Sunday, May 25, 2014

X-Men: Days Of Future Past (2014) Is Numerous Layers Of Attempted Undoing

In a desolate future where all that remain of average humans and mutants are on the losing end of a horrific war versus a machine enemy, the final battle will be decided by way of time travel. With the last remnants of mutated humans fighting the same final stand time and again due to Kitty Pryde(Ellen Page)'s ability to send minds back a few minutes before the same assault annihilates them all. It is here that the finally re-allied pairing of Charles Xavier(Patrick Stewart) and Erik Lehnsherr (Sir Ian McKellen) posit that the only chance at averting this dire outcome, is by sending someone far earlier, to 1973. A time when one single event undertaken by a fellow mutant, sets the entire Sentinel apocalypse in motion. The catch? The only mutant left that could possibly handle such an intense trip back into his younger body, is the ever volatile Logan (Hugh Jackman).

It takes an often absurd amount of effort to undo the past, but what about a past series of wayward films nearly a decade in the maintaining? This question penetrates beyond the mere plot of Bryan Singer's directorial return to the long-troubled X-Men film franchise in what is one of the more unusual cases of course correction I have ever witnessed. Taking on the classic time travel story originally published in 1981, elder cast meets young in a tale of redemption spanning several decades as the rift between humans and mutants reaches apocalyptic proportion. Again, it is no mean feat to undo a few simple choices made nearly ten years ago, but Singer and company give it a daring go at it (to marginally successful results).

Even more than an ambitious journey for a filmmaker with numerous levels of past deeds to be undone, DoFP features one of the more challenging storylines of the franchise. And as such, does a mostly effective job of juggling character and story. The lynchpins of the tale being that of the now-fractured relationship of past Charles and Erik (James McAvoy and a still riveting as iron, Michael Fassbender) now at its most strained since the aftermath of the events of First Class. With the two old friends turned rivals over their philosophies leaves Erik imprisoned deep beneath the Pentagon, and Charles, now a drug-addicted recluse, Logan's mission to inform them of future events makes for a great deal of the film's juice. The need for both old friends to rejoin forces in the name of stopping someone very close to them from killing the man responsible for setting events in motion. The man in question, being noted scientist, Bolivar Trask(Peter Dinklage). The man who will implement the Sentinel program, an army of humanoid machines capable of identifying and destroying mutants with frightening accuracy. But once the mission is well in motion, it becomes quite clear that even more than events that can be altered, it is in tattered bonds between mutants that might prove to be the most difficult to sway. Especially when it is the strained heart of Mystique/Raven(Jennifer Lawrence).

Course correction might be at the heart of the piece, but as a time travel piece, it is far more interested in what truly drives the series; character drama, and social concern. And while the film at times finds itself a little bogged down by an already overwhelmed cast, it at times feels uneven in tone, and unable to center its emotional drive where it needs it most. What we get in terms of the soap operatics lies mostly between MacAvoy and Fassbender, who again deliver some of the series' best work. And once again, there is great use of the ever reliable Jackman as a beast-man, ever at odds with his own nature in a situation that could completely derail at his expense. And while a great deal of the film makes good with this within the first hour, it also finds itself relatively lost in a cacophony of twists and specious cartoon logic that almost threatens to undo the remaining running time. An underlying concern for the unspoken for veterans in wars of the past rings its head numerous times as a new thematic wrinkle. Sadly, this angle finds itself underutilized, even as a majority of the film is set amidst the Vietnam conflict.

 One element here that almost cripples a lot of the film's aims to be one of global and temporal scale, is an often excessive sense of stylized history, occasionally flirting with pure camp. One could almost argue that this is an effect of the previous films taking on a number of bizarre shifts over the years. What DoFP does in a very interesting way, is pay lip service to the series as a whole, and attempt to override all the troubles that have dogged the series, perhaps since the original 2000 debut. Having come through years of self-conscious comic book adaptations, this is also a fully "out" rendition of the X-Men films. In a post-Avengers world, it's hard not to look back and see just how panicked the studio must have been about presenting such larger than life characters to the screen. It took a decade and a half to reach where we are today, and with our characters desperately seeking a way to undo the mistakes of the past, we are at last able to see a more embracing vision of the universe.

The one place that I couldn't reconcile with the film, sadly is with the lack of feminine characterization. It's difficult enough to buy the wobbly logic of sending Logan in the stead of Pryde who was the story's original time traveler back to the past. But to not grant us enough insight into the mind of Mystique, who's entire agency in the story makes for the film's most important internal conflict is more than a missed opportunity, it's an almost fatal omission. Lawrence milks her role for all that its worth, but a little more on why she is so driven to commit her world-altering act would have done the film a great emotional service. Considering the best X-films contained with them a special feminine power integral to the spirit of the piece, it is sadly diminished here.

So in all, Singer's return to the franchise that made him into something of a divisive figure in fantasy filmdom is both a welcome and overburdened success. While it in no way undoes years of bad ideas, it does make for a sweet and occasionally thrilling apology. The world of the cinematic X-universe has been largely a dysfunctional one. It's with a surprised heart to express that for all its issues, Days Of Future Past carries with it a weight that helped bring the era of the superhero to fruition. Still a shame that this return to form came in the visage of a boys club reunion.

Oh, and the movie world's grander introduction to P. Maximoff, also known as Quicksilver(Evan Peters)? Possibly the film's biggest, happiest surprise.

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