By Jordan Noton
X-Men. The word has become synonymous with the superhero genre and the summer blockbuster. Through spellbinding highs and nauseous lows, the X-Men movie franchise has endured. The incredible one-two punch of X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003) reaffirmed the hope that comic-books and graphic novels could be an important part of cinema once more. The series took a tumble with the clumsily executed X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) before hitting its lowest peak with the horrific X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009), a film that made a mockery of the X-Men universe despite introducing fan favourite characters like Gambit and Deadpool. X-Men First Class (2011) elevated the series back to the level of quality it was originally known for as well as building an incredible cast for a new generation. Finally, another solo adventure for Logan came in the form of The Wolverine (2013) which was a much needed improvement over Origins.
Now, fourteen years after the original outing we have arrived at X-Men: Days of Future Past. Collecting actors from the old school and the new and throwing them into a time-travelling mission to stop a chain of events before they ever begin, this film is the largest scale entry in the series so far. Based on the revered comic-book storyline of the same name, Days of Future Past sees mutants being hunted down and killed by seemingly-invincible robots called Sentinels, forcing them into hiding. Using her ability to send someone’s consciousness back through time into their younger bodies, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) warns her fellow X-Men that they keep getting found and killed by the machines. Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) tell Pryde to use her powers on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and send him back to 1973 to stop this war from ever existing. Reviewing this movie is difficult to structure as the two time periods displayed are so wildly different that they feel like two separate movies. With that said, let’s talk about the future.
The film opens on a blackened, devastated New York in which an ink-blue sky is the only source of colour. The opening scenes blatantly riff visually and thematically on the desolate future of the first two Terminator movies and everything before the opening titles could well be from that series. Piles of bodies stacked by the hundreds obviously replicate holocaust imagery, something wholly uncomfortable in a film rated 12A. On the outskirts of the city, a child scavenges in the wastes and finds the buried torso of an X-Man. This is a world in which heroes have fallen. Sure, some films have played with the idea of the hero being turned on by society but DoFP takes it to the extreme. Persecuted and hunted down by the near-invincible Sentinels, the mutants have either fled into hiding or are locked up in a huge purple neon TRON-style concentration camp. The dark future of the film world is established well, but it visually and thematically derives from other movies too much before the opening titles roll. It’s not long before we see the latest formation of the X-Men, a mixture of faces old and new, seeking solace in an abandoned temple in China. The first action sequence is truly thrilling, showing the mutant powers of the super-team perfectly. Colours pop and explode across the screen as the camera bobs and weaves into some excellent shots and angles, capturing the complexity of the battle. One of the most impressive fighters is Blink (Fan Bingbing), a woman who can open portals at will. The way her power is utilised in conjunction with the rest of the crew is really inventive and absolutely nails the feeling of reading a fantastic action page of a comic-book.
After some brief exposition describing how Wolverine has to go back and find the old crew, we’re ready to head into the past. The only real complaint I had about the future scenes is how empty they often felt. It makes sense within the movie, as the gang spend their time standing guard or sitting down in one place for hours, maybe days. But the future is so interesting and so closely linked with the film’s namesake comic run that it needs developing further. Who controls the Sentinels? Where are the humans living, seeing as the entire world seems to be destroyed? What happens to the mutants and sympathisers locked in concentration camps? The future raises too many questions, and opts to skip over those raised by previous entries in the series (including Xavier’s death and rebirth, Magneto’s powers returning and Wolverine regaining his metal claws). These scenes exist solely to build context for the meat of the film which takes place in 1973, and they serve less as a parallel story and more as an intermission. Honestly, some of the cutaways from the main time period to the future aren’t needed at all and feel tacked on to create a greater sense of urgency and danger despite the forced nature of their implementation. There’s nothing wrong with the future scenes, they’re brilliantly made and add to the overall high quality of the film but they could have been so much more. One wonders how Rogue (Anna Paquin) fit into the storyline before she was cut from the film. The relationship between Kitty and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) feels like its building towards something, but without Rogue the dynamic doesn’t exist. As it stands, they’re a nostalgic love letter to the original trilogy and an excellent evolution to that era of X-Men movies. It’s Bryan Singer’s X-Men evolved and it’s awesome to behold, but there’s no escaping the vagueness of it all.
Once we’re taken back to the past, the film settles back into the skin of First Class. It’s startling how totally different the two time periods feel, as if Singer stepped aside and allowed Matthew Vaughn to direct the 1973 scenes. Wolverine seeks out Xavier first, played here by James McAvoy who convincingly portrays a man frustrated with the world. The social outcast role can often feel forced as The Dark Knight Rises‘ mansion-dwelling Bruce Wayne did, but McAvoy hits a home run with his tortured hero. The meeting of Xaviers glimpsed in the trailers will go down as one of the defining moments of this franchise, and with good reason. Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) is the only one standing by his side as his enemies and the Vietnam War steal everything from him, forcing his school into closure. Michael Fassbender also returns as the younger Magneto and he too is excellent in his emotional delivery. At one point he is screaming at Xavier whilst aboard a plane and his powers kick into overdrive, causing the plane to crumple and nosedive. However, his best scenes are definitely when he cuts off and becomes a cold, emotionless figure. He goes from hero to villain to anti-hero to necessary evil and constantly surprises the viewer. Just as I was ready to root for him he switched up his motives and flew in the face of my expectations. Jennifer Lawrence also returns as Mystique, the shape shifting mutant who drives the whole plot forward. However, despite being the narrative root of the picture and having many key scenes in the film devoted to her, there’s a strange lack of power around her character. Although she is the defining factor in the future of the mutant race, the film seems to portray her as a pawn in a man’s game, a man’s world. It’s like the film is struggling at times to balance the narrative focus and Lawrence’s star power with the focus on Xavier and Magneto’s relationship. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is absolutely terrifying and is an insanely interesting character. Dinklage gives the performance enough love and care to elevate him above ‘mad scientist’ and give him the gravitas of importance he deserves. There’s a reason no one mocks his stature in the movie, and it is because he demands power every moment he is on screen.
The true surprise of the movie is Evan Peters as the superfast mutant Quicksilver. After being mocked for his appearance compared to both the comic-books and The Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s depiction, this Quicksilver standsout as a key part of what makes this film so entertaining. Every moment he is on screen he demands the viewer to look at him. The careless, cocky teenager element borders on trite at times but for the vast majority of the time he is an absolute breath of fresh air for the franchise. Quicksilver is a lightning bolt of fun that fires up a stretch of the film that would be utterly lifeless without him. He steals the show and then some. His action scenes are the most mindblowing of the series and his future in the film canon looks very bright indeed. Overall, everyone else does their roles justice and some of the banter between Jackman’s Wolverine and Hoult’s Beast is cinematic gold. The Seventies period is well captured here by Singer and crew. From the fashion of its cast to geographic references, everything feels right. There are some inconsistencies here and there, but for the most part it’s great. The film uses old camera footage to show key scenes in the film as innocent bystanders and journalists record the action. The technique recalls the opening of David Fincher’s The Game and entertains, even if it is used rather excessively at one point.
In closing, if you’re a fan of the series and the superhero genre at large, this is definitely worth your time. The film looks, sounds and feels like it’s been crafted with care and attention and is carried along by excellent visuals and brilliant acting. There’s a lot lacking but what’s there is excellent and the only reason so much is left unsaid is because of running time constraints and studio limitations. The past segments deviate from the source material and feel like First Class 2 rather than an adaption of Days of Future Past but it works completely. The use of Kitty Pryde to send people back through time is an issue as it is a power constructed purely for the film and out of nowhere. In the book it is her consciousness that gets sent back by a telepathist, Rachel Summers. Why not give this power to Xavier who is the most powerful telepathist in the world, and who spends basically all of the future scenes sat in a room? The Sentinels look great in the past but really odd in the future, resembling the Destroyer from Thor or Gort from the horrific The Day The Earth Stood Still remake rather than the big purple Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots from the comics that were teased in The Last Stand. But overall, these are the only complaints I had – which speaks volumes about how accurately this film hits its mark. I’m extremely excited to see how the series develops with X-Men: Apocalypse coming in 2016 and after shaking up the film’s canon by the time the credits roll. Days of Future Past is smart enough to carry its heavy themes and fun enough to shock and amaze with its well directed action scenes and set-pieces. Everything comes together and by the end of it all, X-Men: Days of Future Past stands tall as the gold standard of modern superhero film. The future is bright for the X-Men franchise.