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Film review: X-Men Days of Future Past ****

By Preston Wilder

Disclaimer: the X-Men franchise hasn’t suddenly mutated – like the shape-shifting Raven, a.k.a. Mystique – into something deeper. Days of Future Past is the fifth X-Men movie (seventh if you count the two Wolverine spin-offs) and the first to get a four-star rating from us hard-to-please grouches at the Sunday Mail, but the rating isn’t because it departs from formula (it doesn’t), more because it ties everything together – the X-People’s struggle for acceptance in human society, the Xavier-Magneto rivalry, the retro trappings and breezier tone of stylish prequel X-Men: First Class – and does so in a smooth, coherent way. Fans will be thrilled. Neutrals (like me) should, at least, be entertained.

Raven/Mystique (played by ubiquitous Jennifer Lawrence) is the narrative pivot, killing a scientist named Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) in 1973 as revenge for his work against mutants. Trask was developing the Sentinel project, building machines designed to destroy X-People, but had just been refused funding at the time of his death. His murder changed all that, solidifying anti-mutant sentiment – and leading to a “dark desolate” future where, as the film opens, the resurgent Sentinels are hunting X-Men almost to extinction. Hence the plot, in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) must Time-travel back to 1973 and stop Raven – enlisting the young Xavier and Magneto while their older selves wait anxiously for him to succeed, with the Sentinels drawing ever closer.

The future strand, it must be said, is sparse, apart from a brief interlude where Wolfie gets assailed by grim flashbacks and the others try to revive him. Most of the film takes place in the 70s, with a brief glimpse of water-beds and lava lamps – though the period detail is also rather sparse, the film forsaking cheap laughs just as it forsakes the gratuitous big-budget mayhem of comic-book flicks like Man of Steel. There’s a climax, of course, with an entire sports stadium used as a lethal weapon – but Days of Future Past is a solid, conscientious kind of blockbuster, the kind where Xavier (Patrick Stewart) explains what must be done in careful detail (go to my house, he instructs Wolfie, find the younger me, then find young Magneto…). It doesn’t cheat. It’s plotted. It ‘makes sense’.

For once, the two-hour-plus running time doesn’t feel excessive; the plot is packed, and the various bits fit together. Much of this is a matter of taste, of course. I tend to enjoy director Bryan Singer’s work (both Valkyrie and Jack the Giant Slayer are underrated, in my opinion), precisely because he likes careful plotting and isn’t afraid to be cheesy. See, for instance, the bit where elderly Xavier appears to his younger self (James McAvoy) – who’s lost faith, let his powers fade and generally turned into an effete oaf in a dressing-gown – and gives him a pep talk (“We need you to hope again!”), the cosmic energy causing a temporary blackout. “The power’s back on,” observes a fellow mutant after the old man vanishes. “Yes … Yes, it is,” replies young Xavier meaningfully. Young viewers would howl with laughter if they saw that in a film from the 80s – but that slightly square charm is part of what makes Days of Future Past work.

What else makes it work? Well, you can always play the mutant = homosexual game (a subtext that probably wouldn’t get so much play if Singer himself weren’t gay). “I’ve seen too many friends die,” says an X-Person more than once, a line with echoes of the AIDS crisis – and the subtext is unavoidable when Magneto calls on mutants to emerge from the closet: “No more hiding! Come out!”. There are other incidental pleasures, like Canadian actor Mark Camacho’s amusing Nixon impression – or, of course, the various special powers sported by the X-Folk. One, briefly-glimpsed mutant has the power to cause nausea, making humans throw up (Man of Steel also had this power). Then there’s Blink, who creates portals out of thin air – she does a quick ‘shazam!’ with her hands – allowing her pals to run through and emerge somewhere else entirely; not to mention lightning-fast Quicksilver, who gets the film’s funniest scene to the strains of ‘Time in a Bottle’. It’s a nice change watching superheroes with imaginative touches, as opposed to the Marvel universe where special powers tend to boil down to ‘He’s really strong’ or ‘He flies through the air’.

“Is the future truly set?” asks Xavier, putting the question that underlies the whole plot – but the future looks slightly uncertain when it comes to this franchise. On the one hand, the studio has plans: a sixth film, X-Men: Apocalypse, is already slated for 2016 (there’s a brief teaser at the very end of the end credits). On the other, it’s hard to see where X-Men can go from here, now that the future has been forged, X-People’s place in society is secure and even Jean Grey (remember her?) has made a token appearance. Days of Future Past is a closure, a grand coming-together, pulling a tangle of threads into a good-looking, satisfying tapestry. That’s a four-star rating right there.

 

DIRECTED BY Bryan Singer

STARRING Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender

US 2014                          131 mins

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