Friday, May 30, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" is uncanny and astonishing [REVIEW]

REVIEW: ****

With Director Bryan Singer's return to the franchise comes the finest X-outing in over ten years - a grand return to form for the franchise which not only presents a fresh start, but an affectionate look back at the long-running series and a new gold standard to strive for in the future. The film has an all-star cast of characters - new and old that join forces across time, to face seemingly insurmountable odds.

"Days of Future Past" represents a bold new benchmark for a film series that has endured a long road of varying degrees of quality. The very first film (appropriately titled 'X-Men') in 2000 undoubtedly opened a door, allowing characters previously hampered by the abilities of visual effects to finally have their day on the silver screen, as well as proving in a post "Batman & Robin" world that superhero films could be high-quality action/adventure thrillers with sophisticated characters and stories - rather than absurdly campy garbage. Spider-Man took advantage of this new landscape two years later and cinemas have rarely been lacking colourful superheroes ever since.

The standard of the ensuing X-films undeniably varied - X2 was an understated triumph (people really do forget just how good it was), the third film, "X-Men: The Last Stand" is a mess - rushed into production with a questionable director, it's a sleazier, cheesier, cheaper film (in spite of the increased amount of big-budget action sequences) that laid waste to numerous characters, often simply to drum up some immediate dramatic impact (which nearly always fell flat). The downward spiral continued with the completely farcical "X-Men Origins: Wolverine", which despite the very best efforts of Hugh Jackman (who has yet to turn in a bad performance as Wolverine) was a downright foolish, stupid film that frequently doesn't make sense and looks like a mawkish B-movie. With the franchise in tatters, no one really expected "First Class" to be any good - surprisingly it was. Despite a script that's a bit ropey in more than a few places, and a questionable roster of relatively faceless C and D-list mutants (Azazel and Angel were only recently created when the film was released) the electrifying chemistry of James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as young versions of Professor X and Magneto elevated the film beautifully to a level of quality the franchise hadn't seen in six years. "The Wolverine" wasn't to everyone's tastes, but I found it to be a really refreshing kind of film - it was a story that wasn't afraid to be smaller and dirtier and more character-driven, in a Summer ravaged by superhero films obsessed with mass destruction (lookin' at you "Man of Steel").

This latest outing is very loosely based on Chris Claremont's legendary two-parter of the same name, wherein Kitty Pryde is forced to go into the past to change the dystopian future that has been ravaged by a mutant/human war. Director Bryan Singer made the decision to restrict Kitty Pryde's role in the story to catalyst, with Wolverine once again providing the heroics. Logan (played by Hugh Jackman, for the seventh time) must travel to the past and enlist the help of a young, jaded Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) whose dreams of a school for mutants has been dashed by the betrayal of Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender). With the help of furry genius Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) and silver speedster Peter (Evan Peters) they must try and prevent a pivotal moment in history caused by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who's out for industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage)'s blood.

Fans were understandably worried in the run-up to the film that Fox were once again hedging their bets on Jackman's reliable star-power rather than respecting the source material. And to be fair, this worry is not entirely unfounded - however not in the case of Jackman whose use throughout the film is perfectly balanced with the other characters. No this time it's Mystique who receives an odd amount of focus in the film, no doubt owing to Jennifer Lawrence's now-massive status in Hollywood. The plot and the pseudoscience of the film (Mystique's shapeshifting powers somehow give scientists the ability to create robots that can assimilate any mutant power - how does that work? Mystique can't duplicate other mutants' powers?) are stretched to a point that would be distracting, and while credible enough, after two viewings I still find Mystique's motivation to be a little bit forced.

These are minor concerns however, as the film is ultimately a delight, with highs far eclipsing its lows. Despite the complicated plot, Singer's heavy reliance on characterisation, humour and intelligent action sequences mean that the viewer is always interested in what's going on - unlike a lot of superhero films these days (even the very good ones) very little is overcooked or excessive. Every scene feels necessary and succinct and drives the story along nicely.

The return of series veterans Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan (for the sequences set in the future) gives the film a weight missing from previous installments. Adding other regulars from the original three films (Storm, Iceman, Shadowcat, even that guy who played Colossus despite only having a few lines of dialogue is back) makes it feel like we're watching a true "X-Men 4" and not another spinoff or prequel. McAvoy and Fassbender are a delight to watch in the younger incarnations of Xavier and Magneto - Fassbender especially brings a deadly menace to the younger Magneto that we're unused to seeing from McKellan (Sir Ian's is still my personal favourite performance however).

Adding Jackman back into the 'team' (rather than just giving him another solo film) allows the viewer to remember why he worked so well in those initial films to begin with. His seventh appearance in 14 years (that's longer than any actor played James Bond), "Days" gives Wolverine the unusual task of providing the same kind of wisdom an leadership for Xavier that the Professor once provided for him - this allows us to see just how much Logan has grown, from the cocksure loner who didn't need to work as part of a team, to a man for whom friendship, family and structure has become the most important part of his life. Of course Hugh Jackman sells it. The man is a champion of the genre and every time he's on screen you fall in love with him all over again. It's hard to speculate what involvement he'll have in future films (outside of his already-planned third solo outing) but suffice to say Fox would be foolish to exclude him entirely from future films.

Another appealing aspect of "Days of Future Past" (besides the great story and characters) was its affection and reverence for the previous X-Men films, rather than trying to shy away from them and batter on down its own route. With Hollywood's Reboot Frenzy still in full swing, it's delightful to see a series remember its roots. The final sequence provides us with a view of  a bright future, while also wiping the slate clean, with an opportunity for a new(ish) timeline to unfold (without necessarily deleting everything we've seen so far). On the other hand, "Days" is also a great starting point for young fans who might not have seen all of the preceding films - lots of characters are reintroduced throughout the film, bringing you up to speed on anything you may have missed. This kind of well-placed and thoughtful reflection on films past (I didn't even mention the return of John Ottman's terrific themes from X2) makes it even more mind-boggling that Singer was single-handedly responsible for the pretentious homage-ridden mess that was 'Superman Returns'. I hate to say it, but it almost makes you yearn for a sequel for that film - might it have been much better?

Ultimately "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a joy to watch, one of the very best of the franchise and the entire comic book genre. While the franchise may one day be handed back to Marvel who may decide to wipe the slate clean, for now I'm more than satisfied with where the Fox-owned series seems to be heading, and as far as I'm concerned, I hope they continue to add installments to this long-running series - I've been a fan for most of my life.

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