Saturday, May 28, 2016

"X-Men: Apocalypse": review


Good God... where to begin?

"X-Men: Apocalypse" (XMA) is another big-ass, hypertrophic Bryan Singer film starring James McAvoy as Professor Charles Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto, Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique, Oscar Isaac as En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse, Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy/Beast, Rose Byrne as CIA agent Moira MacTaggert, Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers/Cyclops, Sophie Turner as Jean Grey/Phoenix, Olivia Munn as Psylocke, Lucas Till as Alex Summers/Havok, Evan Peters as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler, Alexandra Shipp as Storm, Josh Helman as William Stryker, and Ben Hardy as Angel.

That's quite a cast list, isn't it? So maybe we should start the criticism there, with the fact that, like so many ensemble superhero movies, this one is grossly overstuffed (I remember when I complained that "Spider-Man 3" was overstuffed, and that movie had only one main hero and three villains). The focus—what focus there is—is primarily on Xavier, Magneto, Phoenix, Quicksilver, and the eponymous Apocalypse. Several different plot lines eventually end up converging in a huge final battle in Cairo, but even during that battle, the camera is constantly cutting from one character to another because the conflict involves so many people.

Singer is a talented enough director to pull off this cinematic jumpiness without leaving us overly confused, but it still became annoying that there really was no central conflict that drove the movie: Apocalypse either sees you as an enemy or makes you into his minion, so it's not long before he has plenty of enemies. I saw the potential for a central conflict: Apocalypse realizes that Xavier is the mutant he's waited thousands of years to meet—the mutant who has enough inherent power to fulfill Apocalypse's dastardly plan for global renewal, and this could have been explored in a more complex and subtle way than what we actually see, which amounts to little more than Apocalypse doing some supermutant-style browbeating in an attempt to sap Xavier's will and, eventually, to take over his body and mind.

The movie's beginning is set in 3600 BC; we're privy to a weird Egyptian version of the Vulcan fal-tor-pan ritual—you may recall the soul-transference from "Star Trek III" in which Spock's immortal katra is taken from McCoy's mind and placed in Spock's regenerated body. The difference between the fal-tor-pan re-fusion ritual and the Egyptian ceremony in XMA is that, in the Egyptian ceremony, the new host body takes on the physical attributes of the previous body. This is actually important later in the story, when Xavier loses his hair after being captured and suffering through most of the ritual. (Apocalypse also "upgrades" Storm's powers early in the movie, an action that turns her hair white. That's two hairstyle-related origin stories in a single movie.)

I wasn't thrilled by the Egyptian soul-transference ceremony. It made no visual sense to me, although I grant it might make more sense to a dedicated comic-book fan. What I saw was this: two bodies side by side on two catafalques, lots of glowing energy that is left utterly unexplained—some of it cloudy-looking, some of it mimicking glowing liquid gold. I saw the energy move from one body to another, and I saw the recipient's body (Oscar Isaac, in a role that now strikes me as a step backward from Poe Dameron in "The Force Awakens") morph into the new Apocalypse. I got the overall idea, but why was this energy there to begin with? Was it cosmic energy? Was it the natural spiritual energy of the earth, evoked through incantation? Was it the native energy of the four mutants guarding Apocalypse? If it was mutant energy, then how were those non-mutants able to conjure Apocalypse in the 1980s merely by chanting and letting in sunshine? We're told absolutely nothing.

As the ceremony nears its conclusion, a coordinated group of betrayers (for lack of a better term) suddenly springs into action, hammering loose these huge blocks of stone that slide inward into the pyramid in which the ceremony is happening, knocking loose wooden supports and precipitating the pyramid's titanic collapse. I assume this betrayal happens because Apocalypse has enemies who want him dead, and they somehow think—despite knowing how powerful a being he is—that burying him under tons of stone will finish him. No matter: one of the four faithful mutants guarding Apocalypse generates a shield around his new body, simultaneously saving it from destruction and forming a hollowed-out tomb around it—the tomb in which Apocalypse will, presumably, be encased for the next six millennia.

What confused me about this sequence of events was a humble detail: the wooden supports that got knocked out of the way by the sliding stone blocks. First: how were those supports ever put in place, and how was the wood strong enough to uphold all that stone? Second: wouldn't someone have noticed wooden supports for a pyramid when there should have been stone columns instead? Third: wouldn't the person noticing these supports have suspected that something was awry? The wooden supports were on the path of smooth tracks at the top of which sat the huge, pyramid-collapsing stone blocks, themselves kept from sliding by huge wooden chocks. Either pyramid-collapse was some sort of emergency feature built into the pyramid (but why?), or the tracks, wood supports, and stone blocks had all been laid there as part of this elaborate plan for betrayal... and somehow, no one noticed what was going on. No matter how you slice it, the entire opening sequence of XMA is a huge failure of storytelling. This early into the movie, I'm already half-disengaged with it.

Apocalypse himself is a disappointing villain. Before we see him, we get to hear other characters, like Moira MacTaggert, talk about him in awed tones. He was and is the first mutant (I'm reminded of Dracula in "Blade III," who was Patient Zero when it came to vampirism), and with his body-transference capability, he has been able to acquire a massive array of powers from the mutant bodies he's inhabited (don't think too hard about how a second mutant appeared and served as his transference-host... this question resembles the biblical mystery of where Cain's wife came from). Apocalypse, in talking about himself, says he's been known by many names in many cultures (this reminded me of the false god at the center of the galaxy in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier"). All in all, such a being ought to be incomprehensibly mighty, but instead, he proves to be disappointingly finite and fallible. At one point, Xavier is forced by Apocalypse to broadcast, Voldemort-style, a dire message to the entire world, but Xavier, while sending out this message, is able to piggyback a secret message to Jean Grey, all without Apocalypse's noticing this. Apocalypse's list of powers doesn't match the rumors, either: one power that he relies on repeatedly is the ability to sink a human body into stone, trapping it there. This ability seems rather mundane, especially for a near-deity. More interestingly, he's also able to manipulate matter at the atomic level (he creates a new helmet for Magneto, for instance), but we never see him exercise this awesome power on the scale of worlds—something he should have been able to do.

Wolverine makes a cameo appearance in the film's third reel; he's known in this movie only by his old designation as "Weapon X." He gets to stumble around drunkenly like Han Solo after being unfrozen from carbonite; he kills a platoon of guards, then runs out into the snowy wilderness (an unintentionally comic scene that caused many in the Korean audience with me to snicker) after Jean Grey restores some of his memories and helps him out of some ridiculous headgear. If I recall correctly, he doesn't say a word. He did, however, leave me thoroughly confused as to what was supposed to be happening in this movie's timeline. Wolverine was free and healthy by the end of "X-Men: Days of Future Past," which took place in the 1970s. XMA takes place in the 1980s... and Wolverine's been captured? I guess I should read up on Wolverine's history and/or re-watch "X-Men Origins: Wolverine."

There were other ways in which the movie failed to deliver. Sophie Turner, who is English, had trouble maintaining an American accent. The character of Angel seems to have been retconned from when he was played by a young Ben Foster in "X-Men: The Last Stand." Too many moments and tropes in the movie felt derivative of too many other moments and tropes. John Ottman, who did the musical score for "X-Men: Days of Future Past," returns to score this film in exactly the same way, including that awful, awful Woody Woodpecker leitmotif. (Don't believe me? Listen to the Woody Woodpecker theme here, then listen to Ottman's X-Men theme here.) Olivia Munn's Psylocke is undeveloped and underused as a character (a shame, too, as I have a crush on Munn); she also seems to have stolen Mace Windu's purple lightsaber. Storm has been rebooted—either that, or we've been given much more information about her scrappy past—but she's still underused, as she was in all the previous X-Men films. Character motivations weren't very well developed, and the action scenes all became ponderous and mind-numbing, thus contributing to my growing sense of superhero-movie saturation. (Too bad, because I'm actually very curious about the upcoming Dr. Strange film, which seems to be a completely different angle of approach to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.) With the limply drawn conflict between the villain and the many heroes, I got distracted by the characters' garish getup and began to see the movie as a kind of silly costume party (Psylocke in particular looked ready for Halloween). Singer also slipped in a repeat of the Quicksilver scene from "Days of Future Past" when he has Quicksilver save Xavier's young students from a massive explosion that takes out the entire mansion (you'll recall a snide joke in "Deadpool" about how the mansion blows up every few years). While the new Quicksilver scene might arguably be the best scene in the 2016 film, it's also a retread of something we've already seen, which hints at a creative deficit.

XMA ultimately fails on too many levels for me to appreciate its better points, and it did have some good points. There's plenty of solid acting, for one thing; the action is cliché, but Singer's direction keeps everything from becoming a jumble. The story isn't necessarily incoherent, but it leaves too many things unexplained and does suffer from logic problems, especially at the beginning, during the ancient-Egypt sequence. The special effects aren't bad, but at this point, having digested a plethora of Marvel films, I feel that everything has begun to look like everything else: CGI chunks of buildings, flailing hunks of metal, swarming particles of dust, beams or crackles of energy—you get the picture.

I can't recommend this movie. I have no idea how it's supposed to fit into the larger continuity of the X-Men in the MCU, and the story itself just didn't grab me. Sorry, folks, but it's a thumbs-down on this one. A lot of wasted potential here.


1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

It's hard to explain to people who don't realize that there are over 50 years of X-Men comics (and their endless spin-offs and tie-ins--"Cable" is the best of the bunch) just how awful the FOX films really are (Disney owns the rest if the Marvel universe outside of Sony's "Spider-Man." Luckily, there's Comic Book Girl 19 to intelligently, and very enthusiastically, help get the history of the X-Men out to those who don't have time to several bibles worth of X-Men lore in a little over three hours. It doesn't hurt that she's smokin' hot and a brainiac to boot.

Here's her "Epic
History X-Men Volume 2, The Phoenix Saga."
Now, that you are hooked, Comic Book Girl 19 is going to make you pay to view her "Epic History X-Men Volume 3, The Dark Phoenix Saga," but it's a small price to pay for such great comic book history.

But what do I know, take it from twitter: I took my son to see X-Men Apocalypse. Then we watched X-Men Epic History, Vol. 1-3. He asked "why didn't they just do THIS?"