‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ doesn’t play fair with its mutants
It’s just not the same, the fifth time around. Merging the plot of Chris Marker’s La Jetee with the adventures of the usual gang of mutants, X-Men: Days of Future Past continues the unresolvable debate over minority acceptance, between the anxious liberal Charles Xavier and the radical Magneto. Director Bryan Singer creates a temporally and physically sprawling blockbuster, vivid in action segments, strangely remote in the intimate moments. It’s wrong, somehow, to get two great Shakespeareans like Ian McKellan (the old Magneto) and Patrick Stewart (the frustratingly benign Xavier) to await the end of the world together, and then give them nothing Shakespearean to say about it.
Strange also that Magneto, or rather the ever-saturnine McKellan, doesn’t see the ironic humor in it—it turned out he was right all along about the suicidal evil of the humans.
In a dark future of gutted skyscrapers and blowing ash, most of humanity and nearly all of the mutants have been incinerated by Sentinels—world-purifying killbots with blank, scaly faces that unfold into blast furnaces. Magneto, Xavier and the last of the X-Men hole up in a Tibetan monastery. They decide to use the physicist Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) back to 1973. That was when the Nixon administration ordered the development of the Sentinels by robotics scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). What sealed the development was Trask’s assassination in Paris at the hands of the shapeshifter known as Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).
Editor/composer John Ottman sends the material hurling forward with a soundtrack that recalls John Barry, Ennio Morricone and a bit of Brian Eno. But the film stumbles over the relations of the six or so main characters. The rivalry between Xavier and Magneto is vague: it’s like Singer would like them to be spurned lovers, bad friends, rivals in love and estranged relatives all at the same time. They argue over their influence molding Mystique—“you didn’t raise her, you lived with her,” Magneto snaps—and then you see Jennifer Lawrence, who looks like she never needed molding from any man. When past and present are contrasted—as they weren’t in the first prequel—it’s tough to see how McAvoy and Fassbender aged to become so grand and theatrical.
X-Men: Days of Future Past also doesn’t seem to have a grasp on the paranoia of the 1970s. The era seems to be all about the clothes and the soul music, not that Jackman doesn’t look funky in a brown leather jacket and a wide-collared polyester shirt. Nixon is introduced with a good old silent-comedy joke—we see his office staff lined up eagerly, and then we cut to his three dogs, also lined up and panting for attention. There’s no sense of the panic or terror Nixon inspired, as there was in Watchmen. As played by Mark Camacho, he’s a pudgy, archaic joke. Similar poor history turns up in the Paris Peace Accords scenes—they didn’t represent the end of the Vietnam War, only a new stage in it. The event is there to give Trask the Donald Rumsfeld role—to use the occasion of the loss of a war to sell arms for the next one.
The previews can make a longtime mutant fan misty—they’re edited for conflict and poignancy, and Fassbender’s Magneto hovering over Washington, D.C. is an intimidating sight. But seen in 3D, the film is visually sooty, and the movie doesn’t have the end-of-the-trail sadness you can expect. Things that really hurt happen to characters that longtimers care about. Lawrence’s Mystique, in all the ash-blonde, baby-faced pre-morality of her chosen form, in floppy Carly Simon hat and maxi-skirt, is as serious a femme fatale as the movies have had recently, and yet she emotes neurotic fragility. She’s suddenly exposed, screaming, in her true form in front of a wave of photographers. Wolverine is bound in construction rebar and hurled into the sky.
But there’s no time to follow these characters, or to feel their panic, because it’s time to cut to the posse attacking the cornered X-Men in the future, to watch more flame-throwing. It’ll drive all the thoughts out of your head for two hours, but ultimately all you can feel is the pressure as it tries to break your heart.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST With Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender. Written by Simon Kinberg. Directed by Bryan Singer. Rated PG-13. 131 minutes.