Wednesday, July 16, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014, d. Bryan Singer

"Days of Future Past" is considered one of the greatest X-Men stories in their near-50-year history.  Comic nerd I am, of course I've read it, but long after it first came out and in the thick of its lionization.  Truth told, I wasn't that impressed with it.  It was shorter than I thought it would be (it's really only a 2-part story), and it doesn't work so well as a stand-alone story out of the context of the ongoing series at the time.  Written in the early 1980's by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne and Terry Austin, it ran as issue 181 and 182 of the Uncanny X-Men, and the main story is interrupted by scenes of B- and C-plots that Claremont was seeding for the future of the X-Men soap operatic, as was the storytelling style at the time.  What it had, rather than a great story, was ideas, interesting ones at that, most of which were left unexplored due to the space constraints.

So in adapting it to a feature film, the latest in the long-running X-Men series, there wasn't enough material to work with to fill a two-plus-hour screentime, nor was there much within the story that would service the characters of the film series past, since the films have not followed any story track laid out by the comics.  Changes had to be made.  Which is to say that rabid fans of the original story shouldn't expect to see much resembling the comic up on screen.

The film Days of Future Past serves many purposes.  It acts as the third sequel to the original X-Men franchise, and first sequel to the series reboot, X-Men: First Class and then it acts as a bridge between these two series by featuring the teams and characters introduced in both, despite the fact that they exist in different eras.  Since the original X-Men film's début in 2000, and even since First Class in 2011, the bulk of the series casts are monster celebrities now.  Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Halle Berry, Ellen Page and Shaun Aston from the original series return to reprise their roles, while Jennifer Laurence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult return in theirs, with Peter Dinklage thrown in as an opposing force for good measure.  Next to an Oceans 11 film, this is about as top-loaded a cast cinema has ever seen, and in a blockbuster superhero franchise no less.

The advertisements and build-up for the film were highlighting the cast of actors as well as the ever-expanding roster of mutant characters brought to the big screen, and both were highlighting the two time periods in which the film was set: one a bleak dystopian future where machines meant to defend humanity against any mutant threat have deemed all of humanity an eventual threat, and the mid-1970s where Wolverine has psychically travelled in the past to try and stop the threat before it's even created.  One was made to think that the two timelines would share the screentime and story weight, and that this monster cast would be put to full use battling Sentinels in two timelines, but it's just not the case.

It's a bit of a bait and switch.  The reality is that the future sequences are minimal, a few set pieces and a couple of action sequences, meant to establish just how dire things have gotten and how important going back to the past and changing the future is.  Since the bulk of the film takes place in the 1970's it's much more a direct sequel to First Class.  It delves into the fallout of the events of First Class, taking place a decade later, Charles Xavier moribund faith in humanity, his friends and himself has left him addicted to a power-suppressing injection created by Hank McCoy (Beast), who now acts primarily as Charles' caretaker.  Meanwhile Magneto is in a specially designed prison (the reason for which is an absolute delight to discover, and the further spin on it even moreso) while Charles' foster sister, Mystique, is on a dark path to becoming a master assassin and the person responsible for instigating the implementation of the Sentinel program.

It's up to Wolverine to wrangle these disparate and desperate people, to rebuild Charles' failth so that he can rekindle his friendship with Magneto so that together they can find Mystique and put her on a different path. Things don't go as planned, Magneto being the wild card that he is, and the tense history between the various characters not so easily buried. If anything, things may accelerate and the Sentinel program may start even sooner.

It definitely wasn't the movie I was expecting, given the marketing and hype, and for a moment I lamented the lack of screentime/action/purpose for Ellen Page or Halle Berry or Ian McKellan, but the 1970's story arc for the First Class crew wound up being a thoroughly unpredictable one, leading to a wild ride of emotional, political and corporate intrigue alongside a host of exciting displays of phenomenal superpowers.  The film truly centred around Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique and the assassination of Dinklage's Boliver Trask, creator of the Sentinels.  Whether her years with Charles and his faith in humanity would win out over Magneto's insistence that humans and mutants were already at war (and that she was a soldier) would supersede all is at question.  She holds the future in her hands, and the betrayals she has experienced have left her tremendously conflicted and more than a little scarred.  It's a surprisingly meaty role for what would otherwise be conventionally thought of as a dumb blockbuster.  But that's just one part of what makes Days of Future Past such a truly incredible movie in the mix of the big summer movie.

It is a big movie for sure, with that cast and all the superpowers and special effects and giant robots, it's got a big meaty story with weight and importance (at least in the context of the characters and the series), but it thrives best on the character drama, the inner turmoil of Charles and Mystique and the lack of turmoil for Magneto (though he relates far more later in life), as well as the tumultuous relationship between all these characters.

One of the main criticism's laid against the film is that Mystique's journey, as the centrepiece, is not a strong one.  It's charged that she's not in control, that she's just seen as an object of desire, being pulled every which way with no capacity for making her own decisions, that she's not a strong character.  Having rewatched First Class shortly before seeing the film, the status of the relationships between Mystique, Magneto, Charles, and Beast are all consistent with where they left off previously.  Charles laments regrets losing his sister, for not providing her the reassurance she needed.  He looks upon her with such regret and familial love, not romantic.  Magneto, meanwhile, is an ex-lover, but sees her as a tool, a useful ally more than having any genuine feelings for her.  Beast, meanwhile, still harbors the crush on her he had in First Class, and sees in her someone who has accepted herself in a way he has not yet accepted his own mutation.  Wolverine, meanwhile, doesn't seem to care one way or another, he just has a horrible future to prevent, a job that needs to get done.

I quite enjoyed how Jackman, in his 9th turn as Wolverine (you have to count the cameo in First Class, as it's called back here) sinks into the background rather than taking control of the screen.  He's the biggest star, character-wise (arguably Jennifer Lawrence is the biggest star in the movie), but he logically doesn't have much to contribute to the relationship dynamics of a group of characters who don't know him (yet) or fully trust him (yet).  While there are leaps in story logic, the character logic throughout is so satisfyingly sound.

As for the action, what you expect from a superhero blockbuster like this, the film delivers in surprising ways.  The early future sequences feature a quintet of heroes Iceman, Blink, Colossus, Warpath and Bishop facing off against a batch of incoming Sentinals at their safe-home.  They put of a valiant (and impressively orchestrated) fight, but they are all murdered in shocking fashion that just punches any comics fan right in the gut.  It's a fake-out thanks to time travel comic book science, but it's not the last time it happens and it's no less potent when it occurs again.  Blink's portal generating powers particularly make for some of the most inventive and mind-blowing fight sequences ever on screen.

In what is easily the film's high-point, the team tracks down a friend of Wolverine's (or, rather, he will be a friend, later), a teenaged super-speedster Peter Maximoff (aka Quicksilver from the comics) to help them break Magneto out of his prison 5 miles down a concrete bunker in the center of the pentagon.  How the film captures not only Peter's super-speed powers, but the effect it has on his personality, is so very entertaining.  When we actually get to see Peter in all-out action, manipulating the kinetic energy around a room with bullets locked in time and metal kitchen ware hanging in the air, it's a thing of beauty, worth the price of admission alone.

The final showdown, as well, is great, if only because it doesn't end with a big, messy, SFX spectacle.  It does feature some combat, but it's climax is an emotional one rather than a physical one.  It doesn't strive to outdo any other action sequences from earlier in the film or any films prior, it delivers an engame that feels right for the story.  The need to constantly ramp up the visual spectacle for a big messy CGI-fest is one of the more annoying trends with blockbuster movies (and it happens with most of them) that an ending like this is so refreshing, on top of being satisfying.

The films coda is a sweet one, giving a send-off of sorts to the original X-Men franchise of characters (and so many cameos) while the end-credits teaser promises an even bigger threat to come for the younger iteration of these heroes.  Honestly, I can't wait for more.