Thursday, June 12, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Director: Bryan Singer

If anyone wants the four-alarm, dork-out version of my take on the X-Films, I did a review of all the previous flicks a few weeks back. Here's the link.

Spoiler-Free (i.e. "short," by necessity) Summary

Some time in the decade of the 2020s, Earth has become an absolute hell. Seemingly-indestructible, highly intelligent robots known as "Sentinels" have hunted down an killed nearly all mutants, while humans have splintered into various factions fighting on one side or the other. Concentration camps have been created, and many of the planet's cities have been reduced to little more than charred rubble from all of the devastation.

A handful of the very few remaining mutants, including the iconic Charles Xavier and Eric Lensherr, a.k.a. "Professor X" and "Magneto" devise a last-ditch plan to send their comrade Logan (Wolverine) back in time to prevent the complete annihilation that they are about to face. Having determined that the entire Sentinel war was set into motion by an assassination in 1973, Logan must have his consciousness sent backwards into his 1973 body to muster the younger Xavier, Lensherr, and other useful mutants in order to save their future. The difficulty is compounded by the fact that, once he arrives in 1973, his legendary companions are embroiled in all manner of problems to overcome.

What Did I Think?

Welcome back, Bryan Singer.

It's excellent. In fact, I'm ready to say that Days of Future Past is at least as good as the best two X-Films to date: X-Men United and X-Men: First Class.

Beast, Xavier, and Logan get big chunks of the screen time.
The focus on fewer characters is a welcome change from
the weaker entries into the X-Men movie canon.
This one could have been a mess, given its ambitious plot. Time travel stories can get ridiculously convoluted, and ensemble casts can dilute any sort of character development. Future Past avoids these problems, for the most part, by not losing its main focus. Though dozens of characters appear or are briefly alluded to, the bulk of the screen time is given to Xavier, Magneto, Logan, and Mystique. This was exactly what the vastly inferior X-Men: The Last Stand had failed to do - give us a small group of characters to anchor everything else.

Speaking of characters without giving anything away, one newcomer to the film series (but a mainstay of the comics) is given a nice amount of time in the middle of the tale, and he nearly steals the show. When the main players part ways with him, I was ready for a sequel immediately.

The basic story idea is one that we've seen in film before, most notably in The Terminator - someone must return to the past in order to make one key change that will prevent an apocalyptic future. This movie adds a tiny, intelligent wrinkle in that, instead of the time traveler physically making the journey through the 4th dimension, his consciousness is sent back to inhabit his own past body. This avoids the cliched time travel device of the young self facing off against the older self (though this can be handled well, like in the brilliant Looper). Not to mention that this actually side-steps one of the major, if hypothetical, paradoxes of time travel theory - that of two of the same object occupying the same dimensional planes. This is a detail that a sci-fi geek like myself appreciates.

At the heart of the story is what has always been the soul of the X-Men, ever since their creation by Stan Lee back in the 1960s - the question of how two groups of beings, one with vastly more power, deal with one another. Is the approach one of fear, cynicism and alienation? Or one of hope, optimism, and cooperation? It's these themes that elevate the X-Men mythology beyond mere mutants with cool powers, wearing flashy uniforms. This entry into the series makes sure that its action/adventure elements don't overwhelm the meatier topics at play.

Watching the mutants of the dark future desperately (and
often futilely) attempting to fend off the lethal Sentinels
is eye-popping stuff.
But hey, it's an X-Men movie. We want to see some cool powers and action scenes to go with the heavier subjects, right? Hell yeah! And we do, indeed, get plenty of action. In fact, Future Past may have some of the best action sequences in the entire series. Some of the opening sequences, which take place in the blasted future of the Sentinel war, feature some fast-paced fights that cleverly illustrate some pretty cool mutant powers. In the 1973 era, we've got some nifty one-on-one fights involving Beast, Wolverine, Mystique, and a handful of others. And again, that "new character" I alluded to earlier has arguably the most entertaining sequence that's ever been used in an X-Men film.

I wouldn't have thought that another blockbuster would come out this year that was the caliber of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Glad I was wrong. I'll be going to catch this one again, and I may even spring for the IMAX treatment.