Tuesday, 1 July 2014

"Just because someone stumbles and loses their path, doesn't mean they can't be saved."

X-Men: Days Of Future Past is primarily a movie about the slippery paradoxes and mutable mechanics of time travel. Or, as Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) bluntly puts it: "Future shite." Although the storyline was conceived back in the early 1980s for a two issue run of the Uncanny X-Men comic book, it feels like it was dreamed up especially to solve the problem 20th Century Fox faced after X-Men: First Class (2011): what to do with a franchise that's been split into two timelines, with two sprawling casts? The answer, clearly, is to merge the two into a vast scaled, decades leaping blockbuster.

The beauty of Bryan Singer's X-Men comeback is the light work he makes of potentially heavy lifting. Whether he's been recharged by his decade away from the series, or by the prospect of eradicating some of the wayward plot turns made by Brett Ratner's X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Singer has refreshed the series with blasts of levity, clarity and a sincere, soulful grip on the emotional stakes involved. This is also arguably the most on form and playful he's been since X-Men 2 (2003).

Remember the magnificent, inspired Nightcrawler sequence that opened that movie? Wait until you see the mutant melee that kicks off this one. Pitting new heroes, the impressive of which is Bingbing Fan's (Bodyguards And Assassins) Blink, against a teeming mass of unstoppable Sentinel robots, it's a thunderous succession of clever action beats. Just as slick and inventive is Magneto's (Michael Fassbender) escape from a plastic Pentagon prison and a series of balletic take downs involving everyone's favourite aqua-skinned shapeshifter, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Clearly now a considerable box office draw for Fox, Lawrence honours her increased screen time with emotional conviction and physicality, her wounded eyes speaking volumes.

Jumping between the future and the past, the plot teeters on the edge of becoming exhaustingly knotty. Fortunately, the story distracts from any temporal muddles by zeroing in on three of the most charismatic characters in the X-universe: the sardonic series stalwart Wolverine, plus the younger incarnations of Xavier and Magneto.

Charged with stopping Mystique from assassinating diminutive weapons maker Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an act which will result in global extinction – Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is hampered by obstacles: his claws are no longer metal, Magneto's being his usual bastard self, and his serene mentor Charles is now a thirtysomething depressive who won't get out of his dressing gown. In fact, the largest throughline of the film is dedicated to the latter (who doesn't seem to have yet thought up his snappy mutant moniker Professor X) attempting to get his mind mojo back. Dovetailing between these character arcs, Singer draws heart from their past ties and heft from those chunky questions of causality and ethics that time travel tales crack open. Given all that, and the catastrophic peril that hovers over proceedings, there's a high potential for angst. But Simon Kinberg's (Sherlock Holmes) script keeps things breezy. There are quips, in-jokes, Terminator references and, one of the high points, a callback to the F-bomb dropped in X-Men: First Class.

Following in the footsteps of Matthew Vaughn, who gets a story credit here, Singer has a blast going period. Richard Nixon is glimpsed on the cover of a National Lampoon magazine well before he becomes a key player in the climactic set piece. The film deploys Zapruder-esque handheld footage to jitter up a tense sequence in Paris. And while First Class tied the mutants' exploits in with US milestones like the Cuban Missile Crisis, Days Of Future Past gleefully rewrites the history books on a massive scale. Most notably by redecorating the White House lawn with the RFK Stadium.

With so much going on, and at such a ferocious pace, several parts of the story feel undernourished. There's not nearly enough time spent on Ian McKellen's (The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug) Magneto. And it would be nice to learn more about villain supreme Trask. What is his motivation? With him so physically different, why would he choose to persecute others who are different themselves? And when exactly does he turn into Bill Duke, as seen in The Last Stand?

But what we do get here is largely fantastic, not only re-energising old favourite characters (and after his two spin-offs, Jackman's Wolverine was in dire need of that) but introducing intriguing new ones. Most surprising is the fact that the super speedy Quicksilver (Evan Peters), whose initial appearance did not inspire much confidence in marketing materials, turns out to be one the most spectacular things in the film. The prison break sequence in which he leisurely takes out a squad of lawmen while stopping to taste soup makes Nightcrawler seem positively arthritic in comparison.

Singer has delivered the most ambitious X-Men outing yet, combining the emotional sweep of X-Men 2 and, more importantly, a platform for the franchises screen survival.

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