Film Review: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’

Bryan Singer returns to blockbuster form with this strikingly ambitious continuation of the 'X-Men' saga.

No skyscrapers blow up, no cities are leveled, and while the White House and a football stadium suffer some serious structural damage, the wholesale destruction of human civilization is kept to a refreshing minimum in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” — just one of several respects in which this strikingly ambitious yet intimately scaled entertainment distinguishes itself from so much of its comicbook-movie kind. Back at the helm of the Fox/Marvel franchise he successfully launched 14 years ago, director Bryan Singer stages a stealth reboot by introducing a playful time-travel element to the ongoing saga, bringing two generations of mutantkind together in a story that toggles cleverly (if not always 100% coherently) between the political tumult of 1973 and a not-so-distant dystopian future. Singer’s scandalous recent headlines are unlikely to impact the commercial fortunes of this keenly anticipated tentpole attraction, whose B.O. haul stands to rival and perhaps exceed that of the series’ top earner to date, “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

Its $459 million worldwide gross notwithstanding, that 2006 smash marked the beginning of a severe lapse in quality for the franchise, as Singer, having directed the excellent first two pictures, left the third one in the singularly ill-suited hands of Brett Ratner. (“The Last Stand” was followed, but not much improved upon, by Gavin Hood’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in 2009.) Fortunately, the overall series has been on the creative upswing in recent years, buoyed by Matthew Vaughn’s terrific prequel “X-Men: First Class” (2011) and James Mangold’s unexpectedly fine “The Wolverine” (2013). And given that Singer’s own career hasn’t exactly flourished in the meantime with “Superman Returns,” “Valkyrie” and last year’s bomb “Jack the Giant Slayer,” it’s not especially surprising to see him make his long-overdue return to blockbuster form here: Not since 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” has this filmmaker tapped so effortlessly into his talent for comicbook gravitas, his ability to mine emotional resonance, pop poetry and (crucially) sly humor from material that could otherwise have veered into strained seriousness or high camp.

Just as the first “X-Men” opened with a flashback to the Holocaust, so the new film commences with a grim evocation of death and warfare, this time set in a fictitious future. A government army of killer robots known as Sentinels has almost succeeded in wiping out all mutants and their human supporters, leaving Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his longtime friend/nemesis, Erik Lensher/Magneto (Ian McKellen), to seek refuge with their few remaining allies in a remote Chinese safe house. Their last hope is Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), whose powers include the curious ability to transport a person’s consciousness through time: Professor X and Magneto propose that she send Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the year 1973 in order to undo certain key events and thereby erase the Sentinel program from history. (With his superhuman powers of bodily regeneration, Logan is the only one who could withstand such a journey — a handy justification for keeping the series’ defining character front and center.)

Hurled back to the heyday of lava lamps and waterbeds, Richard Nixon and Alice Cooper, Logan must convince the younger, hipper version of Charles (James McAvoy) that a dark future awaits if they don’t act immediately. This turns out to be easier said than done. The ’60s were an especially rough decade for Charles, leaving him a mental and emotional wreck: His school for young mutants has been abandoned (only Hank McCoy/Beast, played once again by Nicholas Hoult, has stuck around), and he’s addicted to a serum that restores his ability to walk yet stifles his telepathic powers — which is to say, his gift for empathy. Still, Logan proves sufficiently persuasive, and Charles reluctantly agrees to help him infiltrate the Pentagon and free Erik (Michael Fassbender) from the subterranean prison where he’s being held for past crimes.

It’s a dangerous but necessary step that’s pulled off, with smashing aplomb, by Logan’s old pal Peter (Evan Peters), a leather-jacketed, silver-haired mutant known as Quicksilver for his incredible agility, and one of the few Marvel crossover characters who can claim membership with the X-Men and the Avengers. While Aaron Taylor-Johnson is playing the character in Disney’s concurrent Marvel franchise (he’ll be seen at length in 2015’s “Avengers: Age of Ultron”), the bar has been set remarkably high here: Peters’ Quicksilver steals every scene he’s in, especially one brilliant, deliriously fun action sequence that reveals how everything seems to advance in slow-motion from his perspective.

In order to stop the Sentinels devised by the mutant-mutilating Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), the latest in a long line of “X-Men” villains creepily modeled on Mengele, the uneasily aligned Charles, Erik and Logan must first head to France, where the Paris Peace Accords are about to take place. Their goal is to track down the renegade shape-shifter Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who doesn’t realize that her plot to assassinate Trask will only accelerate the government’s mutant-extinction program. “We can show them a better path,” Charles intones more than once, cutting to the moral and thematic core of a series that has always expressed its solidarity with the oppressed and misunderstood, predicated on the sincere notion that the honorable deeds of an embattled few can indeed alter the hearts, minds and fortunes of many.

Working from Simon Kinberg’s screenplay (very loosely adapted from an “X-Men” comicbook storyline by Chris Claremont and John Byrne), Singer unspools these intricate developments in a smooth, carefully controlled style that, while hardly skimping on expertly choreographed action and lavish f/x spectacle, puts a gratifying premium on psychological depth and delineation of character: The story effectively becomes a platonic triangle, with Professor X and Magneto (who, as always, has his own surprising agenda) waging war for Mystique’s soul. Nearly all the moral conflicts at play — will Mystique abandon her murderous agenda? Can Charles overcome his crippling anguish and fight the good fight? — are resolved in fairly foreseeable fashion, dovetailing neatly with the tale’s overarching themes of individual and collective redemption. But if the characters’ quandaries at times feel overly circumscribed, they’re also advanced with a bracing emotional directness, devoid of either cynicism or sentimentalism, that touches genuine chords of feeling over the course of the film’s fleet 130-minute running time.

While not as brassy in its period stylization as Vaughn’s ’60s-set “X-Men: First Class,” “Days of Future Past” embraces its specific historical moment with similar revisionist gusto, from an early subplot that sends Mystique off to Saigon to rescue a squad of mutants from Trask’s clutches, to a borderline-tacky plot point concerning Magneto’s suspected role in the JFK assassination. Given the popular Hollywood practice of depicting real-life U.S. presidents as obliquely as possible (“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” notwithstanding), it’s refreshing to see an actor (Canadian thesp Mark Camacho) actually dare to inhabit the voice and visage of Nixon, and inhabit them well, in a movie that uses the former POTUS’ post-Vietnam flop sweat to smart narrative advantage. Stylistically, the decision to give certain public moments the grainy, bright-colored look of ’70s newsreels adds a touch of verite immediacy, although the Super 8 and 16mm footage looks rather odd in 3D (much of the film was shot stereoscopically, and makes fine if not exceptional use of the format.)

As they did in “First Class,” McAvoy and Fassbender make an electrifying duo here, doing full justice to the emotionally complicated swirl of love, anger, kinship and betrayal that binds Charles and Erik, and rendering the kinder, gentler interplay between Stewart and McKellen all the more poignant by comparison. In a picture grounded by a number of richly involving two-character dialogue exchanges, one of the most moving sequences finds Charles’ older and younger selves mysteriously communicating across the space-time continuum. While Lawrence looks fetching enough in Mystique’s blue birthday suit, the actress registers with less impact than one might have hoped; coming off her explosively entertaining turn in the much more elaborate Me Decade re-creation of “American Hustle,” she has relatively little to do here other than glower, snarl and let the f/x artists do their thing (though it’s fun to hear her speaking Vietnamese at one point).

With Wolverine playing the unusual role of mediator this time around, Jackman is in unusually restrained, cool-headed form; the actor’s slightly disoriented appearance throughout is entirely appropriate to the character’s journey, and may well be shared by a few fans in the later reels, when the story’s time-travel logic gets especially raggedy. By the end, however, it’s clear that the “X-Men” series has effectively opened a temporal loophole that should lead to fresh adventures down the road — namely, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” which is set to be released in 2016, although it’s unclear whether the embattled Singer will return to the director’s chair.

The film’s intense focus on its four leads — plus the excellent Dinklage, easily beating out McAvoy for most conspicuously ’70s hair — leaves little room for the rest of the ensemble, with its surfeit of new and familiar faces. For all the ways in which the material fits Singer like a glove, the filmmaker still hasn’t figured out a way to make Halle Berry’s Storm a compelling presence; Shawn Ashmore’s Iceman pops up in welcome but somewhat truncated fashion; and it’s a mystery why Anna Paquin retains such prominent billing, given Rogue’s blink-and-you-miss-it appearance. Speaking of Blink, the mutant who goes by that name is one of the more memorable “X-Men” newcomers, due more to her nifty powers of teleportation than to Chinese star Fan Bingbing’s muted performance. Other fresh additions to the mutant ranks who register briefly here include Bishop (Omar Sy), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Warpath (Booboo Stewart).

Costume designer Louise Mingenbach has fun outfitting roughly half the cast in an array of period duds without going overboard. Like many of Singer’s prior pics, the production benefits from the dual contributions of versatile editor-composer John Ottman — particularly evident in the story’s clean pacing and construction, despite some busy cross-cutting in the action-heavy final stretch.

Film Review: 'X-Men: Days of Future Past'

Reviewed at Fox Studios, Century City, Calif., May 10, 2014. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 131 MIN.

Production

A 20th Century Fox release presented in association with Marvel Entertainment and TSG Entertainment of a Bad Hat Harry/Donners’ Co./Simon Kinberg production made in association with Ingenious Media. Produced by Lauren Shuler Donner, Bryan Singer, Kinberg, Hutch Parker. Executive producers, Stan Lee, Todd Hallowell, Josh McLaglen. Co-producer, Jason Taylor.

Crew

Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay, Simon Kinberg; story, Jane Goldman, Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn. Camera (Fotokem color, Arri widescreen, 3D), Newton Thomas Sigel; editor, John Ottman; music, Ottman; production designer, John Myhre; supervising art director, Michele Laliberte; art directors, Caroline Alder, Vincent Gingras-Liberali; set decorator, Gordon Sim; set designers, Glenn Bydwell, Claude Lafrance, Brent Lambert, Celine Lampron, Raymond Larose, Veronique Meunier, Guy Pigeon, Alex Touikan; costume designer, Louise Mingenbach; sound (Dolby Atmos/Datasat), Patrick Rousseau; supervising sound editors, Craig Berkey, John A. Larsen; sound designer, Berkey; re-recording mixers, Ron Bartlett, D.M. Hemphill; visual effects producer, Blondel Aidoo; visual effects supervisors, Anders Langlands, Lou Pecora, Derek Spears, Holger Voss; visual effects, MPC, Cinesite, Rising Sun Pictures, Mokko Studio, Hydraulx, Method Studios, Animal Logic VFX; Mystique and Beast prosthetics and full-size Sentinel, Legacy Effects; special visual effects and character animation, Digital Domain; visual effects and animation, Rhythm & Hues; stunt coordinators, Jeff Habberstad, James M. Churchman, Mike Scherer, Nick Brandon, Trevor Habberstad, John D. Ross, Colin Follenweider, Mark Chadwick, Stefan Lofgren, Paul Leonard; fight coordinators, Daniel Stevens, Renae Moneymaker; stereoscopic supervisor, Scott Willman; 3D conversion, Studio D; associate producers, Tom Cohen, Derek Hoffman, Kathleen McGill; assistant director, McLaglen; second unit directors, Brian Smrz, Todd Hallowell; casting, Roger Mussenden.

With

Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Mark Camacho, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart. (English, Vietnamese, French dialogue)

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  1. scout says:

    Uhm has singer ever read the comics or ??? ?? Because kitty pryde’s powers never happen upon the telepathic/time travel ability nor would they ever. Why didn’t they just use a machine and send her back too?? there was a signifcant reason to send her back in the comics and have her work with magneto. Not to mention how stupidly underused storm has been and the whole mess up of mystique’s power set. her ability is to shift in physical ways, not take on different powers. a sentinel wouldn’t get that from her blood but would have from say.. copycat?? wtf. this movie sucked.

  2. I viewed X-Men DOFP this afternoon and was surprised how quickly the time passed. Thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. The 3D wasn’t overdone but was done very well.
    Storyline was excellent; acting top notch.
    I don’t go to the theatre that often, but I’m glad I did for this.
    Great afternoon!

    • PhilG says:

      Quicksilver is ‘one of the “few”‘ who bridges the X-Men and Avengers…?! Presumably that’s meant to be “one of the few Fox and Disney/Marvel could agree to share,” given that *Wolverine* is the most prominent person with a foot in both camps..

      Personally, I hope the ending allows for an Apocalypse/Post-Apocalypse(!) film starring the ORIGINAL cast, rather than another necessarily-period piece. Or parallel projects: a Mystique spin-off (since Fox is supposedly keen); a ‘real’ X-Men sequel *and* a First Class sequel. And a Quicksilver TV series (even if it would wind up being against The Flash… having a hero speedster vying with a putative villain with similar powers for ratings would be interesting. Two sides of the coin)..!

  3. After seeing Godzilla yesterday, I hesitated to see the world demolished once more in glorious 3D and with DTS 12-Track Digital Sound. But to my surprise, no planets were hurt in making this movie. I did not encounter awkward moments where the villain or even the hero sais “I will destroy you. I must save the world”

    It’s almost an intimate film, at least in this genre. Young Xavier played excellent, denying the fact that he IS a comic character. Good escapism, even for intellectuals.

  4. Tim says:

    I saw the movie last Night. It’s a great movie. Good acting, good pace, good story,… It’s always a shame when the credits start. Can’t wait for the next one.
    Fassbender, McAvoy and Jackman are just fantastic. Enjoy the movie. Singer still is a fantastic director and storyteller.

  5. Becks says:

    Can anyone confirm that no children where anally-raped in the filming of this project? Need to know for sure.

  6. Man I’m getting pumped for this movie now

  7. Travis says:

    Hey, Give Me A Break!: X2 is a great film in the eyes of most, and it’s social commentary isn’t really “lite”, it’s just not used to beat you over the head, either. However, movies are a subjective form. What I’ve just said is how I experience it, what you said is only how YOU experience it. So when, in the process of bashing this film that most people either like or love, you act like you can tell us what it is “in truth”, you just make yourself seem like a contrarian narcissist. You don’t know THE truth about this or any film, because there isn’t one. You only know YOUR truth about it. Have a nice day.

  8. John Wheeler says:

    The latest in this sector of Marvel’s comic-book empire is a film of two halves. It takes place in two different eras, which means two different teams of superheroes battling to save humanity in their own ways. These superheroes might be able to transcend the laws of nature but the logic of the franchise proves to be immutable, even if it means spoiling the audience’s fun.

  9. Give Me a Break! says:

    You sure are reaching with your assessment of X2 when in truth it’s nothing more than a popcorn flick that’s candy coated with its lite-social commentary.

  10. Joe (@WTTSP) says:

    These comments suck. Glad to hear the movie is good. Can’t wait to see it.

  11. Jack Scoggins says:

    Anna Paquin is an Oscar winner, and her role was originally written to be more substantial than what ended up in the final cut. Her billing was determined by her contract, which was signed long before the movie was shot and edited.

  12. Stephen S. says:

    In America, you are innocent until you are PROVEN guilty. We don’t know right now if he’ guilty or innocent. Besides, you have to be able to separate the art from the artist.

    • Luluinhollywood says:

      Oh PLEASE. It’s pathetic that you would compare the two to make an argument. It just makes you sound biased & stupid. Singer is only ACCUSED of a crime. In civil NOT criminal court. He has not even been arrested, let alone charged. LET ALONE CONVICTED. He is being sued. HITLER orchestrated the murder of millions of people. Get a life.

  13. cadavra says:

    Let’s hope they do a better job of re-creating 1973 than FIRST CLASS did of 1962–which is to say, not at all.

  14. therealeverton says:

    Good news…

  15. Bob Nunnally says:

    Blah, blah, blah… stick to the review. Glad you liked it, but your review is chocked full of the kind of unnecessary fat even you hate.

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