Give "X-Men: Days of Future Past" (XMDOFP) credit for not insulting the viewer's intelligence. It's a convoluted time-jumping romp that doesn't quite make sense, but that delivers plenty of action and dialogue in the process. The film, directed by the embattled Bryan Singer (who also helmed the first two major X-Men films back in 2000 and 2003), stars Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine, Patrick Stewart as the current Professor Xavier, Ian McKellen as the present-era Erik/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as young Raven/Mystique, Ellen Page as Kitty Pryde, and much of the rest of the cast seen in previous X-Men films. Rebecca Romijn, who played "later" Mystique in the older movies, is conspicuously absent.
The opening of XMDOFP manages to evoke both the Terminator and the Matrix movies, and "Terminator" is the basic template for this film's plot.* It's the near future, and the world has been at war. Scientists, in their zeal to rid the world of mutants, have created huge, agile robots called Sentinels. Imbued with astute AI and adaptive, mutant-like abilities, the Sentinels have been hunting and eliminating mutants, mutant sympathizers, and normal humans who have the potential to give birth to mutants. As the mutants' numbers dwindle, a small group, led by a resurrected Professor Xavier and his frenemy Magneto, gather in a Chinese temple for one last, desperate move: to project someone's consciousness back in time to stop Mystique in 1973, when she assassinates Doctor Bolivar Trask (short-stuff Peter Dinklage of "Game of Thrones" fame) in Paris. This assassination sets in motion the chain of events that lead to the near-future dystopia. Stop Mystique, reset the future, and gamble that the alternate future will be a better one.
Time travel in this movie is handled somewhat strangely: instead of going back bodily, it's one's mind that goes backward in time. Kitty Pryde (Page) is the mutant with the ability to send minds backward; she's been using this power to undo mutant deaths from Sentinel attacks, but up to now, she's never sent any mind back further than just a few days. Hurling someone's consciousness as far as 1973 would, she fears, tear that consciousness apart. Xavier and Magneto are stymied, but Wolverine volunteers to be mentally projected: his self-healing powers will preserve his mind during the dangerous trip. Pryde warns Wolverine that, if he's successful, he'll be the only one to remember the "original" future: once the alternative timeline is in place, no one else will know what really happened.
So Wolverine is sent back in time, back into his 1973-era body, but where his 1973 consciousness goes is one of the many things left unexplained in this film (shades of television's "Quantum Leap"). I laughed when I saw how Singer chose to evoke the 1970s: the first thing we see, when Wolverine wakes up with a woman in his bed, is a lava lamp; the second thing we note is that he's on a waterbed. Hats off to Singer for such clever visual shorthand.** Other Seventies tropes appear as the plot progresses: big cars, Afros, sideburns, and the latter years of the Vietnam War. Oh, and President Nixon (Mark Camacho, with facial prosthetics, looking more like Chris Christie than Nixon).
Once firmly installed in the Seventies, Wolverine goes in search of young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy). He finds him at Xavier's old academy for mutants, which has gone to seed since the advent of the Vietnam War, during which many mutants, and their teachers, were killed in the fighting. Xavier himself has become a desolate alcoholic and drug addict; the only mutant tending to him is Hank McCoy, a.k.a. Beast (Nicholas Hoult, whose Beast makeup looks different from the way it looked in "X-Men: First Class"). McCoy has created a serum that has given Xavier the use of his legs, but only at the cost of his immense psychic powers.
Wolverine, thrust into the uncomfortable role of teacher and diplomat, but armed with his conviction and his knowledge of the frightening future, initially has difficulty persuading the bitter young Xavier to help stop Mystique from assassinating Dr. Trask, but Xavier eventually comes around, ultimately forsaking his serum in order to reacquire his psychic abilities. Knowing that this task will require more help, Wolverine enlists the aid of Peter Maximoff—Quicksilver (Evan Peters)—to break Magneto (Michael Fassbender returning as the younger version of Erik Lensherr) out of his solitary confinement deep in a metal-free chamber beneath the Pentagon. Magneto's crime: allegedly killing President John F. Kennedy by "bending" the path of the sniper bullet that struck him.
The Pentagon jailbreak scene is one of the comic-action highlights of this movie. Quicksilver's talents—like his DC Comics cousin The Flash, Quicksilver can move far faster than the eye can follow—are put to good use, once again evoking "The Matrix" through a steroidal version of bullet-time photography (all to the tune of Jim Croce's "If I Could Save Time in a Bottle"). There were some major "Hollywood physics" problems with this scene, but I won't be churlish by pointing them out as I have bigger metaphysical fish to fry later.
With Erik/Magneto successfully broken out of the Pentagon, Xavier and Magneto fly to Paris, along with Beast, to stop Mystique. Do they succeed? I don't want to spoil the entire movie for you, but suffice it to say that, success or not, an alternate timeline is indeed created, but not quite the one that was wished for. Magneto, now out of confinement, has his own agenda—one involving President Nixon. The Sentinel project, which originated in the 1970s, still seems to be under way. Suffice it to say that this film has many tangled threads in its plot, and not all of them get untangled to the viewer's satisfaction. The resolution, too, leaves us with an alternate timeline in which the action of the past few movies seems to have been rendered vain or meaningless—a twist that might leave diehard fans feeling cheated or scandalized.
Overall, I enjoyed XMDOFP, but I admit I went into the theater somewhat sleepy, and I may have nodded off once or twice during some of the many surprisingly talky segments. There was a weird sense of anachronism when I saw the 1973-era Sentinels; they looked a lot like early-2000s robots to me. I also had no idea how it was that Professor Xavier had come back to life.*** A brief mid-credits scene at the end of "The Wolverine" hinted that Xavier has certain "gifts" that allowed him to regenerate himself after having been destroyed by Dark Phoenix in "X-Men: Last Stand." These confusions aside, I enjoyed the acting and the action. At the same time, I didn't think the movie focused nearly as explicitly as did its predecessors on the series's cherished themes of racism and difference, perhaps because Singer wanted to take a full-on plunge into sci-fi.
But that leads me to one of my biggest complaints about the film: there was too much that simply made no sense, either scientifically or metaphysically. Let's return, for a moment, to Kitty Pride's trans-temporal mental-projection powers. If Wolverine were projected back to 1973, you'd think the rewriting of history would begin immediately. If that were the case, then the future Kitty wouldn't exist, which means she'd no longer be able to keep projecting Logan's mind back in time (the movie switches back and forth between 1973 and the near future). What would happen if Kitty Pryde were to disappear? Would the future Logan's mind be forever stuck in his 1973 body? And again, where did Logan's 1973 mind go? There's also a scene in which young Xavier, through Logan, connects and converses with his future self, meaning that information is flowing both backward and forward through time. How is this possible if Kitty Pryde's mind-flinging ability only allows a consciousness to be shunted backward in time? Logan himself is a problem: when he wakes up in the present day with his "old" memories of the "original" timeline, what have his mind and body been doing from 1973 to the present? Was Kitty Pryde projecting his mind backward for decades? I doubt that. So what happened, there?
I also confess that I may have been sleeping when the movie explained why Magneto wanted to kill President Nixon and his flunkies (did he want to kill them?). I'm not sure I completely understood his motives. By contrast, I completely understood Mystique's reasons for wanting to kill Trask: Trask had been capturing and experimenting on mutants, killing many of them, in his efforts to create effective Sentinels. He would eventually find the answers he needed in Mystique's blood.
In addition to its other problems, XMDOFP suffers from the fatal flaw of every time-travel movie, namely: what's to prevent other time-travelers from undoing what's been accomplished by the end of the movie? Nothing, really—which is precisely why "Terminator" was followed by so many sequels. I'm not sure what percentage of regular American viewers will be bothered by these metaphysical considerations, but they nagged at me mightily. XMDOFP pushes the reset button, in a big way, on X-Men continuity (and, by extension, on the continuity of the actions taken by any other Marvel superheroes during the 1973-to-2020s period). This is a Bryan Singer project, but it's encroaching on JJ Abrams's "Star Trek" reboot territory. Go see the film if you're looking for good action and dialogue, as well as a richly complex plot that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence, but if you cherish your sanity, don't expect the movie to make much scientific or metaphysical sense.
*Commenter John from Daejeon points out that, in terms of comic-book history, the relevant X-Men scenario actually predates "Terminator." As I noted to John, many, if not most, viewers of the new movie won't be aware of the comic book's history and will draw the same conclusion I did. Read the comment thread for more information.
**As has often happened before when I've been watching an American movie in a Korean theater, I found I was the only one laughing at these very culture-specific moments.
***There's an old adage: "In sci-fi, no one stays dead forever."