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

“I’ve come a long way,” says Wolverine (who is once again played by a hairy Hugh Jackman) in the latest installment of the X-Men franchise. This simple expression runs like a refrain throughout Days of Future Past, the seventh entry into the long-running series, and also one of its most minor.

This phrase is also reflective of the superhero genre, which the X-Men franchise helped initiate nearly 15 years ago with the series’ first entry.  Looking back now, the differences between that initial production and Days of Future Past are striking. The more recent film possesses a budget 2.25 times larger than 2000’s  X-Men, but more importantly is defined by a easy confidence compared to the first film’s messy, reticent nature.

That is not to say that Days of Future Past does not have a heart underneath its digitized sheen and elegant posturing. But despite a clear progression in storytelling style, in addition to an incredible augmentation in the visuals, this wacky time-travel tale doesn’t offer the same level of sensitive immersion evident in the first film.  It feels unsubstantial, with the grandiosity of its storytelling edifice attempting to hide a rather conventional tale of despair and redemption.

The slightness of Days of Future Past is perhaps to be expected considering its source material. Adapted from a 1981 storyline by X-Men maestros Chris Claremont and John Byrne, Days of Future Past presents an alternate timeline where the Sentinels (big, humanoid robots who just love a good mutant hunt) have not only eradicated a majority of homo superior (mutants), but have also decimated the rest of mankind.

While a fan favorite, not to mention a rousing adventure, the comic version of Days of Future Past is at best an engaging vignette; it’s a rollicking good time but not particularly weighty. The film version of the story – despite its bloated fatalism and epic canvas – feels similarly ephemeral. It may be an intriguing diversion; just don’t expect to think or feel anything different about the X-Men when the story is through.

Beginning in the not-so-distant future, which looks not-so-different from every other post-apocalyptic film ever made, we find our mutated heroes (which includes Halle Berry’s Storm, Patrick Stewart’s Professor Xavier, and of course Jackman’s Weapon X, among others) with their backs to the wall. Society has collapsed, and a small band of surviving X-Men have rallied in a last ditch effort to save the future by changing the past. In the original comic, this outlandish plot involved sending Kitty Pride back into the 1970s to prevent a political assassination which led to the rise of the Sentinels.

However, in the film this is changed to Jackman’s Wolverine, for reasons related to storytelling pragmatism (the character doesn’t really age) and economics (he has been the series’ figurehead from the first film). After his mind is sent into his younger body, Wolverine awakens in all the groovy glory of 1973. He has but one mission according to Professor X: find and unite the younger versions of the X-Men before Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) attacks Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask (the father of the Sentinel program) and sets the grim future in motion.

In crafting this story, director Bryan Singer proves to be an invaluable asset. Returning to the series for the first time since 2002’s X2: X-Men United, the director preternatural flair for stylish, character-based adventure is on full display. There are certain scenes that are unequivocally some of the franchise’s greatest – particularly a sequence where Wolverine, Professor X. and Evan Peters’ Quicksilver break Michael Fassbender’s Magneto out of the clink.

Still, Days of Future Past often feels more like a retread and a reset than a film that actually means something. This is a problem that has often plagued the series itself, where plots have felt like they were treading water, and story events – such as the requisite scene of Magneto lifting something enormous – have become obligatory.

However, the salient failing of Days of Future Past is actually its lack of focus regarding its characters and themes. This problem is personified by Jackman’s Wolverine, who is initially positioned as the film’s lead but becomes progressively marginalized as the story continues. Additionally, the film spends a great deal  of time establishing the younger version of Professor X. (played by James McAvoy), who has turned to drugs following the physical and emotional trauma he experienced  in X-Men: First Class.

There are a number of emotionally charged interactions between McAvoy’s Xavier and Fassbender’s Magneto in the film’s early stages, and to their credit both actors’ performances suggest that they take the material as seriously as hardcore Shakespeare. However, before long the film also seems to tire of them, dancing away to focus on the existential angst of Mystique. This is unfortunate because – despite the noble efforts of Lawrence – this character’s  emotional maladies can’t compare to the gravity of Magneto’s and Xavier’s dynamic.

Perhaps the scatter-shot feel of Days of Future Past can be simply chalked up to there not being enough time to go around. This is one the most unfortunate aspects of the production, as it the film was marketing strongly around the idea of the original cast and the prequel cast finally colliding and sharing the screen.

This proves to be the film’s undoing, with the level of wasted talent feeling almost hilarious in nature. It takes a special kind of film to saddle a post-Juno Ellen Paige with a mute character, or to put two-time Oscar nominee Ian Mckellen on his butt right after he enters the fray of the film’s climax. Yet, Days of Future Past is that type of film, a film so confident in the mechanics of its brand that these aspects feel unsurprising and perhaps even expected.

One doesn’t want to denigrate the film completely – as the costuming, the effects, and the crisp, colorful cinematography, speaks to the power of the its craftsmen and women. Yet, technical artistry is one thing, and it can’t fully obfuscate the fact that there is a faint, perfunctory air about Days of Future Past. The film may be a testament to how far the superhero genre has come. However, when one compares it to the original X-Men – a film that feels daring and damn-near experimental in comparison – it registers that much of the passion was left behind.

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