You certainly can’t fault the scale of director Bryan Singer’s ambition in X-Men: Days Of Future Past. Here, he attempts no less a feat than to tie together two disparate strands of the X-Men film universe – that of the timeline he began with the first film in 2000, and the 60s-set X-Men: First Class, directed by Matthew Vaughn in 2011, into one decades-spanning opus.
Based on the much loved two-book run of the same name from 1981, Days Of Future Past takes us forward to the year 2023 – a bleak, eternally benighted future where mutants and humans alike have been subdued by advanced robots called the Sentinels. Under the watchful eye of an elder Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men make a last ditch effort to go back in time in order to save the present. This requires Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) to use her unique powers to launch Wolverine’s consciousness back into his younger self (both versions played by Hugh Jackman, but you probably already knew that) and warn the X-Men circa 1973 of the danger that awaits them 50 years on.
There, Wolverine must orient himself in an era of disco music, wide lapels and lava lamps, and convince the younger X-Men – among them an understandably morose Professor X (this one played again by James McAvoy), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) – that they’re in the midst of a pivotal and deadly year for mutantkind.
This is but one tiny fraction of a continent- and epoch-spanning plot which takes in Richard Nixon, the machinations of anti-mutant scientist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, as effortlessly brilliant as you’d expect), an incarcerated Magneto (Michael Fassbender), an embittered Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) and the politically strained climate of the post-Vietnam war. We haven’t even mentioned all of the other returning faces, such as Storm (Halle Berry) and Ian McKellen’s incarnation of Magneto, plus still others we shan’t spoil here (we’ve been far more spoiler-free than it may appear!)
It’s a lot to take in, for sure, and the sheer number of characters means that, while Wolverine provides a dependable hub for the story, there’s little room for the rest of the crowded cast. James McAvoy’s Professor X gets the narrative’s sole fully-formed character arc, while numerous other returning faces are relegated to mere cameos.
Of the new faces, Evan Peters stands out as Quicksilver – a chipper, devious young mutant who can slow down time, with spectacular results. It’s an entertaining performance, yet Peters’ character abruptly disappears approximately 10 minutes after his introduction. Quicksilver is a victim, it seems, of a dense and mechanical plot which races from location to location and forgets about certain characters once they’ve outlived their usefulness.
What’s unusual about Days Of Future Past is that, despite all the things going on, Singer doesn’t overload the film with action. There are major set-pieces at the beginning and end as you might expect, plus a few smaller action sequences peppered in between. Yet the greater percentage of the 130-minute duration is given over to the interactions between the characters, with all their accompanying self-doubt and grudges.
In dramatic terms, Days Of Future Past is effective; Michael Fassbender doesn’t get as much room to stretch out as he did in First Class, but he’s as suave and charismatic as he ever was, and there’s still the same palpable chemistry between he and McAvoy. The themes which make the X-Men universe so compelling are also well served: Days Of Future Past dares to touch on addiction, prejudice, self-acceptance and genocide, all within the framework of a $220m summer movie. Frustratingly, however, the strands of the story take too long to satisfyingly intertwine.
Days Of Future Past has certain things in common with James Cameron’s The Terminator and T2, in that it involves characters heading into the past in order to change the course of history. All three films start out with clear objectives for their characters, but where The Terminator and T2 stick to that objective from beginning to end – rooted as they are in what we’ll clumsily tag the ‘chase thriller’ genre – Days Of Future Past heads off on tangents: crises are averted, only for others to arise straight afterwards. Heroes meet villains in a deadly stand-off, only for the plot to conspire to break them up so they can unite again later.
Fortunately, Days Of Future Past finds its focus in the final third. Actions in one era are intercut with those in the next, and finally, there’s a sense that events are moving in decisive, unpredictable directions. Here, the often astonishing special effects and sets created by Singer and his team finally mesh with the story, and Days Of Future Past builds to a satisfying crescendo.
This new X-Men, therefore, is an entertaining and visually dazzling entry in the franchise, full of amusing period detail and scope for future stories. The first hour or so fails to replicate the assured pace and storytelling of Singer’s earlier X-Men movies, but it rallies for an explosive and crowd-pleasing final act.
X-Men: Days Of Future Past is out on the 22nd May.
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