Time is, time was, time’s X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. There were clearly commercial reasons why the latest chapter in the X-MEN franchise had to be a time travel tale: Having previously flubbed the introduction of a new, younger Professor X and Magneto (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the producers clearly wanted to recover a bit of the franchise’s mojo by bringing back the old band — namely Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen under the direction of Bryan Singer (plus Hugh Jackman) — while also trying to finesse the audience into a better appreciation for their replacements. The side benefit is that the time period decided upon for this film has interesting significance for the themes explored in the X-MEN universe. After my quick review of the surprisingly decent MALEFICENT, I turn my attention to what Singer has wrought. Click on the player to hear the review.
The most astoundingly okay movie so far this year – which is apparently all it takes to earn high praise these days
If you want to thrill to the excitement of an astoundingly, supremely, stupendously okay movie, then run – don’t walk – to a theatre showing X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. This film truly has it all: profoundly okay plot; jaw-droppingly okay action sequences; eye-poppingly okay 3D; superbly okay special effects; and amazingly okay acting. It truly is the most finely tuned okay movie of the summer season so far, and it’s hard to imagine any other film surpassing its okay-ness. On the other hand, if you prefer something more than okay, you should stay home and read the film’s reviews instead; there, you will encounter a staggering validation of director Bryan Singer’s return to the X-Men universe, an almost universal paen to the best that fantasy cinema has to offer. It seems that, in this case, being okay was not merely enough; it was far more than enough, earning accolades normally reserved for something good, or even great.
Why this should be so is a bit of a mystery. It’s not as if the annual build-up to a season’s worth of summer blockbusters has been fraught with terrible disappointments. Sure, there was THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, but also there was CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, which was also okay. Even better was GODZILLA, which avoided the overblown bombast of most blockbuster fare. So why is X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST being fanatically embraced for being merely okay?
I suspect the answer can be summed up in two words: Brett Ratner. The X-Men tribe has never forgiven Ratner for directing X-MEN: THE LAST STAND (2006), or more precisely, the tribe has never forgiven the film for having been directed by Ratner, who is perceived as an outsider, a hack, who hijacked the franchise and ruined it. By embracing X-MEN DAYS OF FUTURE PAST, the tribe is embracing the return of their tribal elder, Singer, whose helming of the first two X-MEN films (2000’s X-MEN and 2003’s X-2: X-MEN UNITED) – helped elevate the movie franchise somewhat above the standard we had come to expect from cinematic comic book adaptations. (Anybody remember TANK GIRL? No? How about STEEL?).
The problem with film as tribal identifier is that actual quality is often overlooked; flaws that would have been scorned in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND are blithely overlooked in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. So let’s examine just how okay the new film is, flaws and all.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST gets off to an okay start with an okay action sequence, set in a murky future when the X-Men are hunted down by Sentinels (essentially robots). There are some mutants who will be familiar to fans of the comic book, but their presence means little to anyone else, except insofar as we get to glimpse a variety of different superpowers. The most visually impressive of these is Blink (Fan Bingbing), who can open portals in space through which she and her fellow warriors can leap.
I say “visually impressive,” because in terms of actual strategy, the power is rather useless. Rather than being transported to safety or some strategically appropriate place, leaping through a portal places someone only a few feet from where they were, and it becomes very quickly clear – to the audience, at least – that any blow struck, weapon thrown, or shot fired will simply follow the fleeing mutant through the portal and strike its target – which is what finally happens when these super-smart Sentinels finally figure out the obvious.
Sharp-eyed viewers with brain cells that can access memories back to 2006 will marvel at the novelty of seeing Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen once again playing Charles Xaviar and Ian McKellen, former friends turned rival mutant leaders – one peaceful, the other militant. What’s marvelous here is that Xaviar died in X-MEN: THE LAST STAND. We knew he would return because, in a post-credits sequence, we heard his disembodied voice emanating from a comatose body in a hospital; however, it was a bit of a surprise to see the same old Xaviar back in the surprise post-credits sequence of THE WOLVERINE – a surprise that, we expected, would be explained in this film. But no, we just have to assume that when Xaviar beamed his mind into that body it took on all the physical characteristics of his old self, including both his mutant powers and his spinal cord injury. It’s a horrible continuity lapse, but that’s okay because it’s perceived as a bit of an f.u. to the events of Ratner’s film.
The next bit of okay-ness involves the plot of X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. In order to prevent this terrible future from taking place, the surviving X-Men need to send someone into the past. That someone turns out to be Logan (a.k.a., Wolverine), ostensibly because the character’s healing powers will allow him to make the life-threatening journey, which would kill anyone else, but mostly because everyone knows that Hugh Jackman is the real star of this franchise, and no one wants to sit through another X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, without him. Kitty Pride (Ellen Page) will send Logan back in time – which is pretty impressive when you consider that this was not previously Kitty Page’s mutant power. But that’s okay, because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The rules of time travel are laid out well enough, but the logic conforms to standard screenplay myopia: in order to prevent Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Dr. Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) – an event that will spur the Sentinel project into reality – Wolverine travels back to a time just before the assassination. Not, you know, to a time decades before, when he might prevent Mystique from turning to the Dark Side in the first place, because that would derail the whole time-lock plot device of desperately trying to reach her just before she can pull the trigger.
There is one nicely okay quality to Wolverine’s time-jump: selected for his physical resiliency, he really isn’t the right man for the job, which consists of convincing the younger versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr) to put aside the enmity and join forces to prevent the catastrophic consequences that will result from the assassination. A man of action rather than words, Wolverine struggle to play diplomat provide a few nice moments before the character is sidelined – because even though the filmmakers knew they needed to put him in the story, the story isn’t really about him.
It’s also well and truly okay seeing Xavier walking around and feeling sorry for himself, wallowing in self pity over the way things ended between him and Lehnsherr and Mystique.* Xavier’s disillusioned condition echoes the opening of THE WOLVERINE (2013), except that sequence set Logan on a character arc that the rest of the film would follow; in this case, Xavier’s state is just a temporary distraction, a plot device to give him something to do and to explain why he might be initially too weak to face off with Lehnsherr when the inevitable betrayal comes.
Oh wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. You know that, as the franchise’s icon villain, Lehnsherr (a.k.a. Magneto) will inevitably betray Xavier’s new-found trust in him, right? What you didn’t know was how soon it would happen and how stupid it would make Xavier and Logan look. But let’s set that aside and ignore it, because the film certainly does. But that’s okay, because X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is directed by Bryan Singer
Before friends-turned-enemies Xavier and Lehnsherr can become friends again, Wolverine and company need to break Lehnsherr out of prison. This leads to one of the few, exceptional scenes in which X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST exceeds being okay: Quicksilver (Evan Peters) breaks Lehnsherr out of the bowels of the Pentagon in an amazingly photographed sequence that conveys super-speed by, ironically, slowing everything down. Giving new meaning to the phrase “bullet-time,” the scene plays from the fast-paced mutant’s point of view as he calmly weaves in between guards, dodging and deflecting bullets. In fact, the movements of everyone else are so slow that Quicksilver can barely be said to be dodging anything; it’s more like someone stepping off the sidewalk while noting a car headed in his direction from a block away. Why the sequence is almost as good as Hammy’s hilarious jump to hyper-drive in OVER THE HEDGE.
The only problem with this scene is that it establishes Quicksilver as a potentially invaluable asset to Logan and Xavier – he’s so fast he’s invisible to everyone else, including the dangerous Magneto – and yet they leave him behind because…well, just because they don’t want him around to solve the inevitable crisis we know is coming. If he can just flit around unseen and fix everything, where’s the drama? So script contrivance wins out. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
The initial assassination attempt is thwarted, but that does not solve the problem, because Mystique is still out there, planning a second attempt. X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST purports to dramatize the battle for her soul between Xavier and Lehnsherr, but since Lehnsherr’s solution to the problem is to kill Mystique, it’s a bit of a one-sided tug-of-war. But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed this film.
So the film builds toward a second assassination attempt, this one involving both Trask and President Nixon (Mark Camacho), which also involves Lehnsherr lifting a baseball stadium and plopping it down around the White House. He’s also taken over the Sentinel prototypes (which were made of non-metal so as not to be subject to his power) by using his magnetic power to insert metal rods into them. The scene suggests Magneto has some previously unacknowledged clairvoyant power, since he is able to perform this metallic surgery at a distance, without being able to see inside the complex technological network inside the Sentinels. Quibbling aside, Lehnsherr’s plan to avoid a horrible future in which human fear of mutants has led to virtual extinction, is to assassinate the president on national television. The logic eludes me (unless the fact that the president happens to be Nixon is supposed to curry favor). But that’s okay because Bryan Singer directed the film.
Continuity with the previous films is a mess (a problem with the previous X-MEN: FIRST CLASS as well), but we’re not supposed to worry, because Logan’s trip back to 1973 will reboot the time line anyway (so that the new, younger cast can take over, a la 2009’s STAR TREK), erasing all of the events seen in the previous X-MEN films. You might think fans would be a bit ticked off about this, but apparently not – because it erases the reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND, so fuck you Brett Ratner – and if that means erasing Singer’s X-MEN films and the far superior THE WOLVERINE, so be it. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs; after all; besides, the alternate timeline gives you license to kill off major characters, whom you can then easily resurrect in the new version of the future. But that’s okay because Bryan Signer directed the film.
Anyway, you get the idea. Lots of stuff happens; some of it is fun; most of it is okay; but the tribe loves all of it, regardless. Any why not? It’s an okay movie. But nothing more than that. It’s better than the abysmal X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE and the almost as bad X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. It falls short of X-MEN and X-2: X-MEN UNITED – and far short of THE WOLERVINE. Ironically, X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST is just about on par with the unjustly reviled X-MEN: THE LAST STAND – another flawed film with enough good stuff in it to be okay.
[rating=3] A mild recommendation FOOTNOTE
Xavier can walk because he’s taking a drug that inhibits his mutant powers. His mutant powers have nothing to do with his inability to walk – his powers are genetic; his paralysis the result of a bullet wound at the end of X-MEN: FIRST CLASS – but that’s okay, because…well, you know.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. 20th Century Fox and Marvel Entertainment. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg; story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Mathew Vaugh, based on the Marvel Comics characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Kinklage, Evan Peters, Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen. 131 minutes. PG-13.
The Christmas season is upon us, and as we have had occasion to mention, that means ghosts and spirits. And what greater Christmas ghost story is there than Charles Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL? That is the subject of this week’s Cinefantastique Round Table Podcast: Dan Persons, guest John W. Morehead (of Theofantastique.com), and Steve Biodrowski take a look back at the original novel and the numerous film and television adaptations, both live action and animated, that have brought not only Scrooge but also Jacob Marley and the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future to life on the screen. Listen for fond remembrances of everything from the 1951 classic SCROOGE starring Alistair Sim to the 1970 musical starring Albert Finney, from George C. Scott to Patrick Stewart, not to mention Mr. Magoo, the Muppets, and Doctor Who!
[EDITOR’S NOTE: I am posting this review by Fred Szebin, which originally appeared in Cinefantastique magazine. Because of the way the website works, the person who posts an article shows up as an author. To avoid any confusion, I wanted to state clearly that the authorship belongs solely to Szebin.] It is usually a difficult task to pinpoint a specific element of inspiration that has influenced everything that came after it, but in the case of Moby Dick, it’s a simple matter. Calling the plot a “monster story” is not quite a stretch, and it has influenced many creature features over the past century: everything from the gallantry of STAR TREK to the giant turtle epic, THE BERMUDA DEPTHS, and even an unauthorized remake, the silly ORCA. In this adaptation of Melville’s epic tale of Ahab’s struggle to the death not only with the whale that took his leg but also with his own obsessions and growing madness, uneven effects do not prevent director Roddam from handling the material with a masterful assuredness that brings Melville’s pages to a full and lusty life.
Stewart is remarkable as Ahab, offering a multi-leveled portrayal of a man over the edge, unable to stop himself even as he looks into the abyss. It’s obvious how much he enjoys his role, which makes him that much more fun to watch. Another revelation is Henry Thomas, handsome and capable 16 years after E.T. As Ishmael, he shows sensitivity and appealing naivete. while Piripi Waretini is wonderful as the over-the-top Queequeg, the pagan harpooner who is an unlikely mentor to the more refined Ishmael. And as the only island of sanity aboard the Pequod, Ted Levine is perfectly cast as Starbuck, the opposing force to Ahab’s empty-hearted lunacy.
A most difficult accomplishment must have been to make Melville’s Shakespearean dialogue sound like natural speech, but the actors all serve their words admirably. This is one monster movie that doesn’t just lay there in wait of its star creature’s appearance. Instead, there is much happening with the characters, and even the most unappealing of these swabbies is certainly never dull. The special effects are quite good, although some remain obvious. Old Moby himself is nicely realized with CGI for full shots and mechanical parts for close-ups. Roddam is wisely careful how he uses these implements, and once added to Christopher Gordon’s swelling score and David Connell’s snappy editing, the whale sequences, particularly when Moby lays waste to the Pequod, are exciting and effective.
It is a particularly thankless job to create an epic for television, a disposable medium whose very slap-dash nature works against anyone trying to create anything of real value. But executive producers Francis Ford Coppola and Fred Fuchs have done it twice: previously with THE ODYSSEY, and now with MOBY DICK, two productions that bear the odds against them and stand on their own as the best that television can offer. MOBY DICK (TV Mini-series, 4 hours, w/commercials, TV-PG, 1998). Director. Franc Roddam. Screenplay: Anton Diether and Roddam, from the novel by Herman Melville. With: Patrick Stewart, Ted Levine, Henry Thomas, Gregory Peck. RELATED ARTICLES: