Saturday, May 31, 2014

"X-Men: Days of Future Past": review

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."



John from Daejeon said...

You might want to edit out your "Terminator" references, as the man truly/solely responsible for the subject matter in these X-Men films, thanks to his "The Dark Phoenix Saga" and "Days of Future Past" classic stories, is prolific comics scribe, Chris Claremont. These masterpieces of his (which invigorated the franchise) predated "The Termintor" by several years.

It's a real shame that the studio/producers didn't acknowledge the debt they owe to both Chris Claremont, and his fellow British countryman, John Byrne, for their vast storytelling richness, and illustrations, that they filled countless issues of classic American comics with that are now being used as source material to fill the coffers of Disney and FOX.

Luckily, for those who want to read these great comic books in their original form, The Dark Phoenix Saga and Days of Future Past are available as both graphic novels and collection volumes.

Personally, I can't wait until 2016 as the X-Men movies are moving out of 70's and early 80's source material and into the early 90's when I started my collection of X-Men comics. If you think the time traveling in this movie was a bit far-fectched, you ain't seen nothing yet. Just wait until Scott's (Cyclops)and the clone of Jean Grey's (Dark Phoenix) son (Cable) arrives on the present, future, and past scenes coupled with the arrival of the uber-super villain, Apocalypse (who is the star of the next X-Men flick in 2016). The time traveling gets really fun then.

As for this latest movie, it wasn't too, too bad for this fan (unlike that mess that is new new Godzilla), except for all the unbelievable technology used that did not exist in 1973. The U.S. didn't even have a working space shuttle yet, but somehow these Sentinels are flying around and able to track down and kill mutants. Anyone with half a brain would know that in 1973 this would be impossible considering the Star Wars fiasco that happened later on in the 80's.

Kevin Kim said...

The typical American viewer will have seen the Terminator films first, so no, I won't be editing anything out. I will, however, add a footnote crediting you with a deeper cause/effect intertextual analysis, even though that won't change the realty that millions of viewers will be in my boat regarding which came first. I'm not saying you're wrong; you obviously know the history better than I do. But your argument opens up a Pandora's Box because, to undermine it, all I need to do is find some writer who dealt with history-altering time travel even before Claremont and Byrne. That shouldn't be too hard.

Glad we at least agree on the anachronisms.

John from Daejeon said...

You are right that most Americans won’t have read those classic X-Men comics that the films are based on, and most won’t realize that “The Terminator” was based on James Cameron’s rip-offs of sci-fi master author, Harlan Ellison.
I certainly know that one of my literary heroes, Harlan Ellison, influenced many storytellers across numerous platforms that have come after him and his seminal work that he did in 1960’s television and print. He did a lot of time travel work on numerous "The Outer Limits" episodes and the near-perfect "Star Trek: TOS" episode, The City on the Edge of Forever. Eventually, the truth caught up with Cameron and he had to give the "Terminator" films a credit that he borrowed heavily from Mr. Ellison's previous works. It seems that “The Terminator” director has a habit of ripping off other sources like his TV series, "Dark Angel," being a virtual clone of the comic book, and TV series, "Cybersix." To this day, he's fighting off several claims against him regarding just how he came up with “Avatar.” Take a look at these Roger Dean paintings and tell me that Cameron didn't do some heavy borrowing once again.
If you have the time, Ellison’s “The Outer Limits” television episodes, “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” are as good today as they were back in the day. “Soldier” is especially worth watching as it is the basis for “The Terminator,” and it happens to star the ex-husband of Barbara Eden of “I Dream of Jeanie” and “Star Trek: TOS” Klingon, Michael Ansara. His Hugo Award winning short story, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” also influenced several movies and directors and is a very quick read.

One last lingering question about the movie though, just how did anyone in the non mutant, human population capture Magneto and imprison him for ten years? Talk about your major plot holes.

The Maximum Leader said...

On a side note speaking of "ripping off" of sci-fi greats...

Both James Cameron and George Lucas have openly said that much of their work is derived from Edgar Rice Burroughs' "John Carter of Mars" books. The first of which ("Princess of Mars") was first published in 1912.

Avatar is very clearly derived from the John Carter novels. The Star Wars films are less clearly derivative, but Lucas has been open about his being inspired by ERB. I seem to recall reading somewhere recently that Lucas in his first pitch of Star Wars to studio execs back in 1975 started with words to the effect of "It is like the John Carter novels but set in deep space."

Anyway... There you go.

John from Daejeon said...

I can see some of where Cameron used bits and pieces of Burroughs' previous work in "The Terminator," but once you watch Ellison's "Soldier," you'll really see more than bits and pieces that were borrowed. Just watch the first three minutes and see if you see any major similarities from this TV episode from 1964.

What did you think about Burroughs' "Princess of Mars" Disney film, "John Carter?"

Well, here I am busy as hell and now I am watching "Soldier" again, and seeing actor Tim O'Connor in the episode makes me want to watch certain episodes of "Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (where he was Dr. Elias Huer) and "Wonder Woman" (where he played the space alien, Andros) as they were favorites of mine growing up.