‘To sleep, perchance to dream’ — ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ remakes history with a not entirely entrancing extended catnap

June 28, 2014

By Matthew E. Milliken
June 28, 2014

In the year 2023, the new movie X-Men: Days of Future Past informs us, virtually everything is dimly lit, computer-animated or both. More to the point, plot-wise, giant shape-shifting robots are waging a deadly war against mutated humans and anyone sympathetic to them. The remnants of the X-Men, a group of superpowered mutants, fight a losing battle over and over: Time and again, the robotic Sentinels discover and breach their hideout, slaughtering the mutants one by one, until they reach the inner sanctum and find that…nothing has happened.

The extermination of the heroic X-Men is repeatedly undone because of the duo of napper extraordinaire Bishop (Omar Sy) and psychic Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page). She’s able to project Bishop’s consciousness into the mind of his younger body, some hours or days in the past, which allows him to warn his colleagues of the impending danger and go elsewhere ahead of the Sentinels’ arrival. History changes at the very moment Bishop wakens, meaning that each deadly assault is completely lost to the universe but for Bishop’s memory of it.

Now Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the leader of the X-Men, has conceived a daring plan to end the war before it begins, to use the movie’s haughty phrase. Pryde will send Logan, code-name Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), into his younger body in 1973. His mission: To round up allies who will prevent the mutant Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, frequently wearing a blue bodysuit and heavy makeup) from committing the murder that triggered the destructive Sentinel-mutant war.

This is the premise, simplified and condensed to the best of my ability, of the latest movie spawned by the many superhero universes of Marvel Comics. If I’ve omitted or muffed any important details, I plead ignorance. Director Bryan Singer and writers Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and  Matthew Vaughn present this complex scenario pretty effectively, in my layman’s estimation, but they’re drawing on literally decades of comic-book lore, as well as six (!) movies that have been released over the last 14 years.

Part of what I’ll cautiously call the genius of X-Men: Days of Future Past is that it joins film series’ two disparate timelines. The future scenes here are stocked with actors from what I’ll call contemporary X-Men films, while the main 1973 story is populated by the cast from X-Men: First Class, the popular 2011 prequel that featured James McAvoy as the young Xavier and Michael Fassbender as young Erik Lehnsherr, a.k.a. the supervillain Magneto, who is Xavier’s friend-cum-nemesis-cum-friend-again. (Jackman portrays the essentially immortal, fast-healing Wolverine throughout the action.)

Candidly, I’m not a fan of the X-Men, and I’ve seen none of the previous X-Men films. (Did I mention that there are six others?!) In fact, the only Marvel Comics franchise that I’ve ever particularly enjoyed is Spider-Man, mainly because I was exposed to the web-slinger’s late-1960s animated and late-1970s live-action TV incarnations at an impressionable age.

So while the copious early action in Days of Future Past is well-staged, I felt rather disconnected from the proceedings because it was hard to care about the characters, even as they were fighting and dying at the hands of merciless robotic persecutors. (Some of the computer animation is surprisingly sketchy, especially early on, which didn’t help matters.) Even seeing such accomplished thespians as Stewart, Page, Ian McKellen (as the future Lehnsherr) and Halle Berry (the levitating proto-goddess Storm) casting worried scowls in all directions wasn’t quite enough to invest me in the plot.

The 1973 story is furnished with plenty of visual cues from that aesthetically challenged period, including, natch, a lava lamp and a rabbit’s foot. But for a long stretch, I took more pleasure out of those signifiers than I did any of the interactions among Logan, a dissolute Xavier and the earnest young Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult), who becomes the furry blue Beast when sufficiently angered or excited.

Still, the movie has some amazing set pieces, the best of which involves the rapidly moving Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters), a.k.a. Quicksilver, foiling gun-firing security guards in a Pentagon kitchen. (Maximoff’s power is so useful that one wonders why Logan, Xavier and company don’t bring the teenager along for the rest of the movie.)

I also enjoyed the verbal confrontation aboard an airplane over the Atlantic Ocean, in which Lehnsherr castigates 1973 Xavier over differences in their philosophies about human-mutant relations. Lehnsherr believes Professor X has been an idle observer to the repression and murder of many “muties”; he expresses his fury with an outburst of his trademark magnetism that rattles the aircraft and sends it plummeting toward the ocean.

The Lehnsherr of 1973, who must choose how best to protect mutantkind, has by far the most interesting character arc of Days of Future Past. Seventies Xavier undergoes character growth, too, but he just switches fairly suddenly from whiny self-pitying to pompous lecturing. Poor 2023 Xavier and anytime Logan don’t even have that much to do; they’re more plot devices than characters.

(In the interests of being fair, I’ll make two allowances. The ever-so-charismatic Stewart has a nice scene in which his Professor X psychically counsels McAvoy qua Xavier. Also, Logan undergoes a moment of paralysis at a critical juncture when he spots one Maj. William Stryker, played by Josh Helman, and flashes back/forward to being tortured by the oily U.S. officer.)

Most of the other actors don’t even have that much to do; the 2023 mutants in particular are mostly restricted to posing heroically and dying gruesomely.

In the end, I can’t really recommend X-Men: Days of Future Past to anyone who wouldn’t already automatically want to see it. Yes, it’s packed with action and executed with flair, but all too often I either didn’t care that much about it or felt as if I’d seen it before. I mean that literally — between various trailers at movie screenings and inadvertent glimpses of clips on the Internet, a shockingly large proportion of this film seemed awfully familiar.

I’m not exactly sorry that I saw Days of Future Past, but I won’t be rushing to see any of its predecessors.

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