Saturday, May 24, 2014

Review: "X-Men: Days of Future Past"

Director: Bryan Singer
Runtime: 131 minutes

At once a sequel, prequel, and complete narrative overhaul, Marvel's X-Men: Days of Future Past certainly hasn't been shy about its ambitions. With casts from the original trilogy and 2011's First Class, returning director Bryan Singer, along with a plot involving time travel, Days of Future Past seemed like an unwieldy entity. After leaving the X-Men franchise to direct the leaden Superman Returns and the flat Valkyrie, Singer's return to the director's chair was understandably met with hesitation. Yet he and writer Simon Kinberg (atoning for the mostly awful X-Men: The Last Stand) have avoided running Marvel's prized mutant family into the ground. While the franchises of the various Avengers heroes are clearly Marvel's top priority, Days of Future Past returns the X-Men to their glory days. This is more than a step in the right direction. It's a full-blown resurrection, with plot, spectacle, and drama all skillfully woven together. 

This is most impressive when considering the important of time travel to DOFP's narrative. There are always plot holes that crop up when time travel arrives in a story, so it's important to manage everything else smoothly enough so the stakes get more focus than potential story-telling paradoxes. Singer, clearly reinvigorated by returning to this world, shows that he knows how to handle this world better than those peers that have sat in during his absence. Working off of Kinberg's smooth, straightforward screenplay, Singer and editor/composer John Ottman are able to keep things moving along beautifully, without every leaving key characters in the dust. 

That last bit is of special importance in this film more than any other X-Men adventure. Though we see plenty of mutants across the 131 minute duration, many are just there to fill the screen. Don't expect to learn more about the likes of Warpath (Booboo Stewart) or Fan BingBing's portal-creating Blink. They, along with several others, are just here to fill out the story's framing device which is this (take a deep breath): After Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) kills anti-mutant scientist Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage), the world's governments pour money into Trask's Sentinel Program. The Sentinels are large, adaptable robots that, a la Skynet, eradicate mutants and their genetically mundane allies. With the future now a bleak dystopia, Prof. X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) come up with a last ditch plan. With help from Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), they will send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) into the past to reunite the young Xavier and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) to stop Mystique's mission, as well as its increasingly devastating consequences.

Once all of the time-travel mumbo jumbo is hashed out via's Stewart's effortlessly commanding voice, and Wolverine wakes up inhabiting his body as it was in 1973, the film really comes to life. Despite all of the VFX involved, Days of Future Past is never careless when it comes to digital trickery. The story and the quartet of Jackman, McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender are the real draws here, and Kinberg gives each role enough room to breathe. While it's frustrating to see Page's role hollowed out (in the source material, she was the one who leapt back in time), the story's four leads and their various conflicts are still compelling. 

Rather than retread old ground, the first half of the film plays like an inversion of the very first X-Men (2000). Here, Wolverine has to step back and be both mediator and leader, roles he was in no way ready to take on when he first joined the X-Men. Meanwhile, young Charles Xavier is a depressed, alcoholic mess who has lost his way. Beast (Nicholas Hoult) has healed Xavier's legs, but the cost has been his tremendous psionic powers. Even though Wolverine is able to make Xavier believe his outrageous time travel story, the latter hardly feels like reconnecting with his mutant roots.

Though Jackman's Wolverine has always been a central part of the X-Men movies, his role reversal is a smart choice, and he and McAvoy play off of each other quite well. There are still traces of the cynical mutant's past in Jackman's performance, but here they're held back for the sake of urgency. McAvoy, meanwhile improves on his already impressive performance from First Class as the film's mentally shattered version of Xavier. The actor's vulnerability and desperation are given the weight needed to make us care, without digging so deep as to turn the film into a pretentious existential drama. 

Things only get better as Fassbender and Lawrence enter the fray. The former remains perfectly suited as the dogmatic Magneto, while Lawrence brings more genuine spark to Mystique than she did in First Class, where she was occasionally flat. Special mention should go to Evan Peters as the ultra fast Quicksilver, who is given just enough to be an enjoyable addition without leaving the film overstuffed. His part in the story is brief, but critical, and it allows Singer and co. to use Quicksilver's powers as part of the film's lightest, most enjoyable set-piece. Unlike the extra mutants in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Quicksilver's guest appearance here is superbly integrated, and it ends just in time to get back to the four established protagonists.

Every one of them has an agenda, yet the streamlined plotting ensures that motives remain clear without grinding the film to a halt. Days of Future Past is always moving, yet it never feels rushed outside of the exposition-heavy opening. The blockbuster it best calls to mind (and not simply because of the time travel aspect), is the 2009 reboot of Star Trek. The JJ Abrams film had a lot going on, yet kept its characters grounded amid all of the flashy effects to deliver an experience where the drama was earned, and therefore resonated. 

Backing up Singer's handling of the story and his main stars are some of his slickest, liveliest direction to date. Eschewing the rather bland color palette of most Marvel films, Days of Future Past is much more visually engaging than the standard summer tentpole. Newton Thomas Siegel's photography, especially in the 1973 scenes, is rich and textured, and lends an extra bit of believability to the fantastical premise and characters. He and Singer also have a bit of fun capturing some of the mutant action on 70s era cameras, further grounding us in a time period where the mutants stand out even more than they do in the present or future. Production designer John Mhyre, whose stacked resume includes superhero flicks and glittery musicals, does a stellar job with sets without going overboard.  

And then, of course, there are the visual effects. Though some elements are more cartoon-y than others (the future versions of the Sentinels), most of the VFX work is superbly handled. It only ups the stakes and the grandeur, rather than taking focus away from the story and characters. Even in the finale, which is filled with some truly massive effects (as well as hefty cross-cutting between past and future), the story's over-the-top emotional core stays front and center. 

Like last month's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Days of Future Past succeeds because it bucks two major trends found in big-budget spectacles: being overly glib so that no drama interrupts the spectacle, or trying so desperately to be dramatic that all fun is squeezed out. Though Days of Future Past does reset the chessboard for the franchise, it still works as its own self-contained (albeit open-ended) adventure, one with an engaging story and engaging characters worth following. What could have been a jumbled, incoherent mess is, thankfully, one of the most assured and accomplished superhero films to date. As much as the franchise has stumbled over the past few years, Days of Future Past shows that when they're on their A-game, the X-Men are among the best in the business.

Grade: B+

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