Mutants with an unconvincing message

X-Men (12) | Director: Bryan Singer | Starring: Patrick Stewart, Ian Mckellen, Bruce Davison, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin | 104 Mins
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The Big Picture

The Big Picture

After three weeks of strictly local difficulties at the cinema - fishermen on the Atlantic, car thieves in LA, Marines in Yemen - it's time to save the world again. From the apparently inexhaustible pages of Marvel Comics come no fewer than 10 original characters to fight over real issues such as good and evil, tolerance and tyranny, and the right to cause Force 10 gales in a built-up area. Bryan Singer's X-Men takes its moral cue from the spirit of the original strip, which reflected the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement during the Sixties, but the film bases its style on the very latest advances in computer graphic imagery.

A comic-strip fantasia with allegorical implications about the struggle for equality? Well, it sounds promising, and the movie sets up its conflict as an ominous face-off between two mutant leaders, played with ringing gravitas by Shakespearean stalwarts, Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen.

Humankind can't bear much reality, as we know, but really can't stand mutants. It's this hostility that has convinced Magneto (the McKellen character) that the only way to make the world safe for mutants is to annex humanity altogether - the doctrine of do unto others before they do it to you. His one-time friend, Professor Xavier, (Stewart) is a benign teacher and telepath who runs a School for Gifted Youngsters, where he trains his pupils to harness their powers for humanity's greater good.

The crisis has come to a head because a demagogic US Senator (Bruce Davison) is leading a campaign to have mutants publicly named and registered (has he been in touch with the News of the World?). It plays on the deeply American fear of alien invasion, started by Orson Welles's War of the Worlds and reprised any number of times since.

The Senator's xenophobic rabble-rousing is just hitting its stride when he's kidnapped by Magneto, whose plans for world domination are delegated to a willing crew of mutant superagents: there's an outrageously hairy strongman named Sabretooth (former professional wrestler Tyler Mane), a wall-crawler with a 20-foot whiplash tongue named Toad (Ray Park) and the rather more euphonious Mystique, a shape-shifter whose natural skin colour is an alarming bright blue (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, wearing nothing but body paint).

It's a powerful squad, but the good professor also has strength in depth, and looks-wise he wins hands down with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a mutant doctor with telekinetic powers, and Storm (Halle Berry), a platinum-haired beauty who can brew up heavy weather on request. Lining up alongside them are Cyclops (James Marsden), whose optic nerve can emit laser-intensity missiles (so best not to catch his eye), and a latecomer to the team, Wolverine aka Logan (Hugh Jackman), who looks like a cross between Rawhide-era Clint Eastwood and a mutton-chopped Victorian poet.

Jackman, an Australian, turns out to be the find of the film; his character is a loner who broods on his past - an unspecified operation left him with retractable adamantium claws - but his presence carries an erotic charge in what is otherwise a pretty sexless atmosphere. He flirts with the luscious Janssen, though his strongest connection is with a runaway teenager, Rogue (Anna Paquin), whose mutant gift - or curse? - is to absorb the powers of anybody she touches. Their relationship, like much else in the film, is left hanging, plainly because there is a sequel already mapped out.

If that not-too-distant prospect doesn't quite make me sob with gratitude, it doesn't fill me with dread either. X-Men is, in a word, acceptable. Director, Singer, delivers most of the action with style, even a degree of wit. The special effects are particularly nifty in a scene where Magneto and his cronies emerge from a railway station to find themselves surrounded by dozens of police bristling with automatic weapons; with insolent ease Magneto conjures the guns out of their hands and turns them, hovering in mid-air, back on the police. A bullet is fired and slowly, agonisingly, begins to penetrate a man's head, its trajectory entirely within the evil genius's control (the idea of infinitely stalling a bullet was also one of the wittier conceits of The Matrix). There's a neat joke about the set design, too. At one point Xavier leads Logan down a gleaming metallic walkway and into a huge dome-shaped interior; the film is tacitly asking the audience to gasp at the technology that created it, but Logan speaks for us when he deadpans, "This certainly is a big round room".

That said, it's not as thought-provoking as it might have been. Partly this is to do with the story's unresolved nature, and the way it hurries its ending - there may have been trouble in the editing. More serious, however, is the lack of ambition in its thematic development: the widespread fear of otherness and the persecution of the few by the many are proper subjects, worthwhile subjects, but the film introduces them only to back off.

While watching X-men, I couldn't help thinking of Bladerunner, and the great conflicted image of Rutger Hauer grasping hold of Harrison Ford as he's about to plummet to his doom; the predicament of the Hauer character, a "replicant" Ford has been charged to hunt down, is invested with a nobility both morbid and tragic: "Do you know what it is to live in fear?" he asks his tormentor. The paranoia and pathos which Bladerunner mined so memorably could also be the keynote of X-Men. So far, I'm afraid, there's very little evidence of either.