Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past — One for the ages

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated PG-13, for nonstop action violence, considerable grim content and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.23.14

This one cooks.

The X-Men film series has earned high marks from its debut back in 2000, notwithstanding the frustrating rival studio issues that prevent these characters from operating within the larger tapestry of the “Marvel Universe” project that includes Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and the Avengers.

After learning that black-ops types plan to conduct dangerous — even lethal — medical
experiments on some helpless mutants, a furious Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, second
from right) gets quite irate with the goons responsible, while helping the others escape.
Director Bryan Singer got Marvel’s “merry mutants” off to an excellent start with the first two films, and he returns here, batteries fully charged, for a rip-snortin’ adventure that satisfies on every level.

Longtime comic book fans, who’ve followed these characters since their debut back in September 1963, can point to three periods of writer/artist genius during the series’ half-century history. Old-timers still cite the Roy Thomas/Neal Adams run, despite its brevity, as the highlight of 1969 and early ’70. The subsequent generation scoffs at that choice, pointing instead to the bravura Chris Claremont/Jim Lee run from 1989 through ’91.

In between, though, we enjoyed four years of greatness from late 1977 through early ’81, thanks to Claremont’s imaginative stories and artist/co-author John Byrne’s artwork. And that run produced a two-parter, “Days of Future Past,” which remains one of the all-time best comic book stories, anywhere ... not to mention one of the most ingenious time-travel narratives ever concocted (and cited as such in a recent issue of the British pop culture magazine SFX).

Fan reaction was guarded, when word broke that this new X-Men film would adapt that classic tale. Doing it justice would be difficult enough; carefully sliding it into the big-screen mythos already established by the first three films and 2011’s X-Men: First Class, even harder. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn therefore deserve considerable credit, because they pulled it off. And then some.

Failing to give Claremont and Byrne a “story by” acknowledgment, however, is utterly indefensible. And I rather doubt that Claremont was mollified by his eyeblink cameo.

To a degree, this film also has been shaped by the wattage of its primary stars, most notably Jennifer Lawrence, who has become huge since first playing the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique in First Class. Hugh Jackman’s ultra-cool Wolverine also is front and center, as are James McAvoy’s angst-ridden Charlie Xavier and Michael Fassbender’s smoothly malevolent Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto.

But wait, I hear you cry. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen also appear in this adventure ... and aren’t they also Xavier and Magneto?

Well, yes ... and that’s the nature of time-travel stories. Done properly, we get to eat our cake, and have it, too. And this is one tasty treat.

Events begin in a ghastly future that will look familiar to fans of the Terminator series: a dark, dystopian realm where all of humanity has been subjugated — or killed — by the terrifying, shape-shifting robots (Sentinels) initially designed to protect “ordinary” people from mutants. (Read in your favorite real-world racist/apartheid parallel; the symbolism is deliberate.)

The Sentinels have become virtually unstoppable, although the remaining X-Men — noble mutants, each gifted with a different and unusual power — are doing their best to hang on.

A precious few remaining stalwarts, led by the mind-reading Xavier and metal-shaping Magneto (Stewart and McKellen), have made a final stand within a mountainside shelter in China. While a handful of guards stand watch — Storm (Halle Berry), Bishop (Omar Sy), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Blink (Bingbing Fan), Warpath (Booboo Stewart) and Sunspot (Adan Canto) — Xavier guides Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) through a desperate gambit that will send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time, to his younger self in 1973, and the moment when a single incident triggered the events that led to this horrible, worldwide outcome.

The catastrophe: Raven’s assassination of Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), inventor of the Sentinel program. In the wake of that murder, with Raven identified as the culprit, all nations united behind a shared desire to rid the world of all mutants.

But once activated, the Sentinels took their programming a bit too seriously ... because a vast majority of people have “aberrant” DNA sequences that could be viewed as “mutations.”

Armed with the awareness of what awaits, Wolverine awakens in 1973, where the bulk of this story takes place, knowing that he must unite the younger Xavier and Magneto, so they all can stop the renegade Raven.

Yes, it’s the ultimate time-travel cliché: As with Stephen King’s recent novel about an attempt to stop Kennedy’s assassination, Wolverine & Co. are trying to prevent the similar death of a “bad” guy. And, perhaps to demonstrate that they’re fully aware of the toys with which they’re playing, this film’s scripters cheekily introduce the younger Magneto in an exotic underground prison cell, where he has been incarcerated since being found responsible for Kennedy’s death.

How else could that fateful bullet’s trajectory have been along such a curved path?

The resulting adventure, a taut 131 minutes granted impressive snap by editor John Ottman, is cleverly divided into distinct acts, each with an “impossible” challenge. The first, involving the need to break Magneto out of his prison far beneath the Pentagon, serves as a marvelous introduction to young Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), not yet known by his mutant handle of Quicksilver.

The attitude-laden Maximoff is a great character, wonderfully played by Peters, who joins the team strictly for kicks and grins. This sequence injects a welcome level of playfulness mostly absent from the rest of the film, while also foreshadowing even better things to come.

Elsewhere, the enraged Raven — feeling betrayed by both Xavier and Erik (as per events in the previous film) — has been mounting her own clandestine crusade to free young mutants from nasty, black-ops “experimentation” programs sponsored both overtly and covertly by Trask and his lieutenant, Stryker (Josh Helman, suitably vicious).

Those who’ve followed previous X-Men and Wolverine films will recognize the name Stryker, just as this story’s Wolverine has a horrific flashback upon first seeing him here.

Lawrence gets considerable screen time, second only to the always engaging Jackman, whose cigar-chomping Wolverine remains one of the best-cast Marvel superheroes brought to the big screen. Jackman can be counted on for snarky verve and methodical mayhem, but Lawrence deftly delivers impressive emotional complexity: Raven, although operating with similar lone wolf ferocity, has yet to become a cold-hearted killing machine.

Her mounting rage over Trask’s efforts, however, is about to tip her into berserker chaos.

Xavier, battling despair over the dissolution of his dream for a peaceful co-existence between mutants and humankind, is similarly conflicted. McAvoy also shines as yet another intriguingly flawed character, and that’s an important hallmark of this film, and the entire series: The primary protagonists constantly battle uncertainty and demons of their own creation, and these inner conflicts are skillfully portrayed by the top-notch cast.

Think about it: Actors with the range and depth of Fassbender, McAvoy, Lawrence, Stewart and McKellen, playing characters once dismissed as one-dimensional nonsense from disposable comic books? We truly live in a great era. (And longtime comic book fans definitely are enjoying the last laugh.)

Fassbender’s Magneto is regal, aloof and also at a tipping point: an implacable man who bears grudges and grimly takes the path of least resistance, no matter the collateral damage. Dinklage, as well, is quite memorable as the chilling Trask, a scientist who regards morality as something for lesser beings, and therefore finds an ally in this saga’s President Richard Nixon (Mark Camacho, at times eerily dead-on).

Nicholas Hoult makes the most of his large supporting role as Hank McCoy, better known as the professorial Beast, who must take care lest he lose control of his own blue-furred other self. Back in the future, Page’s Kitty Pryde bears the emotional weight of this desperate gambit, while Fan’s Blink is fascinating, establishing a solid premise despite having very few lines. Shawn Ashmore’s Bobby Drake/Iceman, always at Kitty’s side, delivers the obligatory “But can this work?”-type dialogue with surprising verisimilitude.

Ottman also contributes a rousing, blood-pounding score and makes droll use of 1970s pop tunes. Production designer John Myhre concocts a horrific future, while also set-dressing a richly detailed 1973; he also is responsible for the unstoppably scary future Sentinels, while sfx supervisor Cameron Waldbauer handled the first-gen robots of 1973.

Although the PG-13 rating feels right, parents should be advised that, at times, this is a very bleak and sometimes shocking story. The future-realm Sentinels are the stuff of nightmares, and plenty of good characters come to extremely bad ends, a few of these deaths particularly horrific.

I’m also not persuaded that all of the time-travel hiccups get worked out to full satisfaction, particularly a key detail regarding a bit of Raven’s spilled blood. But that’s probably kvetching too much.

Die-hard X-Men fans likely will be disappointed by the extremely short shrift given numerous other characters, notably Rogue (Anna Paquin), Havok (Lucas Till) and Toad (Evan Jonigkeit). But it is quite nice, in a welcome epilogue, to see a few other familiar faces.

Given the size of the cast and complexity of the story, however, Singer deserves kudos for orchestrating everything so well, maintaining suspense and plot momentum while building to a literally smashing finale. Five films in, this X-Men series continues to deliver, and I can’t wait for 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

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