Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) - A Review
Another day, another movie based on the comic books I loved so much as a kid. Comic books helped me to learn to love to read, inspired me to teach myself to draw, and generally helped nudge me in the direction of embracing literature and art as central to my life and my self-expression.

Now, if life would mirror the plot of this movie (based on a beloved storyline from the X-Men comic book) and someone were to go back in time to the 1970s and tell young Max that, in the future, all the comic heroes he loved were going to rule movie screens around the world, well, I'm sure that little Max would have been very happy and excited by that thought.
However, as an adult, living in this comic book bliss of a future, I think the actual results are turning out to be decidedly mixed.
I will admit to being somewhat excited by the prospect of this particular movie. I like the X-Men, I read the comics this movie is based on in my formative years, and hey, it was coming out on my birthday. So all indicators were positive going in.
Coming out...Well, I think that comic book fatigue may be setting in. (Mind you, I haven't even seen the latest iterations of Spider-Man.) My wife and I had watched X2 (2003) the night before we saw the new one, and it's a good thing we did. Much of the new movie plays off of themes and characters that featured prominently in that earlier film, so it was actually very useful to have had the refresher. Those coming to this new film without having seen previous ones are likely to spend much of the film just trying to keep up with who all the characters are, what their relationships and motivations are, etc.
In a nutshell, the new film goes like this: In a not-too-distant future, the world has been devastated by the Sentinels, giant mutant hunting robots who have expanded their mission to include those who sympathize with mutants, people who have a genetic predisposition to possibly have mutant children in the future, and so on. It's not a pretty picture. The few remaining X-Men, still led by Professor Xavier (still played by Patrick Stewart) hatch the plan to send someone back in time to the 1970s to try and change the course of events that brought the Sentinels into being in the first place.

Given the hardships of making such a journey (and the top-billed status of Hugh Jackman), it's decided that it makes the most sense to send Wolverine back - despite his being one of the least diplomatic of the group. So Wolverine is sent back, where he connects with the young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), who eventually enlists in the plan to change history (or in his case, the future).
There's a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. The bulk of the film takes place in the 1970s, with bookends set in the Sentinel-dominated future. This means we get both young and old versions of several characters (notably Professor X and Magneto), in addition to a great many other mutant characters old and new.

The thing that most impressed me about the first X-Men (2000) was how smoothly it handled introducing the whole concept of the mutant community, the many different characters involved, and the plot of the film. The filmmakers had a lot of balls in the air, and they didn't drop any.
However, in this latest film, I think a ball or two may have hit the floor. The explosion of time periods, characters and their powers, villains and semi-villains, younger versions of characters we've seen before, teasers for characters we'll likely see again, various plotlines - it all got to be a bit too much. With all that, and the focus on the bankable (and likeable) Jackman, the film felt a mile wide and an inch deep. This was definitely a film from the school of Too Much Is Not Enough. As but one example of how overstuffed this film is: Anna Paquin is seventh-billed as Rogue - but she appears in only one shot. Yes, that's one shot, not one scene - and she hasn't a single line. Apparently they filmed more scenes with her character, but the film was so full and complex, that she got whittled down to just one shot.
The film also suffers from a lack of a clear villain. Yes, young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) does bad - but he also does some good. Peter Dinklage, as Dr. Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels, also clearly does some bad things - but it's entirely possible to believe his character thinks he's doing good. And the Sentinels themselves, silent CGI giants, aren't exactly a driving force, either.
So we're left with a whole lot of spectacle that I found less than spectacular. Despite the new plot and characters, a lot of this felt like pieces of the earlier films recut and put together to make a "new" product.
And it's that "product" feel that is the most disappointing. This film has a large and talented cast, yet no one really had a chance to shine, aside from Jackman. Yes, I couldn't help but (once again), key into the depth of meaning associated with the whole misunderstood and persecuted outsider theme - especially in light of the ongoing rollout of marriage equality in the U.S. Gays, mutants, Jews, etc. - we've been remarkably good as a species at finding ways to hate each other, and that hate has a corrosive effect on society.
That's a good and always-current message to have in a film. But here it was undercut by the corrosive effect of special effects. I know that film is a commercial medium, and I know that a lot of money get invested in making and marketing these movies. However, when the dictates of the market result in special effects being the only thing to affect an audience, you've created the cinematic equivalent of drive-though french fries - appealing in the moment they're fresh and hot, but nothing that will hold much appeal in a week or a year from now. Get 'em while they're hot, don't think about it too much, and then get in line for the next batch.
But these movies, coming from different studios, featuring different characters, really are becoming like french fries. Each "new" batch is exactly like the one before it. And the one before that. Special effects, explosions, quip, special effects, explosions, quip. Pass the ketchup.
Ugh. I'm full already!
Whether the heroes are humans or mutants, is it too much to ask that these characters be given a little more identifiable humanity in future? Is it too much to hope that we could possibly care for characters as much as we crave spectacle?

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