Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Spinning the wheels of time

'X-Men: Days of Future Past' is breezy and pleasant enough, but ultimately a meaningless diversion to set up future movies

X-Men: Days of Future Past
20th Century Fox
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, based on the comic book Days of Future Past, by Chris Claremont and John Byrne
Starring: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Peter Dinklage, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Ellen Page and Nicholas Hoult
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 11 minutes
May 23, 2014
(out of four)

Well that sure was a complicated way to go about rebooting a franchise. X-Men: Days of Future Past amounts to a 131-minute pressing of the reset button, using a marginally entertaining story to divert from the fact that the whole thing is, in effect, a waste of time. The franchise is making it abundantly clear it wants to start over, only it doesn't have the courage to actually cut the cord from its existing cast and style.

And so, despite 2011's X-Men: First Class ostensibly re-starting things from an earlier point in time, with an (almost) entirely new cast leading the way, here comes the old crew to tag along where they're no longer needed. I get it - Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are beloved by the fan base, so the studio will do anything in its power to keep them involved. But Days of Future Past seems like a desperate move - the previous story is complete, and everyone knows it, yet they keep bringing the same cast back just because we happen to like those actors. What it reveals is a franchise content to spin its wheels instead of do what should be done - and, in fact, what it seemingly tried to do three years ago.

Just before seeing the new film, I wrote a piece for IGMS about the reluctance of franchises - and adaptations of existing properties in general - to reinvent themselves, even though doing so is what would (presumably) keep the brand and the stories fresh. The X-Men series is almost comically guilty. Jackman has now starred as Wolverine in six movies (technically seven, if you include his tiny First Class cameo), while Stewart's Professor X and McKellen's Magneto have figured prominently in four entries each. I like all three in those roles just as much as the next guy, but I've seen plenty. It's been 14 years now. We've seen these interpretations of these characters, in generally similar or nearly identical situations, several times over*.

* In fairness, you could argue that this is no different from following a beloved TV character whose show lasts several seasons. But the distinction is in the way television characters are developed by design, versus the way they're handled in a film or film series. A TV series is always playing the long game with its main characters - and even then, the best ones have a shelf life of only a few years. Movie characters have more compact arcs designed to conclude, generally speaking, after one movie - maybe two or three. But whether we're talking about Michael Corleone, Batman, Ellen Ripley or James Bond, there comes a point where an actor/character marriage has run its course and it's time for a new take.

To compound matters, the studio - rather than seize the chance to inject the series with new vision - just brought back the director of the first two films, as if to underscore as clearly as possible that the franchise can't let go of its own past.

The new direction brought by First Class - with James McAvoy as the young Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto (née Erik Lensherr) - was a step toward redefining and revitalizing the characters and the series. Instead, it's gone right back to the well, dedicating an entire movie to justifying its ability to go in a new direction, instead of simply going in that new direction. It feels like Fox is just hedging its bets, desperately afraid that the new blood will never catch on the way the originals did.

Days of Future Past reconciles the generation gap by introducing a time-travel element that requires both casts and reconfigures the franchise's storyline(s). We begin in a dark future - with some key visual details borrowed from James Cameron's Terminator films - in which Sentinels (highly advanced robots designed for the express purpose of counteracting and killing mutants) are singlehandedly depleting the world's mutant population. Enter Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who has the ability to send a person's consciousness back in time - which, in the short term, can undo any recent Sentinel attack, or in the long term, even undo the catastrophic future they currently inhabit.

As the only person who can survive a jump five decades into the past, Logan (Jackman) is the lucky mutant commissioned by Professor X and Magneto to find their younger selves and rewrite the future by preventing Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the creator of the Sentinels. The murder, as the current history books have it, had the unintended consequence of advancing Trask's work, as Mystique's blood was left at the scene, giving scientists the very access to mutant DNA they needed to move forward. It's up to Logan, Charles and Erik to stop that from ever happening.

Meanwhile in the future, as Logan lies on a table with his consciousness elsewhere, the Sentinels slowly close in on the gang - Professor X, Magneto, Storm (Halle Berry), the whole bunch - in what amounts to a strange combination of elements from The Matrix and (shudder) The Matrix Revolutions.

The problem with the time-travel conceit in this case is that director Bryan Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have absolutely no interest in exploring time-travel as a concept, and only barely have interest in it as a story device. No, they use it as a dual excuse - one, an excuse to force the original cast back into this movie; and two, an excuse to give themselves a new avenue for future storylines with both the old cast and the new one. Again, all of this could have been accomplished if the studio had simply treated this as a fresh reboot to begin with. Instead, we got an entire movie designed to set up future movies.

Singer brings things to life in fits and starts, doing his best work when he's treating the material like a crime thriller. There's a terrific heist sequence where Wolverine, Professor X and Quicksilver (Evan Peters) break Magneto out of a prison at the very bottom level of the Pentagon. As was the case with the otherwise drearily unimaginative First Class, the actors carry Days of Future Past as far as it will go, with McAvoy and Fassbender playing off each other particularly nicely. Dinklage is great as always in an unfortunately limited role - and looks even better when going toe-to-toe with Mark "Macho" Camacho, who joins that guy from Watchmen as yet another broad, hokey movie version of Richard Nixon. (They may as well have just had Dan Hedaya reprise the role. At least Dick knew it was a comedy.)

Ultimately I'm not entirely sure what to make of Days of Future Past. It's a decent enough entertainment, and yet it plays almost like a cry for help from a franchise that's simply running in place and looking for a way out.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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