Monday, May 26, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past review

To misquote Forrest Gump, the X-Men franchise is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get. The most inconsistent franchise in Hollywood returns again this weekend with X-Men: Days of Future Past, the most epic and emotionally taxing installment in the franchise so far. After last year's disastrous The Wolverine, I wasn't sure about how this film would end up. Would Days of Future Past end up more like X3 or X-Men: First Class? I'm happy to say that Days of Future Past is one of the best installments in the series and one of the best movies of the year, a well-paced, well-written summer blockbuster with some stunning action and several great character moments.

X-Men: Days of Future Past drops you directly into the year 2023, where we learn that mutants are being hunted by giant robots called Sentinels. The Sentinels have managed to carry out a genocide against mutants and any humans who wish to help them. A ragtag group of mutants led by Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Bishop (Omar Sy) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) fight the Sentinels by using Kitty's time-travel powers to warn their younger selves about the impending attacks. Kitty and Iceman then proceed to meet up with Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) to discuss a plan to send Wolverine into the past. Wolverine is immortal and indestructible, so he'll be sent by Kitty to 1973 so that he can stop an assassination that will have a destructive effect on the future.

Once Wolverine arrives in 1973, he meets a young, reclusive Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who has given up his powers so that he can walk. Charles and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) live in the now-defunct school and Charles is consistently over-dosing on the drug that allows him to walk. Wolverine tells Charles the reason why he's here and Xavier comes to believe him. After busting a young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) out of prison with the help of Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Xavier and Magneto must overcome their differences to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from setting the course of history on a dangerous path.

And that's only scratching the surface. X-Men: Days of Future Past is a densely plotted film that has a strong focus on character and story instead of incessant world-building (looking at you, Amazing Spider-Man 2). The characters are the focus of the film and looking at what happened to the First Class mutants after the Cuban Missile Crisis event is very interesting. Xavier, Magneto and Mystique are all in very different places and Wolverine has to bring them together in a way that will save the future. That storyline makes for one of the most emotional superhero films ever and also one of the best. Days of Future Past is spectacular entertainment from Bryan Singer, a director who knows the material well and knows what he wants to do with it.

Singer starts the film off with a bang and then lets the story and the characters breathe, allowing a surprising amount of emotion to flow into the film. The film can feel a little slow at times, but when you realize what Singer is doing and what he is building to, you understand the slower, quieter moments of the film. He builds the plot and allows for a true character arc for McAvoy's younger Xavier. It's the rare blockbuster that has a dense story, an emotional core and eye-popping visuals that add up to one heck of a film.

While most of the characters are little more than a piece of the puzzle, most of them get their moments to shine. Quicksilver is hands down the highlight of the film. Evan Peters does a fantastic job as Quicksilver and has this cocky enthusiasm about him that makes the character irresistible. The prison break scene with Quicksilver is probably my favorite of the year so far. It's a feat of filmmaking and an extraordinary scene that brings about a "WOW" factor that is rare in films these days. The future band of mutants at the beginning of the film also have their moments, especially during the first and final battles of the film. Omar Sy does a good job as Bishop, Shawn Ashmore looks to be having fun as the more realistic looking Iceman and Blink (Fan Bingbing) has some cool powers.

However, without a doubt, this movie focuses more on the First Class mutants in the 1970's and they're the ones who steal the show. In the end, this movie belongs to the young Charles Xavier and James McAvoy just absolutely crushes it. His performance in this movie is so incredibly heartfelt and emotional that you'll probably start tearing up. Xavier has changed so much since First Class and McAvoy does a great job of showing that change and the transition that Xavier makes when Wolverine shows up. Fassbender once again proves to be a nice contradiction to McAvoy and turns in a solid performance. And finally, Jackman is kind of the glue that holds the whole movie together. He's the one constant in a film (and a film series) that is constantly changing. I hope he stays around for a few more movies after this stellar turn.

Simon Kinberg is the screenwriter for this film. He also wrote the much-derided X-Men: The Last Stand. He has grown so much since then. Kinberg has obviously learned a thing or two about storytelling, characters and emotion since he wrote The Last Stand. While I maintain that The Last Stand is not so much a bad movie as it is a messy one, it's obvious that it needed a tighter screenplay. Days of Future Past could have easily fallen into the same traps as The Last Stand, but it manages to hold everything together and the result is a film that makes so much sense. The time travel is so easily understood and the film's sci-fi concepts are never confusing. Aside from major continuity mistakes that are pretty much a staple of this franchise at this point, the script for Days of Future Past is concise and clear, moving at a sufficiently fast pace that only slows down for intense character moments.

The action in this film is incredible and it feels like the action has been earned. A lot of recent movies will just throw everything at you in the end and no emotional impact will be felt. Every film feels like it needs a big action climax since The Avengers came along, but in the end, it's just action and destruction for the sake of action and destruction. X-Men: Days of Future Past is not that film. Each action scene has a clear purpose and the epic finale is earned. The action scenes are not super long or super huge, but they manage to be some of the most impressive in recent memory. This movie proves that CGI eye candy isn't everything. Quicksilver's prison break scene features some of the best action in forever and while CGI is involved, Bryan Singer's vision is what makes the scene extraordinary.

One of the more interesting decisions this film makes is the choice to take its time with the plot. A lot of directors who get their hands on the material and try to fit in as much action as possible and move the film a break-neck pace. I applaud Singer and Kinberg for not doing that. I did feel like the film moved slow at times, but if Days of Future Past didn't have those character moments, it wouldn't be as good a film. Singer allows you to see all of these characters in their lowest state of desperation and then to see how you change. That's a nice change of pace from the superhero movies we've been seeing in recent years. This is a film that you can watch over and over. It takes itself seriously, but it has fun at the same time.

X-Men: Days of Future Past was one of my most anticipated movies of the summer and it lived up to the hype. Bryan Singer has constructed a film that might feel off at first (it's a little slow after the first action scene), but once you realize the plot he's building and the emotional story arc that is forming, you'll love every minute of this film. He's made a film that rights the wrongs of the franchise in the past and lays the groundwork for a new franchise that has the potential to be one of the most exciting in Hollywood. It's a great superhero movie and one of the best films in the X-Men series so far.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                               (8.9/10)

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