X-Men: Days of Future Past (United States, 2014)May 22, 2014
X-Men: Days of Future Past doesn't feel like a superhero movie, at least not in a traditional sense. There are action scenes but many are suffused with a sense of futility. Battles turn into massacres with the "good guys" on the wrong side of the carnage. A whiff of the apocalypse hangs in the air, ready to descend and blot out everything. Not since The Dark Knight Rises has a movie featuring familiar heroic figures taken such a grim and unconventional path. To reboot the X-Men franchise, director Bryan Singer, who first gave these characters screen life fourteen years ago, has crafted a continuity-lover's nightmare.
X-Men: Days of Future Past is more science fiction than comic book action. The Terminator influences are immediately obvious, as are those of the Doctor Who adventure, "Genesis of the Daleks." Trapped in a war-ravaged 2023, the X-Men face annihilation by The Sentinels, creatures of war created for one purpose: terminating mutants and all those who aid or abet them. Earth has turned into a giant killing field. The X-Men, unable to defeat The Sentinels, place all their hopes in one last-ditch effort: send one of their own back in time to avert the creation of The Sentinels. The choice is Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and his greatest challenge proves not to be stopping twisted Sentinel creator Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) but getting the 1973 versions of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to work together to save the future. In the cross-hairs is blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who must be prevented from killing Trask lest the future be set. For Xavier, that means convincing her not to commit the deed. For Magneto, it means eliminating her so she can't do it. For Logan, caught in the middle, the situation becomes increasingly desperate.
It would be fair to characterize the storyline of X-Men: Days of Future Past as "dense." It's not one of those plots that caters to intellectual laziness. Time travel stories, even those that play by an established set of rules, are always challenging. There are battles and action scenes aplenty but, with exception of a playful sequence featuring a lightning-fast mutant called Quicksilver (Evan Peters), most are steeped in a sense of desperation. There are no grand moments of heroic triumph and victory comes from something more existential than beating the crap out of a bad guy.
There is no single readily identified villain. In 2023, The Sentinels wear the mantle but they are implacable terminators - machines without soul or conscience. In 1973, depending on the moment, one could see Trask, Magneto, Mystique, or even Xavier as the antagonist but all have legitimate reasons for their behavior. Trask seeks peace; Magneto fights for the salvation of his species; Mystique want vengeance against someone who slaughtered her friends; and Xavier desires freedom from pain.
There's a message to be found in X-Men: Days of Future Past as well. Benjamin Franklin once said, "Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one." The creation and acceptance of The Sentinels represents a desire to cede liberty for safety and it has tragic consequences. This isn't a unique message, especially in science fiction films (The Robocop remake most recently addressed this), but Singer does a good job conveying it without becoming preachy.
If there's a weakness to be found in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it's in the special effects. There are times when the computer generated imagery becomes sloppy and artificial. This is evident in the scenes featuring RFK stadium and The White House. Those look like video game cut scenes rather than photorealistic images of real locations. In a lower budget, lower profile motion picture, this sort of thing might not be noticeable but it stands out in a film of this caliber.
Singer, returning to the X-Men after a ten year absence (his last venture with them was 2003's X2), has been given the task of completing a reboot that was begun in X-Men: First Class. To do this, he has taken a page from J.J. Abrams' Star Trek handbook - use time travel and the concept of multiverses and have a familiar presence provide the linkage. In Star Trek, that was Leonard Nimoy's Spock Prime. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, it's Wolverine. As a bonus, we also get Patrick Stewart's Professor X and Ian McKellan's Magneto as well as a bunch of other familiar faces. For those who felt The Last Stand was a poor exit for many of these characters, X-Men: Days of Future Past should at least salve the wound in part.
It's difficult to guess how this movie will fare with audiences. In many ways, it's almost too smart for a summer blockbuster but intelligence isn't always a detriment, as Christopher Nolan's Batman series proved. X-Men: Days of Future Past is the third superhero film in less than two months and, even though this one is demonstrably different than its predecessors, superhero fatigue could diminish its box office potential. That would be unfortunate because this is the most unique and audacious genre entry in a couple of years and, on those terms alone, it deserves to be seen.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (United States, 2014)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Ellen Page, Nicholas Hoult, Halle Berry, Jennifer Lawrence, Ian McKellan, Patrick Stewart, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Peter Dinklage
Screenplay: Simon Kinberg, based on a story by Jane Goldman & Simon Kinberg & Matthew Vaughn
Cinematography: Newton Thomas Sigel
Music: John Ottman
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
U.S. Release Date: 2014-05-23
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Content)
Genre: SCIENCE FICTION/ACTION
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1