Wednesday, May 28, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past / *** (2014)

No amount of research can prepare the casual viewer for seeing a movie as narratively oblique as “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Long past the point of establishing any firm continuity, this now-lengthy film franchise has come, gone and been rebooted under the supervision of countless filmmakers, each of whom have taken this material to the brink of possibility and then doubled back around with alternating perspectives until all narrative connections have either been tangled or severed beyond understanding. To see all those stories and characters come to a head in this, the seventh chapter of the “X-Men” saga, is to be caught in a web of maddening inconsistencies. What event triggered this crucial moment in time where all of the varying timelines are required to converge? What will the notion of time travel alter, for one ensemble as well as the other? Did the movies secretly fit together before now and we just didn’t know it? Or do all the preceding stories even retain their purpose, assuming that the climax of the newest entry negates many of the events that were seen in the earlier entries? This is the kind of movie that may endure as one of the great mysteries of the genre, even for comic book enthusiasts who are well versed in logical stretches and alternate timelines.

Then there comes a moment when rational moviegoers simply have to stop caring about the details. This is not a straightforward yarn anymore, much in the same way that James Bond’s adventures are impossible to decipher after six decades of discordant film entries. Sometimes, walking in with a clear mind – and no goal to grasp the paradoxical leaps – is necessary to navigate the maze. For me, that notion became obvious about five minutes into the prologue, during a gathering of well-known names and faces that seem brought together not out of intersecting stories but out of… alas, I have no idea, really. The irony in that regard is that “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is actually a very entertaining movie once we submit to this odd reality. There is not a moment in the film that is easily explained, and countless conundrums emerge as the plot audaciously slithers between timelines without regard to a clear purpose. And yet there is never a dull moment here as we watch on, uninterrupted, with constant interest in an ambitious display of paradoxes and riddles.

The early scenes effectively establish the gravity of conflicts. On a dark night beneath ominous gathering storms, giant androids known as the Sentinels – killing machines manufactured by the U.S. government – arrive at a secluded temple in search of mutant stowaways, and an assembly of familiar faces are caught in their line of sight. Notable among them: Charles Xavier, played in these scenes by Patrick Stewart, alive and well after being one of countless casualties in “The Last Stand.” How he – or any number of other important players – come to be present in this current encounter is not entirely certain, but asking those questions would derail the movie’s momentum, and so the story plods along. Xavier’s arrival, nonetheless, adds great significance to the gathering; with the aide of the time-shifting Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), the remaining X-Men are tasked with sending one of their own into the distant past in hopes of stopping the government’s sentinel program before it is allowed to take off. The reason? Mutants are now on the brink of extinction in the current passage of time, and the only way to preserve their way of life is to stop the problem at its source.

Enter Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), apparently the only mutant strong – or old – enough to drift that far back into the time vortex without being destroyed by it. Transported back to 1972, his mission is simple but challenging: convince the early versions of Xavier and his nemesis Magneto to interfere with an assassination attempt on the life of the Sentinel’s architect Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), or the future of mutants is forever written in tragedy. Though the stubborn Logan isn’t exactly familiar with these early versions of his teammates, audiences will recall them instantly: they were the stars of the last X-Men feature “First Class,” which revolved around the origins of the first organized mutants as they tried to prevent the Cuban Missile Crisis from starting another World War. Crossing these paths creates an undeniable tie between all three sets of X-Men films (including the “Wolverine” spin-offs), but that also raises bigger questions: were the prior movies all really self-contained, or was their entire existence an elaborate ruse to lead to this one moment, much in the same way several other super-hero endeavors were meant to lead into “Avengers?”

Never mind, because the movie has a lot of fun with its overlapping unions. The special effects are ambitious but believable, and the action sequences are skillfully paced without being manic (as they were in the recent “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”). Also surprising here, especially in context with seeing the same roles be played by multiple actors, is how fluidly everyone seems to coexist in Simon Kinberg’s multi-faceted screenplay. Stewart and James McAvoy, for example, each play the Xavier character from the approach of opposing emotional values, yet there is never a sense that either is out of place; the younger and more stubborn professor emerges exactly as the story needs him to, while the older and more collected version exudes the cool patience of a man strengthened by his unending conviction. A host of new recruits, naturally, also occupy the outskirts of this busy ensemble, and that includes the wisecracking Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who has a scene-stealing moment inside a Pentagon prison break that is as funny as it is intricate. Several of these obligatory additions are not exactly given very much to do, but they have presence, I’m sure, to add optimism to the gloomy conflict; if Sentinels are indeed allowed to prosper in this rocky timeline, what hope do we have of ever getting to know all those fresh faces in later sequels?

The movie will have its detractors. Faithful readers of the original comic book story arc may find the alterations unforgivable, while others will simply be unable to suspend the mind long enough to buy into the perplexing reality that these characters have dealt themselves into. But how refreshing it is, especially this late in the game, to be seeing an X-Men movie that does not diminish the value of its characters for wall-to-wall action or circular plot explanations. It knows better than to rationalize such inconsistencies. By the end of it all, as bewildering as the events are and how mysteriously they pan out, there is no denying that I had a great time watching it all unfold, as if it were an elaborate trainwreck in the making that manages to curve off to the side shortly before a total derailment. “Days of Future Past” not only reinvigorates the rocky “X-Men” franchise, but in many ways sets a solid precedent with how filmmakers can approach future installments: as long as you don’t try to over-explain your intentions, it is ok to simply ask your audiences to ride the unpredictable waves.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action (US); 2014; Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language; Running Time: 131 Minutes

Hugh Jackman: Logan/Wolverine
James McAvoy: Charles Xavier
Patrick Stewart: Charles Xavier
Michael Fassbender: Erik Lehnsherr
Ian McKellen: Erik Lehnsherr
Jennifer Lawrence: Raven/Mystique
Halle Berry: Storm
Nicholas Hoult: Hank/Beast
Ellen Page: Kitty Pryde
Peter Dinklage: Dr. Bolivar Trask
Shawn Ashmore: Bobby/Iceman
Omar Sy: Bishop

Produced by
Todd Hallowell, Simon Kinberg, Stan Lee, Kathleen McGill, Josh McLaglen, Hutch Parker, Lauren Shuler Donner and Bryan SingerDirected by Bryan Singer; Written by Simon Kinberg; based on the comic book story created by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn

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