May has been a pretty mental month for movie releases – Amazing Spiderman 2, Godzilla, Sabotage, Neighbours; it’s already shaping up to be a great summer for blockbusters and we’re not even in June yet. And now the fifth X-Men installment (or seventh for the purists) is finally here and undoubtedly about to carve its way to the top of the box office. With its adamantium claws fully extended, X-Men: Days of Future Past seeks to take the franchise to new heights and with the original X-Man director Bryan Singer (Usual Suspects, Valkyrie) back at the helm, it seems poised to be the best in the series to date.
So is it as good as the surprisingly solid X-Men: First Class? Can it steal the crown from X2?
The quick answer would be yes and no.
Look, Days of Future Past is a fantastic film. Its packed to the mutant gills with action, intrigue, set-pieces, magnetism, X-folk, topless Hugh Jackman and more blue-skinned, barely-clothed Jennifer Lawrence than you can shake a stick at. The story is as dark and critical as any in the series (yes, the stakes here somehow make nuclear apocalypse seem favourable), and we get to see all our favourite X-Men past and present back under one roof (fuck you, Deadpool).
However I just don’t think it’s a great X-Men film.
That doesn’t make sense does it? Ready to put a shank in me? Wait a second and I’ll try to explain. Let me set the scene.
X-Men: Days of Future Past opens with a dark, apocalyptic future. Imagine the Matrix or the Terminator, only with more purple neon, and you’re not too far away. The planet has been ravaged by a war against the mutants and their human sympathisers. Reptilian-like machines, the Sentinels, hunt and slay the few remaining X-Men across the planet.
With defeat inevitable, the last of the mutants led by Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen – Lord of the Rings, The Da Vinci Code) and Professor X, Charles Xavier (Sir Patrick Stewart – Star Trek: The Next Generation, Excalibur) join forces to send the mind of the indestructible Wolverine (Hugh Jackman – Prestige, Van Helsing) back in time to change the future.
As the sentinels move in for the kill, the likes of Storm (Halle Berry – Swordfish), Kitty Pride (Ellen Page – Juno), Bishop (Omar Sy – The Intouchables) and a variety of other mutants old and new must protect Wolverine as he is regressed into the past. The film flips between scenes in the 70’s and the future present. And this is where my first problem occurs.
You just don’t see enough of the future. What we do see is grim, and there is a real sense of helplessness about it. However it’s nothing like the future “flashbacks” from the Terminator in it’s depiction of a backs-to-the-wall struggle to survive. Apparently a lot has been cut from the film, including extended sequences with Rogue (Anna Paquin – True Blood), and hopefully we’ll see these in a future release.
Another way of looking at it is that the future sequences are just that good, and that damn dramatic. I was just left hungry for more throughout, I guess.
Anyway, young Wolverine played by older (and still ripped up) Jackman must go about finding young Professor X and Magneto. His goal is to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence – Hunger Games, American Hustle) from killing
Tyrion Trant. Played by the indomitable Peter Dinklage (Elf, Game of Thrones), Trant has figured out how to track the pesky mutants, and has designed the first generation of sentinels to do the stalking. His murder sets up the future where humans don’t trust mutants, and shit just continues to escalate until the entire planet looks like ground zero.
The trouble is young Magneto (Michael Fassbender – Prometheus, 300) is imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit deep beneath the Pentagon, and young Professor X (James McAvoy – Wanted, Filth) is addicted to a drug that allows him to walk but suppresses his mind powers. Wolverine, helped by Beast (Nicholas Hoult – Warm Bodies, About a Body), rescues Magneto, rehabilitates Professor X, and the three go about trying to stop Mystique. Sounds good, right?
Well here is my second problem. If this is a sequel right, where are the First Class? I won’t spoil it, but while they are…mentioned, they are nowhere to be seen. Yes some of the little bastards were annoying as hell, but each character had his own little arc, his or her own little moment in the sun which helped endear them to us. There are no such moments here. It really is just the Wolverine/Professor X/Magneto/Mystique show.
The other characters that appear, including new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters – Never Back Down, Kick Ass) never really get a chance to develop, at least beyond the cool CGI special effects for their powers. Equally so, X-Men: First Class had a human element that was both pro and anti-mutant. Here we’re painted like a bunch of scared haters. Led by the ultra monster Nixon himself and a young Bill Stryker – the twat responsible for giving Wolverine post traumatic stress – all the civilians the posse encounter are just poor examples of humanity.
This lack of character bleeds through into nearly everyone too. Wolverine simply has to keep explaining what is going on, and as he’s playing the pre-adamantium-boned killer there’s very little snikting to be had. Beast has nothing to do other than provide the technological exposition. Mystique, heavily featured no doubt due to J-Law’s popularity, has a one track mind for terrible, terrible revenge. Even Fassbender, whose Magneto went on a terrific journey from boy to man in First Class is given little to play with.
While in the last film plotted the course of his descent into villainhood, he still remained redeemable, understandable, even likable. Here he is malevolent without reason, and his treachery inevitable and unsurprising. I think the main problem here was that in First Class, Magneto had a real bastard of an enemy, Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon (Hollow Man, Tremors). The fact that Shaw killed his parents and was just generally a bit of a shit who wanted to kill all the humans, really gave us a reason to get behind Magneto, as psychotic as he may be.
Days of Future Past suffers from having no such foe. Sure Trant is a bit dirty, and clearly up to no good. However he’s doing this for the survival of the human race, and he is simply misguided. We know Nixon was corrupt, but otherwise helpless. Stryker does have a part play, but only later in the X-Men continuum. In the past he’s just a bit of a bitch. Here only the future is the enemy.
Only McAvoy really gets a chance to stretch his wings. Devoid of his powers, he is a broken man. He is pieced back together by Wolverine and Beast, and his journey is remarkably well played. It’s a shame no one else was given such depth, as the entire cast is magnificent.
Another gripe would be the setting. It is just totally erroneous, and only used for continuities sake. Yes the fashion, the cars, the mise en scene are all correct. Yeah they mention Vietnam (and feature it in a pointless cutaway action sequence to pimp out Mystique). They even do a get a good Nixon impersonator (not this good). But the film just doesn’t have the right feel for the era. First Class nailed the 60’s in both the look, the vibe, the sound & music and the overall tone of the film. It was also relevant to the plot in terms of how it wove the Cuban missile crisis into the story.
What First Class also did really well was the humour. Each of the X-Men films (at least the good ones) have all featured some really funny moments. First Class had the classic Wolverine cameo for example, and there is sadly nothing like this in Days of Future Past. Sure the themes and the story is far more serious, but again this lack of self-effacing fun really shows.
Oh, and the 3D is nothing special too, so give that a miss and save yourself a quid.
So what does it do right, you’d ask? Well everything but the above. I’m concerned you’ll feel I didn’t enjoy the film. I honestly did; the characters were well realised, the acting was great, the story was intriguing, the stakes were high, and seeing the whole gang back together was a really great feeling, especially having watched them in their first outing at the cinema nearly 15 years ago.
The best moments of the film are the future sequences for me. The sentinels look malevolent and unstoppable- imagine a take on the Destroyer from Thor, only with the ability to adapt it’s body to overcome any mutation it comes across. The story also doesn’t get bogged down in the nitty-gritty, paradoxical nonsense that a lot of time-travel films tend to suffer from. Instead the time shifting is merely a means to an end to tell the dramatic tale.
It is also a far superior story to any preceding film (and that is half the problem). The effects are great, and there is real dilemma. But the lack of character development really prohibited my ability to get lost in the story. For example, I cared about Nightcrawler’s fate n X-Men 2. I was sad about Jean Gray dying, and bought into the emotional distress it caused Wolverine and Cyclops. I was suckered into this emotionally because the characters were not only just well acted (like in Days of Future Past), but because they were well written too.
Maybe my hopes had just been set up too high, thanks to all the marketing.
I suppose all I really expected from any X-Men film is for a small but capable ensemble cast to show off their powers, learn some lessons, and solve some problems. It doesn’t have to be too deep, but I have to care. I have to give a shit, dammit. I’m wrong to bemoan Singer for wanting to break the mould, and he has achieved a serious piece of film-making here that will set the benchmarks for future installments. However I would be lying if I said I enjoyed it more than X-Men: First Class, or the David Hayter-penned X-Men 2.
So what is next? The next film in the series is set up thanks to the glorious power of the Marvel stinger, and there are some other questions left unanswered that I won’t go into. All told I would have loved a film in between this and First Class, or to have made this a two parter. Yes it’s all the rage nowadays, but there is a lot of depth to the concept that remains unexplored.
Go and see X-Men: Days of Future Past in cinemas now, and let me know your thoughts.