Monday, June 30, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past


In which Bryan Singer returns to the fold, the promise of ‘First Class’ is delivered on, the fanboy’s God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world. All rise, please, for a vigorous rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. 

Taking its cue from a brief scene embedded in the closing credits of ‘The Wolverine’ – Logan (Hugh Jackman), warned by Magneto (Ian McKellan) that “dark forces are at work”, responds antagonistically until a revivified Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) shows up, apparently now allied with Magneto again – ‘Days of Future Past’ wastes no time in establishing its irresistible narrative hook.

 The film opens in an apocalyptic future where mutants are hunted down by androids called Sentinels. A small group of survivors holed up in Russia are attacked and almost decimated, but Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) is able to send their leader’s consciousness back in time a couple of weeks; armed with knowledge from the future, he is able to warn them their security is compromised, whereupon they up sticks and move to a new hideout. Xavier and Magneto, attended by Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), make contact with them; Xavier doles out the necessary exposition: at a post-Vietnam treaty summit in 1973, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) assassinates anti-mutant arms dealer Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) but is captured by the military; as a result of his death, Trask’s Sentinel programme goes into overdrive and Mystique’s DNA provides a breakthrough by which the androids adapt to the mutants they’re targeting. 

Xavier asks Kitty’s help in sending him back to his younger self in 1973 so that he can stop Mystique. Kitty refuses on the basis that Xavier’s mind will not survive the transition. Step forward Wolverine who can pretty much survive anything and was never known as the cerebral addition to the team in the first place! Thus it is, with the Sentinels closing in and absolutely everything at stake, that Wolverine finds himself in 1973 entrusted with convincing the much younger and less reasonable Xavier (James McAvoy) to believe him, and the much younger and inconveniently incarcerated Magneto (Michael Fassebender) to help them. (The circumstances of Magneto’s imprisonment add up to one the film’s best jokes.)

Wolverine finds the Xavier of 1973 an embittered drunkard, trading his psychic powers for a temporary cure that allows him to walk again. His school for gifted youngsters is closed, his students having been drafted wholesale for ’Nam. Only Beast (Nicholas Hoult) remains, acting as a de facto minder, guardian and nurse. Magneto, meanwhile, is languishing in a specially constructed cell deep under the Pentagon. Persuading Xavier to snap out of his self-pity is the easy bit, and Wolverine achieves it through sheer bull-headedness and one little fight with Beast. Freeing Magneto takes a bit of help – cue Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has the single best scene in the movie, a pure cartoon piece of non-reality that pays off in such glorious style that the auditorium rang with applause at the screening I attended.

‘Days of Future Past’ hits many high points, the best of which is finding a way to erase ‘The Last Stand’ from the franchise’s continuity. It’s not without its fair share of flubs, though: firstly, Wolverine is returned to the America of 1973 in which he’s working as a bodyguard whereas ‘X-Men Origins: Wolverine’ has him conscripted into Stryker’s mutant black-ops outfit at this point in history. The discontinuity is pointed up by Stryker (Josh Helman – better than Danny Huston, still nowhere as good as Brian Cox) working privately for Trask in the ‘Days of Future Past’ timeline. There’s also the business of Wolverine still having adamantium claws in the future sequences when they were severed and replaced by the erstwhile bone claws at the end of ‘The Wolverine’. However, it’s clear that Singer’s priority was to clear out the rammel of ‘Last Stand’ and ‘Origins’ and give the fans the movie they wanted and deserved, and for that reason he gets a pass on the (admittedly very few) discontinuities and cheats that the film needs must indulge in in order to function. 

And how beautifully it functions! The opening sequence – Kitty desperately racing against time to cheat time itself while Blink (Fan Bingbing), Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Bishop (Omar Sy) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) duke it out with the Sentinels – is breathless, inventive and brilliantly conceived, the perfect opener to a film that’s as smart as it is spectacular. Blink in particular is a character I’d love to see more of in future instalments. Magneto’s breakout is a lovely nod to ‘X-2’ and pays off with a gnarly reunion between him and Xavier which sets the tone for much of what follows. Whereas McAvoy never quite seemed to reverse engineer Stewart’s performance in ‘First Class’ as intuitively as Fassbender did McKellan’s, ‘Days of Future Past’ is where he nails it – and ironically Xavier has to regress as a character in order for the breakthrough to occur. A terrific (and almost logically convincing) moment where McAvoy and Stewart share the screen seals the deal.

Fassbender, meanwhile, marches Magneto further and further towards McKellan’s personification. The dude is authentically badass. Jackman is functioning here the way he did in ‘The Wolverine’, genuinely investing in the character and delivering a memorable performance. Dinklage brings an appropriate inscrutability to Trask, playing what could have been a pantomime villain as a buttoned-down combination of messianic obsessive and box-ticking bureaucrat; another intriguing characterisation from an actor who has been consistently interesting throughout his career. Only Lawrence falls short: whereas ‘First Class’ saw her take Raven to the cusp of becoming Mystique and doing so appealingly enough, ‘Days of Future Past’ requires her to complete the transformation – what we know of Rebecca Romijn-Stamos’s Mystique should freight the finale with tension and unpredictability – but she never quite achieves Romijn-Stamos’s confident, mocking sexuality and dangerous athleticism.

A small thing to carp about, though, when ‘Days of Future Past’ gets so much right. Unlike ‘X-2’, the previous franchise highpoint, which wrote its greatness upon what was pretty much a clean slate, ‘Days of Future Past’ had a very muddied slate and needed to erase the bad feeling of two crass instalments before it could even being staking its own claim; that it ends on its own terms and leaves an open door for the next film to continue the retro-timelines only emphasises its resounding success. ‘Days of Future Past’ reclaims the X-Men, heroes and villains alike, and lets us unabashedly love them as if everything since ‘X-2’ had never happened.

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