6 Aug 2016

X-Men: Days of Future Past
2014 - 20th Century Fox

A dark, dual-timeline, super-powered science-fiction thriller, and a movie I don't think Marvel Studios could ever make  -- but I think I could make some improvements.

Chris Claremont, legendary writer who popularised the X-Men in the first place, has often suggested the mutants of his stories can be an allegory for nuclear weapons. I’m not really feeling this metaphor, but the foes of this film, the mutant hunting and world-ending sentinels, perhaps are a good metaphor for nukes: a weapon created to protect but with the potential for global levels of ruin if misused. The film opens into what might as well be a nuclear winter.

In an opening scene that quickly establishes a great deal, the sentinels attack a mutant hideout in the wastelands of the future. The mutant Blink opens holes in space for her allies to jump through to avoid sentinel lasers, to get behind or above the foes, or to shoot at them safely. It’s a captivating dance. Bishop absorbs mutant attacks to energise his gun. The Avengers wish they could pull off such synergy. The best they can do is have Captain America bounce Iron Man’s laser off his Shield -- except why would they need to: Iron Man could just turn around and shoot in that direction himself. These action sequences in Days of Future Past are used sparingly, yet no other comic book movie made up until 2016, when Civil War was released, could compare.

If you’ve seen a Marvel film before you might not expect what happens next: all the mutants in the fight, including some favourite faces such as Bobby Drake, whose history with the X-Men goes back to the very first film, are all unceremoniously killed. This is when we learn that Kitty Pride can now send a person's conscience back in time to an earlier existence of their body in order to change the past. To stop the sentinels from ever being created, a plan is devised to send Wolverine back to 1973, at which point the film becomes a period piece complete with tie-dye scarves and CRT televisions.

When it seems that all other blockbusters have eschewed unconventional sci-fi plots in favour of linear hero’s journeys and obvious villains, this plot seems thoroughly daring. And if it doesn’t sound entirely original, consider that the Days Future Past Comic Book, written by Chris Claremont, predates James Cameron's The Terminator by over three years.

Events continue in a brisk plot of one delightful, stylish scene after another. Like the Terminator films, the dual timelines give the story a sense of larger-than-the-present consequences. It moves with purpose, each chapter building up to a peak scene, each peak (at the Pentagon, at the peace conference) spinning the story off convincingly into a new conflict. The script is straightforward but when the exposition comes it never feels unnatural and only aids in keeping you strapped in for the ride.

(With maybe one exception: Kitty pointing out to Logan that he won't look any younger when he gets sent to the past because his mutant ability means does not age. Considering how much of the film relies on knowledge of the X-Men world, this seems a strange titbit to awkwardly drop like this. More on this in a moment.)

A dark, eerie future where optimism is at a premium, and a past dour enough to be taken seriously but with enough good humour born of the mismatched characters and strange circumstances to make the film energetically fun in spite of the threatened holocaust -- this film strikes a perfect tone, and it looks great whilst doing it: even the mundane is elevated with appropriation of 80s fashion, decoration, and technology. When the comes to the weird, we have the strange lighting of the cerebro machine, the morphing skin of the future sentinels, or the hilarious frozen-in-time Quicksilver scene. Every frame has something to please the eyes: this may be the best looking superhero film ever.

There is an excellent attention to detail throughout. Just as an example, the colour purple, the traditional colour of the comic-book sentials, is used recurring: in the future, where the sentinels are super-advanced liquid metal  and entirely different from the robots of the comics, purple is seen as the laser cages keeping mutants and dissident humans caged in concentration camp like scenes. In the past, the 70s, where anything could get away with looking more garish, the robot sentinels later appear in all their purple glory, and you’ll also see the plans trask hands over to Reagan in a purple folio and drawn up in purple ink.

Another example: post-Vietnam is the backdrop to the mutant conflicts, where the people in charge act more tolerant, more ready for peace, than films set chronologically later; but Trask uses it to his advantage, warning government officials not to lose a second war in their lifetime. This appropriate use of history helps ground you in the period.

Probably more importantly than anything, it’s an absolute pleasure to watch these characters. Fassbender showing off scene-dominating dramatic power when Magneto takes Xavier to task for abandoning them between films (I’m not sure why they needed to free Magneto in the first place, but it’s hard to complain when it leads to such moments). Wolverine’s usual gruffness, and the amusing moments that he forgets he didn’t have metal claws in 1973.

It’s for such references I don’t recommend Days of Future Past as anybody’s first X-men film, by the way. Some sequels can be watched alone, and you can take the gaps in your knowledge as adding to the mystery of the film, but I do not think this is one of those cases. I should say as least X-Men: First Class needs to be watched to understand the relationship of Charles, Eric and Raven, and you you’ll also want to know a bit about Wolverine if you don’t already. Of course you could, and should, watch the original two movies, X-Men and X2, especially to get the most out of Logan’s final scene in this film (Jean and Cyclops would be strangers to you otherwise), but I think The Wolverine fills in Logan’s story nicely too, and the post-credits scene actually ties into this film somewhat. So First Class - The Wolverine - Days of Future Past might be the quickest advisable route, and putting X2 at the start would be one longer but one better.

Speaking of that ending, I have to ask: when Logan returns to the rewritten future in the ending, does his memory entirely overwrite the memories of the Logan that has lived the previous 50 years of the new timeline, in a sense killing that Logan? Xavier seems a little too pleased to see the mind of a presumed friend and colleague wiped out, if that is the case. I guess new future Xavier didn’t like new timeline Logan very much, and was just waiting for him to be replaced. This device is supposed to facilitate a bright happy ending that is also a sendoff to the characters of the old films, and it almost works, but I also found it rather confusing.

So, yeah, I can see a few problems with this film. I guess I’ll keep going:

It must be said that the characters are a little too simple. Charles is the good guy; Magneto makes all the bad decisions because he is playing the role of the baddie. I'm not actually convinced of his motivation. Is this story of apocalypse and timetravel enough for him to want to kill his ex-lover, Mystique, when he find her attempting to kill Trask, to stop the government scientists getting hold of her DNA (these being the two events that lead to the creation of the future sentinels). Wouldn’t it be more in his character to kill Trask anyway, then kill the people involved in the sentinel program? If he’d bought into Xavier and Logan’s story at the Paris Peace Accords, why does he then immediately run off and do something different? For the sake of living up to his villainous reputation?

On the other hand, the scene in Paris at the peace conference with a wounded Mystique limping to escape Magneto's attack, partly seen through the lens of a 1970s television camera, is fantastic, another great visual set-piece that is at once enticing for being atypical, and appropriate for the period, and also representing the idea that her actions are in the public eye, particularly shocking for the character used to hiding behind a mask, and for the mutants in general for whom keeping a good public image is a matter of life and death. So in this case I can just about forgive the iffy motivations for the sake of another great scene.

Mystique herself is only barely a better character than Magneto, though: the groundwork for an emotional revenge plot is there (finding the autopsies of mutants killed Trask, and a hint that she does not believe the time travel plot to being with) but needed to be a little stronger for us to believe she would single-mindedly hunt Trask even despite Charles's protests. Perhaps it is because Jennifer Lawrence comes over too human, a little too conflicted throughout, and we see a bit too much of her, where the tenacious, mysterious assassin of X2 might have been what the plot called for: difficult to control and with her own agenda and view on the situation, and therefore a real threat to the plans of the heroes, and therefore to the future itself. As a femme-fatale seducing an official in France and strangling him with her foot acrobatically raised above her head whilst she casually reads the documents his coffee table at the same time, Mystique is great! In the airport with her waist exposed, confused and without conviction... not so much.

There is one moment in particular I would have changed. When the Charles and Eric interrupts Mystique’s assassination of Trask, instead of Mystique and Charles getting sentimental about seeing each other again (and having Eric rather spoil the moment by trying to kill her), Mystique only needed to show that she was more determined to carry out her goal of killing Trask than to catch up with the boys (and by this I include getting cozy with Eric and then Hank in later scenes). Now Magneto has a good reason to try to kill her -- she’s not going to be stopped, and the future won’t be saved, otherwise -- and she remains a convincing a threat for the rest of the film.

Some of the fan accusations of Fox wanting to take advantage of Lawrence's then-new super-stardom by getting the camera on her character more often, and making her more sympathetic (and less blue) might not be misplaced. If so, it hurt the story just a little, and getting some sexy shots of the smouldering Lawrence in heavy human make-up is only a small consolation.

Speaking of X-Women, the second time I watched the film I saw the Rogue Cut. Let me tell you: the Rogue Cut was cut for a reason. It adds nothing but a Saturday morning action scene to interrupt the 1970s storyline, in a dull, factory like set of concrete walls and metal grating that is at odds with the visual flair of the rest of the movie. This sequence is badly spliced into the scene of Magneto dramatically retrieving his helmet, ruining the flow of the original scene. More than that, it messes with the flow of the entire film, which is more dramatic when past and future mix only rarely. It is harder to feel the weight of any one of the conflicts if you are constantly flitting between the two.

The exception to this is finale, where the two stories are inseparably linked during a climactic montage that juxtaposes a huge battle between the sentinels and the most powerful mutant survivors of the future, where they fight to keep Logan and Kitty (Rogue, in that version of the film) safe to give Logan more time to change the past, and a smaller scale conflict where Logan, Xavier and Hank stop Mystique and Magneto from unintentionally setting off that future apocalypse during a press conference outside the White House. As an action set-piece it almost works beautifully.

My only issue is that Logan quickly becomes useless after Magneto twists metal girders into his flesh. If he is not involved then why does it matter to the audience that the X-Men need to keep him alive in the future? Pressure is released from both scenes as a result.

But I am in two minds about this, because the ending of the 1970s conflict, involving only Mystique, Charles and Eric, is entirely perfect as it is. It is a meaningful, character driven finale in a genre where empty skies-falling bombast is the rule. Moreover, to have X-Men poster-man Jackman run in to save the day would have been a horrible cliche.

I think there is a nice solution that screenplay writer Simon Kinberg missed: the X-Men only needed to maintain Logan’s presence in the past long enough to do his part, say, killing some of the purple sentinels, or distracting Magneto as he faces off with Mystique (disguised as Ronald Regan), then Logan can be incapacitated and drowned and whatever else, and then you immediately end the future storyline by having the sentinels breech the stronghold and kill future Kitty and future Logan. At this point the past had been affected by the future as much as possible, and you leave the final, key, future-changing decisions to the mutants of the past -- whose responsibility it is to own that decision anyway. The future is set at this point, but the audience don't know the outcome: we would imagine it teeters between saved and destroyed as Charles tries to persuade Mystique to do the right thing.

Come on, tell me that doesn’t sound awesome!

But I'll try not to be too disappointed: this movie is already amazing. Amongst Marvel fans it is popular to disparage Fox and call for the mutants to be folded into the Marvel Studios universe. Fox has made some horrible films, to be sure. X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The Fantastic Four films. But I don't have to watch them. Marvel Studios and make consistently good films year after year, and I love them for it, But without Fox I would have not been able to watch unconventional superhero masterpieces like Deadpool, The Wolverine, and Days of Future Past.


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