X-Men: Days of Future Past

Latest X-Men outing captures the groove of the '70s but not their gravity
KIDS IN THE HALL: Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels back in time and encounters younger versions of Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), as well as himself.

Merging the plot of Chris Marker's La Jetee with the usual team of mutants, X-Men: Days of Future Past continues the unresolvable debate between the anxious liberal Charles Xavier and the radical Magneto. Director Bryan Singer creates a temporally and physically sprawling blockbuster that's vivid in segments and then strangely remote in the intimate moments. It's wrong, somehow, to get two great Shakespeareans like Ian McKellan (the old Magneto) and Patrick Stewart (the frustratingly benign Xavier) to await end of the world together, and then give them nothing Shakespearean to say about it.  And it's strange Magneto doesn't see the humor of it all—it turned out the revolutionary was right all along about the evil of the humans.

In a dark future of gutted skyscrapers and blowing ash, most of humanity and nearly all of the mutants have been incinerated by Sentinels—world-purifying killbots. Magneto, Xavier and the last of the X-Men hole up in a Tibetan monastery. They decide to use the temporal phase-shifter Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page, no longer irritatingly whip smart, now attractively wise beyond her years) to send the mind of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973. They hope to stop a political assassination that spurred the Nixon administration to allow the development of the Sentinels by the murdered man, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage).

The shapeshifting Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, one of the film's two standouts) is set to kill Trask; possessed by his future self, Wolverine tries to persuade Xavier (James McAvoy)—now a '70s layabout in his decaying mansion—to soldier up. Wolverine and Xavier decide to spring Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from the federal prison, where he languishes for one of the most spectacular crimes of the 1960s. To do it, they need help from the very fast teenager Quicksilver (Evan Peters, delightful in the role; exuberant as he uses his bullet time wisely to clear a room of pesky police.)

San Jose-raised editor/composer John Ottman sends the material hurling forward, with a soundtrack that recalls John Barry, Ennio Morricone and a bit of Brian Eno. But the film stumbles over the relations of the six or so main characters. The rivalry between Xavier and Magneto is vague: it's like Singer would like them to be spurned lovers, bad friends, rivals in love and estranged relatives all at the same time. When past and present is contrasted—as they weren't in the first prequel—it's tough to see how McAvoy and Fassbender aged to become grand and theatrical.

X-Men: Days of Future Past also doesn't seem to have a grasp on the paranoia of the 1970s. The era seems to be all about the clothes and the soul music. Nixon is introduced with an old silent comedy joke—we see his staff lined up eagerly, and then we cut to his three dogs, also lined up. There's no sense of the panic or terror Nixon inspired; as played by Mark Camacho he's an archaic joke. There's similar ahistoricality in the Paris Peace Accords scenes—they didn't represent the end of the Vietnam War, but a different stage in it. The event is there to give Trask the Rumsfeldian task of arming the U.S. for the next war.

The previews can make a longtime mutant fan misty—they're edited for conflict and poignancy. But seen in 3D, the film is visually sooty, and the movie doesn't resonate—it doesn't have the end-of-the-trail sadness you can expect. Things that really hurt happen to characters we care about—Lawrence in all the ash-blonde, baby-faced premorality of her chosen form—is as serious a femme fatale as the movies have had lately, and yet she emotes fragility: you can look at Mystique and feel she doesn't know who she is. She's suddenly exposed, screaming, in her true form in front of a wave of photographers. Wolverine is bound in rebar and hurled into the sky—but there's no time to follow these characters, or to feel their panic because it's time to cut to the posse attacking the cornered X-Men in the future. This isn't a bad diversion, and it'll drive all the thoughts out of your head for two hours, but ultimately all you can feel is the pressure as it tries to break your heart.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

PG-13; 131 min.

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