We get a number of new faces during the bleak future sequences that effectively bookend the film. Bishop (Omar Sy), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart) are joined by old favorites such as Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) and all get their moment to shine which action junkies will likely eat up. The past doesn't have too many mutants however, with Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) as the only mutants aside from the heavy hitters. But there is one new mutant introduced in the past that is sure to become a fan favorite in no time.

Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is the showcase mutant for DOFP. Just like in X2 with Nightcrawler, Bryan Singer has singled him out to be the star of the show and he doesn't disappoint. The entire prison break sequence at the Pentagon is a lot of fun, but his inclusion into the mix makes it a standout sequence for the entire franchise. Some will say he isn't in the film nearly long enough, but that is only because you can never get enough of a good thing. By not overstaying his welcome, Singer gives us just enough of his awesomeness to leave us craving more which is what every filmmaker strives for but usually fails at.


Aside from the mutants, there is only one notable human character and that is Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). While most will find it difficult to separate the actor from his iconic role as Tyrion Lannister on the HBO series Game of Thrones, it becomes easier when you start to get lost in his very understated performance. Its to his credit as such a gifted actor that after a while it is hard to see him as anyone else other than the character of Trask. With Trask being a key character in the plot surrounding the creation of the Sentinels, it was wise bringing in an actor of Dinklage's pedigree and given his stature also creates this unspoken irony behind his need to eliminate those who are different.

As for the Sentinels themselves, comic fans have eagerly been awaiting their inclusion into the X-Men films and its hard to imagine anyone thinking it wasn't worth the wait. We get two flavors of Sentinel in DOFP, we get their prototype incarnation which shows up in the past segments where they aren't as dangerous as perhaps a modern day drone flying overhead. But the future Sentinels are all kinds of nasty as endless swarms of the flying titans trample over every mutant they come across in some spectacular brutal ways. If you ever wanted to know why the Sentinels were ever considered to be such a threat to mutants, these things will show you why they are to be feared.


There are sadly some problems with the film that keep it from achieving the greatness it so desperately wants to attain and they are much more important this time around than something like Halle Berry's hairstyle. The biggest problem surrounding this film is the stigma of all the other X-Men movies before it. Not so much in that most of them sucked, which is a factor, but in that absolutely nobody planned any of this out ahead of time. There was no lead up to the events depicted in the film and this is a story that NEEDED that lead up. Imagine watching the Avengers without watching anything that came before it and you will get a small sliver of an idea of how troubling this is.

Let's start with the Sentinels. In order for the future war in the film to have actually taken place, that means there should have been Sentinels all throughout the previous films. Since they are such a pivotal plot point in both the future and the past, you would think they would be in the present as well. But no, since making a film version of the DOFP comic was only ever meant to reboot the franchise, it was never looked at as the milestone comic book story that it is and instead was saw only as a way to reset everything. The fact that Bryan Singer and Fox used this pivotal story of the X-Men like this is sort of offensive, no matter how good the results were.


There are all sorts of plotholes and paradoxes that show up as well. How did the future Wolverine get his adamantium claws back after losing them in last year's The Wolverine? How does Mystique's power, the ability to changer her appearance, translate into the Sentinels being able to steal another mutant's power? Why do most of the characters from the previous films look the same age nearly 20 years later? These aren't damning claims, but they also hurt the credibility the film is seeking with its already convoluted set of events and time traveling gimmicks.

Then there is the matter of rewriting history. Although it is nice that they get to start all over again from scratch and hopefully get stuff right this time (fingers crossed), it is still kind of a kick to the balls for fans who have been with these films since they started. This isn't like Spider-Man who had two good movies and one bad or Fantastic Four which had two bad movies and then started over. There have now been a total of 7 X-Men movies and that is a whole lot of baggage to just kick to the curb and hope your fans forget about (even though some are best left forgotten).


Where the X-Men franchise goes from here is unknown, quality wise that is. Hopefully Fox will pull a braintrust together to forge a solid future for the franchise and keep track of things like Marvel has so that future sequels won't suffer the same way DOFP does. It is a good film all things considered and does exactly everything it was meant to do, but it just can't live up to legacy of the story they decided to tell. If you are a fan of the comic and the DOFP story, chances are this film will feel like a punch in the gut. But if you are a casual fan of the films and feel as though the wheels had come off this wagon long ago, chances are that you will view this as a proper and exciting new direction for the franchise and will be eagerly awaiting the next installment.

This is a difficult film to come to a definite conclusion on. As of right now, compared to every other X-Men movie made, DOFP stands tall as one of the best ones (Just behind First Class and just ahead of X2). But it's hard to shake the feeling that later when we (hopefully) get a much more coherent film universe for the X-Men and the filmmakers stop using such fantastic material as The Phoenix Saga, The Cure and DOFP as a way to cobble together a half-assed attempt at keeping the film rights, that the film version of DOFP may be looked at in a different light. Instead of being seen as the success it is now, it will likely be seen as the last chapter in a very disappointing run of X-Men films.


FINAL THOUGHTS:

If that grade you see above here seems baffling after seemingly condemning the film for its number of failures, well that is because the film is baffling itself. While as a stand alone film experience it is near perfect, with great character moments with amazing actors doing fantastic work, great action and a really fun story, it can't really live up to the greatness of the story it is trying to tell when looked at as part of a long line of films in the X-Men universe. As of right now that grade is spot on, but in about a few years time you might want to knock it down a grade when we discover how much better these films could, and should, have been.

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