With its time-twisting plot, sci-fi soapiness, powerful humanism, and to-die-for cast, this is the summer blockbuster done with elegance and heart.
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It is a nasty future we open on, in this I’ve-lost-count-how-many-th X-Men flick: dark postapocalyptic skies and ruined cities left in the wake of the ongoing genocide of mutants and humans by robot Sentinels. The sci-fi Judgment Day has come and the Terminators aren’t even bothering to imprison survivors in the Matrix (they’re not leaving survivors, it seems). And I have to wonder, Was Days of Future Past inspired and informed by the machine apocalypses of 80s and 90s flicks? Or were those flicks inspired and informed by old 70s X-Men comics? Is it both realities simultaneously?
Anyway: There will be time travel. It’s gonna get fixed.
I don’t know how Professor Charles Xavier is alive again, in his older Patrick Stewart (Ted, Ice Age: Continental Drift) guise. Because the last time he fit into the narrative at this point, he was dead, killed in 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. Maybe Xavier’s death got erased in some other time-travel shenanigans. There’s no attempt to explain it here, and it doesn’t really matter. He has a plan to stop the Sentinel war decades in the past, before it even begins.
The idea is to use the powers of mutant Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page: The East, Touchy Feely) — who can send people’s consciousnesses back in time by a few days, into their own past bodies — to send Charles’ mind back to 1973, when/where he will work to stop his old friend, the shapeshifter Raven (Jennifer Lawrence: American Hustle, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), from killing Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage [Game of Thrones, Knights of Badassdom], in a refreshingly size-blind role), who was developing the Sentinels; ironically, he could get no support from the U.S. government for his work, but his death at the hand of a mutant convinced them his project was essential. But Kitty says nuh-uh, a mind trip into that distant a past will kill the body it arrives in. Ah, but what about someone who can heal from any injury…? So the job gets turned over to Logan (Hugh Jackman: Prisoners, The Wolverine), as the only one who could survive the “journey.”
This is where the fun really starts. And I don’t mean just because Wolverine gets to experience his own little Life on Mars retro fest back in the land of lava lamps and waterbeds. Nope: there’s a delicious beauty in the prickly Logan having to suddenly become a people person and actively work to be ingratiating while also telling an outrageous story about traveling back in time to those whose help he needs. Better still: we get an exquisite reversal of the master-and-pupil dynamic Logan and Xavier once had — way back in the first film, 2000’s X-Men — when Logan was a huge personal mess and the grounded, patient Xavier tamed him (a little bit, anyway). Now, in 1973, younger Xavier (James McAvoy: Muppets Most Wanted, Trance) is the one-man disaster, his work to help mutants forgotten, his grief over losing Raven still stinging; even his mutant power to read minds has overwhelmed him to the point where he is taking a drug to suppress it (though that’s an unintentional side effect of how it lets him walk again, after having been paralyzed by a gunshot in X-Men: First Class).
Perhaps the most astonishing thing is that this movie is as elegant as it is. The plot is almost ridiculously convoluted, it crams in an absurd number of familiar characters — though some, like Halle Berry’s (The Call, Movie 43) Storm, barely get more than a line or two of dialogue, if that — and traipses all over the planet, from China to New York to Vietnam to Paris to Washington DC. But even when it’s looping back on itself — and back into previous films! — it works. (The script is by Simon Kinberg [This Means War, Sherlock Holmes], with story assists from Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn, who’d previously collaborated on First Class.) In retrospect, there’s surprisingly little “action,” at least on the scales we’re used to in comic-book flicks, though what there is doesn’t feel like stuff we’ve seen a hundred times before. Being able to set mutants with unusual powers against one another helps, but director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer, Valkyrie) — returning to the franchise he launched for the first time since 2003’s X-Men 2 — also knows that a little goes a long way, and that holding off showing us something spectacular is more effective that being pornographic about it.
It is not astonishing, given the track record of this franchise, that this latest tale of the X-Men is powerfully humanist. But this time out, it’s not only in its ongoing metaphor of “mutation” standing in for any sort of bigotry and irrational fear of people who are a little different. It’s also in its sideways scrutiny of capital-H Hope as a dialogue between the past and the future that we shape right now. The things we do now matter, and can have an impact far beyond this particular moment. Hindsight that could be acted on via time travel might be cool. But foresight works, too.