Review: X-Men – Days of Future Past (2014)

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Director: Bryan Singer
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg, with additional material from Matthew Vaughn & Jane Goldman
Based on Days of Future Past, a Marvel Comics storyline by Chris Claremont & John Byrne
Cast: Fuck that…
Runtime: 131 min // Certificate: 12a

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gsjtg7m1MMM]

That Days of Future Past (or, as James McAvoy’s Xavier might call it, “Days of FewCHA Past”) never once feels too complex or impenetrable is perhaps its greatest achievement, though considering Bryan Singer’s work on the first two films in the franchise this is no huge shock. As the man who first brought Marvel’s greatest ensemble to the big screen, Singer returns to help retcon the fuck out of the X-Men universe and yank it out of the tawdry bog into which both Brett Ratner and the studio’s misguided obsession with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) had driven it, while simultaneously trying – and, indeed, somehow succeeding – to create logical connections between the “reboot-lite”, First Class, and the original trilogy. No small task, I’m sure you’ll agree…

Set in both – as the title suggests – the future and the past, Days of Future Past is a labyrinthine blockbuster that is about as ambitious as they come. In a near future dystopia, the mutants are all but extinct. A Government initiative to wipe them out has evolved to such an extent that the advanced weaponry designed to locate and destroy them – robots known as sentinels – have taken control of the planet. Aided by Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) ability to alter her appearance and DNA at will, the sentinels are now all-but-impossible to destroy. The mutants’ only hope of survival rests on the shoulders of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) who is able to use her abilities to transport Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to the 1970s, where he must convince Xavier (McAvoy in the past, Patrick Stewart in the future) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender in the past, Ian McKellen in the future) to work together to prevent the Sentinel Program from ever being launched.

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If the plot sounds utterly ridiculous that’s because it is but don’t fret, for it’s also nowhere near as complicated as it might first appear. Once you get past the initial premise, Days of Future Past is actually rather simple; in fact, one of its flaws is that it’s almost too simple. With so much going on, you can’t shake the impression that it’s all too neat, too glossy and too restrained. Then again, better that than The Last Stand… still though, a more complex approach to the effects of altering history wouldn’t have gone amiss, though I guess a certain amount of simplicity was necessary, if only to maintain coherence. However, like the recent Guardians of the Galaxy, Days of Future Past feels like a film that is far too conscious of its audience, and thus it always plays things that little bit too safe.

As with Singer’s best X-Men film to date – X2Days of Future Past’s biggest achievement is that it manages to juggle a fuckton of characters without ever really feeling bloated. A few characters tend to get a bit of a raw deal in order to make room for the old guard, but for the most part everyone gets a fair look in and they all serve a purpose. The introduction of new character Quicksilver (Evan Peters) grants the film its “Nightcrawler in the White House” moment, while the occasional to-ing and fro-ing between the past and the future means that characters like Storm (Halle Berry) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) are given something to do. I would’ve preferred it had the film not gone down the usual “Wolverine saves the day” route that every film with the exception of First Class has ultimately descended into, but you can’t have everything and, in his defence, Jackman does give his best performance as the gruff, metal-clawed bastard to date.

It is the younger generation, however, who provide the most emotional gravity and help ground things in something resembling reality. McAvoy’s turn as an utterly disillusioned and potentially depressed Xavier is superb, and he is ably aided by a much-improved Nicholas Hoult, who returns as Beast. The two of them grant the audience an entry into the drama that none of the other characters really can, not least because they’re the only ones who seem to be remotely affected by anything that is happening. Jackman’s Wolverine is as humorous and brutal as ever, but the Xavier-Beast relationship is the rock upon which the film is built. Their anger at the situation in which they find themselves, combined with their innate desire to make the World a genuinely better place, provides the film with some much-needed drama to balance out the busy action sequences that dominate most of its runtime and allows the audience a proper opportunity to see things from the mutants’ perspective.

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By contrast however, and I know that this is considered a form of blasphemy these days, Michael Fassbender is… well, he’s really quite poor as Magneto. I’m not sure if it’s an issue of characterisation, writing or both, or if Fassbender just put in a rotten performance, but he is by far the weakest link in the film’s intricately designed chain. “Past” Magneto’s motivations don’t make a crock of sense, which is definitely a plot issue, but Fassbender plays him like a pantomime villain, devoid of all reason and, worse still, subtlety. This fascinating villain / anti-hero is reduced to little more than a one-dimensional menace who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing, and it’s quite infuriating. Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory either (I know, I know, by this point I’ve already got myself a one-way ticket straight to Hell…) but Fassbender’s take on Magneto just didn’t ring true at all for me.

Nonetheless, this isn’t such an insurmountable problem that it will detract from one’s ability to enjoy the film for what it is, which is a rollicking and highly entertaining action blockbuster. The screenplay is full of all the humour and charm that made both X2 and First Class so much fun, and Singer is at the top of his game, doing what he does best with characters that he quite obviously loves. The fight scenes are rich, ambitious and exquisitely choreographed, the characters are – for the most part – well-developed and interesting, and the performances – again, for the most part – are all pretty solid.

Days of Future Past isn’t the best X-Men film but, considering it’s the busiest and by far the most ambitious, it deserves a lot of praise for succeeding quite as valiantly as it does. I would’ve appreciated a bit more time with the newer characters (especially Quicksilver, who steals the film and then just disappears) and I could’ve done without Fassbender’s hackneyed portrayal of Magneto but other than that, Days of Future Past is a lot of fun and it manages to undo almost all of the damage inflicted upon the series by Mr Ratner, which can only be an excellent thing…

★★★½

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