It’s back to the future in the latest Marvel X-Men movie. Its tremendous visual effects are taken as a given. The performances by Jackman, McAvoy, Fassbender, Lawrence et al. strike a neat balance between action movie posturing and tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation.
The problem here is an absurdly convoluted screenplay that leaps back and forth in time in a manner that is both confusing and increasingly irritating.
As the action starts – in the future – the world is a dark and desolate place. The mutant superheroes are under threat of extinction from the Sentinels, lethal robotic creatures that have been designed by scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).
To avert catastrophe, Wolverine (Jackman) is dispatched back to the early 70s, a pre-Watergate but Vietnam-bruised America. His mission is to stop the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) from committing an assassination that will have devastating unforeseen consequences.
The filmmakers are less successful in recreating the 70s than David O Russell was in American Hustle. The sideburns, flares and open necked shirts here are just a little too overstated and the characterisation of Tricky Dicky President Nixon just a little too grotesque. The jokes about clunky old fashioned computers and the lack of TV channels feel forced.
Many of the set-pieces are brilliantly choreographed. Whether it is the slow motion sequence in which thousands of pieces of glass are shattered as Michael Fassbender’s Magneto is rescued or the scenes in which time seems to stand still as Quicksilver (Evan Peters) out paces his adversaries or even the final reel demolition derby at the White House, the visual inventiveness is often startling.
Magneto gets to lift up a football stadium. Jennifer Lawrence looks especially striking in her revealing blue Avatar-like body paint. Her shape shifting is seamlessly achieved.
Far less convincing are scenes in which Wolverine confronts younger versions of old friends. He knows their innermost thoughts and how their lives developed. Attempts at characterization – for example, probing into the attritional relationship between McAvoy’s Xavier/Professor X and Fassbender’s Erik/Magneto – never get very far. The action always intrudes.
In their approach to time, the filmmakers want to have it both ways. They quote quantum physicists who say that time is “immutable.” In their plot line, though, it seems strangely fluid. If the X-Men are able to head back down the years and to change history almost at will, then not very much seems at stake. If things don’t work out, they can always whisk themselves back across the aeons to sort them out in best Groundhog Day fashion.
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As summer blockbusters go, Days Of Future Past does its job. No cinemagoer will feel short-changed because the filmmakers have skimped on the special effects. The VFX companies, among them MPC, Digital Domain and Cinersite, have performed some astonishing feats here - and their contribution deserves to be acknowledged. Vast armies of technicians worked on the film. (The credits are worth staying for as there is an after the credits scene.)
For the non-devotee, though, the in-jokes and self-referential nature of the film verge on the bewildering. You can’t help but wish that the same level of resources that went into the film’s special effects had been devoted to the storytelling too.
Bryan Singer, 130 mins, starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence
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