By Melissa Agar
X-Men: Days of Future Past (20th Century Fox/Marvel Entertainment, 2014) - Director: Bryan Singer. Writers: Simon Kinberg (s/p). Jane Goldman, Simon Kinburg, & Matthew Vaughn (story). Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellan, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, & Bingbing Fan. Color & 3D, 132 minutes.
It’s summer. As a teacher, that means about the same thing for me that it does to kids all over the country – the promise of extra sleep, some lazy days, and hours spent in the chilly air conditioning of the local multiplex munching on some buttery popcorn and watching hours of blockbusters. I know the months ahead will be filled with disappointment. Something I’m looking forward to is going to be terrible; something I’m ambivalent about will rock my world. I’ll clock hours behind the wheel of the ol’ Prius heading to larger cities to cleanse my palette with some independent films, and I’ll sheepishly buy a ticket for some movie I know I’m too old/wise/discerning to see and yet I must. This weekend, though, I counted down the hours until work was over and happily forked over my $12 to see the latest installment in the X-Men franchise.
The X-Men films have had, for me, a rather spotty track record. I quite liked the first two films, both directed by Bryan Singer. I was not crazy about The Last Stand, nor have I been particularly impressed with the two Wolverine films that seemed designed to hold us over. For me, the best of the X films was 2011’s X-Men: First Class, which showed us the origins of beloved characters like Professor Xavier (McAvoy) and Beast (Hoult) while tracing the birth of the conflict between Xavier and Magneto (Fassbender). First Class was fun, poignant, and exciting and represented a tremendous leap in the X series.
As good as First Class was, though, Days of Future Past is even better. Here, members of the First Class cast meet members of the “classic” series to save not only mutantkind, but also the world from a nefarious plot. It is 2023 and the Sentinels, a group of shape-shifting and indestructible robots, are eradicating mutants and their human sympathizers worldwide. Holed up in a secluded mountain retreat, Professor X (Stewart) and Magneto (McKellan) have teamed up with a plan. With help from Kitty Pride (Page), they send Wolverine (Jackman) back to 1973, the year that proved pivotal in the development of the Sentinels. 1973 was the year when Sentinel developer Bolivar Trask (Dinklage) was killed by Mystique (Lawrence). Mystique’s subsequent capture gave Trask’s team insight into the genetic makeup of mutants, allowing them to give Mystique’s morphing powers to the Sentinels. It also set Mystique on her criminal path, completely eliminating any trace of the sweet Raven who befriended Charles Xavier as a child. Wolverine partners up with a young, embittered Xavier (McAvoy) to free Magneto (Fassbender) from prison and stop Mystique before it is too late.
The plot of Days of Future Past is a bit complicated at times and it certainly has its moments where you sort of have to shrug and go with it, but it is a deeply engaging film that finds our heroes wrestling with not just some formidable foes but some heavy ethical ideas. Mystique, after all, wants to kill Trask for the torture he has inflicted upon mutants in the name of “research.” Even though his death will start a ball rolling that could eliminate mutants everywhere, it’s hard to not feel her righteous indignation when she sees pictures of what her “kin” have endured in the name of science.
It helps, too, that this weighty plot is placed into the hands of a tremendous cast. These are actors who bring a depth and subtlety to what they do and create vivid, complicated characters whose emotions and conflict are palpable. These actors have great chemistry that makes the stakes on the screen even more intense. The bromance between Stewart and McKellan is the stuff of legend now, but the real heart of the film lies in the triangle of sorts between McAvoy, Lawrence, and Fassbender. Like in First Class, Lawrence becomes the emotional and ethical link between McAvoy and Fassbender. There is a lot of love between these three but also a lot of hate, and these three capture every second of the pain and yearning that keeps this triangle afloat.
Of course, the people packing theaters for Days of Future Past are not as likely to be lured in by the promise of emotional gravitas as they are by cool action sequences. Those people will not be disappointed. There are several intense sequences filled with suspense and violence as well as some incredible CGI effects. (The Sentinels are a thing of horrific beauty onscreen.) The film also has moments of great humor, largely supplied by the scene-stealing appearance of Quicksilver (Peters). The cheeky hero known for his ridiculous speed adds some comic relief when Wolverine and Xavier enlist him to help free Magneto from his sub-Pentagon prison. His power allows for some eye-popping special effects (a scene where Quicksilver “slowly” moves around the room to save his friends is a thing of beauty) and enough giggles that I found myself mourning his character’s exit from the plot.
I know that the summer will surely hold some films that will leave me queasy, but X-Men: Days of Future Past proves that summer blockbusters can be smart, funny, and entertaining. If there is any disappointment in the film it would be that the extra $4 I spent for a 3D showing felt a bit wasted as there wasn’t anything that left me blown away that wouldn’t have had the same effect in 2D down the hall. That complaint aside, though, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a great way to kick off the summer blockbuster season.