The X-Men was created as a metaphor for the bigotry and fear-based hatred we see in the world — aimed at a race of people for their differences. The ultimate culmination of this hate is mutually assured destruction. Or more subtly, that the means we resort to solve the “problem” becomes the cause of our own extinction. The parallels are evident and repeated throughout the X-Men comic books and film series. And this primary theme is why X-Men: Days of Future Past has cleared a half billion dollars worldwide in the past week. Its not because of the comic book fan-boys. Its not because of the cast. No one is going to see this because of James McAvoy. No one is seeing it because this is a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. Sure, they are going because it’s an X-Men movie filled with spectacular effects…but they are liking it because the message is about us…as a species. And deeper because it is about us individually.
Original series director Bryan Singer opens the film in a devastated, dystopian future. The government unleashed robot Sentinels to detect and destroy mutants. But the killing evolved into those who even has the potential to give birth to mutants. The genocide is incomprehensible — but not inconceivable given the death inflicted upon races by Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and unfortunately even some misguided American leaders in our early days. The visuals reflect the world without flinching, showing Holocaust-like imagery of dead bodies tumbling over one another as they slide down chutes. And there is nothing the mutants and all their powers can do. The scenes of evisceration would get an R-rating if it weren’t a superhero movie. But Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) has a plan. Send someone back to 1973 to prevent the onset of events that led to this. X-Man Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) has the power, but she’s never sent someone so far back. The journey would rip apart the person’s mind. “Unless that mind can heal as fast as its ripped apart” says Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as he volunteers for the expedition. The stakes are set quickly, and they are set high. If this doesn’t work, it will be the end of the mutant race…and the human race.
As we travel back into a time of lava lamps and mood rings, the story surprisingly becomes very small…for a superhero film. This is because while the movie thematically is about the abstraction of fear-driven hate, that grander theme wraps a much more intimate theme: Can someone steeped in hatred and pain change if given a chance? And isn’t that, by and large, where the fight against bigotry starts — with change in individuals. This is why Days of Future Past is the story of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy)…and to some degree Raven, aka Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Xavier is the hero. He is the one who must change the most. If that doesn’t happen, nothing else — including Mystique’s destiny will change. McAvoy’s Xavier is a broken man when future Wolverine finds him. His spine is severed from the incident in Cuba, shown in X-Men:First Class. He is addicted to a serum that helps him walk, but inhibits his mental powers. He has been betrayed by his best friends, Magneto and Mystique. He is barely a person, and in no place to physically or mentally save the world. Especially when he has to partner up with Magneto to do it.
This is where the cast of X-Men excels. Outside of Jackman’s Wolverine, none of the actors I would consider to be “action” hero actors. They are exceptional actors who happen to run around occasionally. And the script gives them moments to dig into the anger and hurt residing in the characters. The anguish they feel from the perception of the public. The betrayal between friends. The internal struggle to do the right thing rather than the easy thing. These are the moments that touch the audiences around the world — all wrapped in larger, effects-laden set-piece battles. Singer manages to keep the stakes and tensions high as we bounce back and forth between the future and the past. Two timelines are clicking away, separate, but intertwined. If Mystique can’t be stopped from killing Sentinel-creator Trask (Peter Dinklage) then the future remains the same. But if it doesn’t happen fast enough, the Sentinels will get to the last remaining troop of mutants, killing Wolverine in the future, and disconnecting his consciousness from the past, and preventing him from helping stop Mystique from killing Trask. Its a difficult juggling act to maintain.
Singer long-time collaborator Newton Thomas Sigel distinctly separates the two time periods between a dark and oily future and a bright, sunny, naturally-lit past. The past is punctuated with Zapruder-like media and home-movie coverage of some of the mutant activities, which gives an odd verisimilitude, which grounds the film. Typically, the filmmaker depends on a huge amount of suspension of disbelief when making a movie about superheros. This home-movie gag makes things just FEEL more grounded.
Per usual, effects-work is terrific, led by MPC and Digital Domain with support by Rising Sun, Cinesite, Mokko, Method, Rhythm and Hues (which confuses me) and Hydraulx. I’m not sure why I even mention visual effects anymore since at the level we are at now, nearly all visual effects in major motion pictures are exceptional. It would be more interesting to mention if they were a shitfest. But no, I will continue to mention them because the artists and companies should be recognized for their work — every time. Visual effects artists create the imagery that drive box-office revenue — far more than the stars, directors, or even the story (unfortunately). They should be recognized.
Overall, I enjoyed the film. It is surprisingly devoid of the typical time-travel paradoxes that face time-travel movies. And, as I said before, the stakes are kept very large (the future of the human race), but the story stays small (will Charles Xavier grow into the person he needs to be so that the future of the human race is preserved). And ultimately, by the end of the film, the filmmakers have managed to completely, and organically, reboot the whole series without falling into the trap of “let’s redo the story from scratch with new actors” — I’m looking at you, Sony. However, as much as I thought they did things right, I wish Fox would go to Disney and say “Let’s join forces and create a cohesive Marvel Universe.” Same with Sony and their dying Spider-man franchise. Fans would lose their shit.