23 May 2014

Screen Time: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult
Director: Bryan Singer
Runtime: 131 minutes
Certificate: 12A
Release Date: 22nd May 2014

Matt C: It’s hard to believe it’s now been fourteen since Bryan Singer reignited cinema audiences' passion for the superhero genre with X-Men, and in doing so effectively changed the blockbuster landscape to the point where the genre now dominates the annual box office. There are of course many other factors involved (the primary one being the advances in technology that have allowed comic book action to be successfully rendered on screen) but after the Batman And Robin debacle led studios to approach superhero material with caution, Singer showed that taking a serious, intelligent and faithful approach to these stories can really reap dividends. He went one better with the sequel, X2, regarded as the high watermark of the series, by building on the mythology, playing to the strengths of the first movie, and flexing his directorial muscles further. Due to some studio politics, and Singer’s desire to helm a Superman film, the reigns of the third instalment in the X-franchise were handed over to Brett Ratner, who sadly squandered the Dark Phoenix storyline among many other mistakes, and the X-Men Origins: Wolverine flick that followed was a nadir that led made many wonder if the series could ever recover.

The series did eventually recover under Matthew Vaughan’s stewardship with X-Men: First Class, taking the dangerous prequel route but avoiding the usual pitfalls of being too beholden to the other films, stacking it with a great cast and injecting a huge shot of energy and excitement into the proceedings. For some, it was the best of the series so far. Hugh Jackman returned for The Wolverine last year, and while it was a far better effort than its predecessor, it lost the courage of its convictions by its third act, and was an acceptable instalment rather than an essential one.

An uneven franchise all told, and when Vaughan passed on the opportunity to return (in favour of adapting another comic series, Mark Millar’s Secret Service) the door was left open for Singer (who had returned to the fold on production duties with First Class) to take care of some unfinished business. Combining both ‘young’ and ‘old’ casts, and adapting one of the most celebrated storylines from the Chris Claremont/John Byrne ‘golden age’ of Uncanny X-Men was a tall order – could Singer rise to the challenge and deliver a film that would get the franchise back on track again?

The answer to that question is – unequivocally – yes. The director takes what could, in other hands, become an overly confusing time-travel plot and approaches it not as though he’s a man with something to prove but with the confidence and ease of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing, knows exactly what he wants to achieve. And he achieves it in spades. The most ambitious X-film so far, it’s also the first to fully embrace its genre origins, integrating the more elaborate, fantastical narrative techniques seen in comic books into the existing filmic universe, meaning we gets to see a variety of characters let rip with their powers in a way we haven’t before, more often than not in an ingenious, beautifully choreographed manner (Blink versus the future Sentinels; Quicksilver – in one of the films highlights – versus a roomful of Pentagon guards).
That he’s working with a selection of actors that have the chops to sell this bizarre, unlikely world so completely pushes everything to the next level. Jackman, unsurprisingly, takes the central role, and this feels like the most comfortable he’s been with the character since X2, recapturing that roguish charm and swagger interspersed with the claw-popping. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both tremendous, utterly making these roles their own, and while McAvoy does the majority of the emotional heavy lifting, Fassbender cuts through the film with his cool, steely glare, guaranteeing his presence is felt when it counts. Jennifer Lawrence has transformed into a bona fide superstar since the last time she played Mystique, and every time she appears onscreen it’s clear why her star will continue to arise. The rest of the cast have a varied amount of screen time, from Patrick Stewart’s reassuring presence to a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance by Anna Paquin, and while that’s understandable given the number of actors being juggled, and it does mean certain characters get slim motivations (Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask especially), Singer moves things along at such a brisk pace, and with such an infectious sense of fun, that it doesn’t become much of an issue. There’s real economy present in the storytelling, with the action and emotional beats all hitting their marks, and scenes never outstaying their welcome.

It’s clear that this film received a larger budget than any other in the franchise, but that’s all up there on the screen, from the dystopic future where Sentinels rain from the sky, to the flares and sideburns of the 1973 period setting, to the assured, destructive action sequences, and it all serves the plot rather than providing a high octane distraction. Singer has come along leaps and bounds in terms of devising a setpiece since 2000’s X-Men, and with John Ottoman’s incisive editing (and his pulsating, ominous score), there’s a genuine sense of exhilaration throughout, the director perfectly balancing the essential characterization with the more obvious requirements of the summer tentpole picture.
Exciting, funny and moving, this is the closest 20th Century Fox have come to translating the pulp soap opera fantasy of the comics to the big screen, and as a result Days Of Future Past makes a highly convincing case for being the best of the series. Marvel Studios still reign supreme, but while Sony has been floundering with their Amazing Spider-Man reboot, Fox appear to have righted the course of their X-Men series with a film that allows for an eminently satisfying send-off to the original cast (fixing many of the mistakes made in The Last Stand and X-Men Origins) while also proving that First Class wasn’t a fluke and the new kids on the block have plenty more to offer in these roles. It even gives Jackman’s turn as Wolverine a new vigour, and regardless of who eventually turns up in X-Men: Apocalypse, if it’s anywhere near as good and as perfectly judged as this instalment, then 2016 can’t come quick enough. 10/10

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