Friday, May 27, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse — Thud and blunder

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) • View trailer 
2.5 stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for gratuitously fleeting profanity and distasteful, soul-crushing violence

By Derrick Bang

Enough, already.

Things were bad enough last summer, when Avengers: Age of Ultron gave us characters capable of re-shaping reality, along with a celestial scheme to return Earth to its Ice Age. Hollywood’s apparent need for superhero movies that forever increase the sense of scale — like a junkie craving ever-stronger fixes — was plain outta control.

When Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, center) is alerted to the presence of an ultra-
powerful mutant, he and his comrades — from left, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence), Moira
Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), Alex Summers (Lucas Till) and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) —
try to determine how best to find this entity.
This newest X-Men entry is even worse, with a villain who literally can re-shape the planet according to whim: a level of power so off the chart that the very notion of this guy being stopped by anybody, let alone young and largely untested mutant heroes, is simply ludicrous.

What, I wonder, could be next? A baddie who’ll pull the Moon out of its orbit? Destroy Saturn and her rings? Extinguish our sun? Annihilate entire galaxies?

It’s impossible to care about any of this film’s sturm und drang, because its screenplay — credited to Simon Kinberg, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and director Bryan Singer — doesn’t spend enough time with character development. Worse yet, the little we do get is needlessly grim and mean-spirited: the same problem of tone that infected Batman V Superman a few months back.

The early X-Men films were entertaining by virtue of the wary ensemble dynamic that united such radically different characters into a team, and for the way that everybody’s strange and weird powers were blended into a cohesive fighting unit. That camaraderie is all but lost in this smash-fest, which instead revels in an arrogantly callous level of civilization-snuffing carnage that I’ve not seen since the distasteful 2012, which depicted mass death with all the gravitas of a pinball machine.

Singer’s tone is about the same here, with John Ottman’s bombastic score adding even more portentous fury. And just to seal that atmospheric deal, Ottman’s original themes are augmented, at (ahem) apocalyptic moments, by the equally dour second movement (“Allegretto”) of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

Not much fun to be had, all told, in this 143-minute endurance test.

Apparently not content with the Holocaust back-story given Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto (Michael Fassbender), this film finds an all-new way to torture him in the first act: manipulatively cruel and distasteful to a truly disgusting degree. But it’s necessary, y’see, because the always conflicted Erik — more or less reformed, when last we saw him — needs an excuse to once again become a vengeance-seeking rage machine.

In fairness, a few bright spots shine amid the often revolting slaughter. Perhaps because Jennifer Lawrence has become such a talented commodity since first donning Raven’s blue skin in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, her role has been expanded greatly here, her rogue warrior having blossomed into a complicated and intriguing character. Unlike most of this film’s under-developed individuals, Raven gets plenty of time to shine, and Lawrence takes full advantage.

Similarly, Evan Peters’ snarky Peter Maximoff — the lightning-fast Quicksilver — is a welcome relief as the third act kicks into Earth-shattering gear: every bit as delightfully smart-assed as he was in 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Sophie Turner, on leave from HBO’s Game of Thrones, also does a nice job as the mind-reading and telekinetic Jean Grey (taking over from Famke Janssen, in earlier films). Turner delivers a persuasive level of angst and uncertainty, as a young woman haunted by prophetic dreams, and terrified of what might happen if she unleashes her powers to their full extent.

And while fans might cheer the unexpected appearance of another crowd-pleasing X-Man, his cameo here is merely an excuse for another sickening, character-betraying orgy of blood-spurting violence. (Frankly, this film’s PG-13 rating is a joke.)

But I’m getting ahead of things. Before we meet any of these characters, Singer & Co. take us back 5,000 years, to a fateful day in the lengthy life of En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), a self-proclaimed god responsible for creating and then destroying ancient civilizations — Babylonians, Arcadians, Sumerians — in an apparent quest to mold innately savage human beings into complacent sheep willing to be ruled.

The notion here is that En Sabah Nur is our world’s first mutant, and one who has become ever more powerful, over time, by absorbing the abilities of each meta-human body that he takes over, every time a given “shell” becomes old. Ah, but pesky adversaries manage to entomb this man-god far, far underground, where he remains unconscious, buried deeply beneath what becomes Cairo ... until accidentally awakened in 1983.

(X-Men: Days of Future Past turned back the clock on our merry mutants, hence this saga takes place during the Reagan years.)

Back in the States, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has made impressive progress with his upscale School for Gifted Children: actually a safe haven for mutants learning how to control their powers. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), the blue-furred and extremely strong Beast, has become an instructor; Jean and Alex Summers, aka Havok (Lucas Till) are among the many students.

The newest of these is Alex’s younger brother Scott (Tye Sheridan), whose lethal eye-beams have just manifested, leaving him unable to attend public school (to say the least).

Elsewhere, Raven has been operating as a one-woman mutant rescue mercenary; her latest find, in East Germany, is Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose off-putting appearance, complete with forked tail, is accompanied by impressive teleporting skills.

Meanwhile, the resurrected En Sabah Nur — gloomy, humorless and forever pouting — has gathered his own mutant acolytes, to become the newest incarnations of his original “four horsemen of the apocalypse”: the ninja-trained, psychic blade-wielding Psylocke (Olivia Munn); the metal-winged Angel (Ben Hardy); the weather-controlling Ororo Munroe, aka Storm (Alexandra Shipp); and — oh, dear — Magneto.

But wait, I hear veteran fans cry: Aren’t Angel, Storm and Psylocke long-established good-guy members of the X-Men?

Well, yeah, but apparently not here. Singer & Co. have completely re-booted their origin stories, to transform them into this Apocalypse’s four horsemen. Because, well ... just because.

One also wonders why En Sabah Nur would bother with assistants, since he can reconfigure the atoms of solid matter via mere thought. Answer: solely so the good guys have more people to fight.

And if all this exposition hasn’t given you whiplash yet, I haven’t even mentioned sidebar characters such as Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne), Col. William Stryker (Josh Helman) and briefly glimpsed Xavier School students such as Jubilee (Lana Condor). Singers and his co-scripters don’t even try to explain who most of these characters are, or how they fit into this time-shifted X-Men continuity; if you’ve not been around for the previous films, well, you’re simply out of luck.

Honestly, though, that scarcely matters. It’s not as if any of these events warrant our emotional involvement.

Lackluster scripting aside, the production values — as has become customary in Marvel Universe films — are superb, the special effects equally sensational. Singer and his massive behind-the-scenes team certainly don’t stint on spectacle, even if the landscape-shattering devastation becomes Transformers-style ridiculous.

And even though Singer and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel designed and shot the film in 3D, the result doesn’t make very imaginative use of that additional dimension; indeed, many of the fast tracking shots are likely to induce vertigo in queasy viewers.

Also disappointing: the absence of any tag scene after what seems an eternity of end credits ... so don’t waste your time waiting.

It’s clear, from the way this saga concludes, that Singer & Co. are setting us up for the “Dark Phoenix” aspect of Jean’s powers ... but since that narrative was the focus of 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, the point of such foreshadowing remains unclear. Or do the X-producers simply intend to tell the same story over again, the way the cinematic Spider-Man now has been given three repeat origins since 2002? Has institutional memory really become that fleeting?

Whatever the answer, it’s getting harder to care...

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