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Wednesday, May 21, 2014 08:27 pm

Soul at the Center of Labyrinthine Days of Future Past

In the Marvel Comics Universe, the X-Men books were always the ones with a social conscience, focusing on issues of alienation and bigotry in whatever forms they may have taken during different phases of the series’ existence.  So it goes with the movies, as the Spider-Man films are more romp than circumstance, the Avengers universe movies deliver superhero spectacle and the X-Men flicks tackle the weighty topics, shouldering them with intelligence as well as wit.  The latest episode in the series, Days of Future Past finds original director Bryan Singer back at the helm with a story that, while reiterating many of the themes that have become hallmarks of the series, does so with a force and poignancy that’s been missing from previous episodes.  Though it suffers a bit from being a too clever for its own good, especially during its prolonged climax, there’s no question this is an exceptional entry, rivaling X-Men 2 in terms of quality and resonance.

 
After a needlessly confusing opening, Singer gets down to brass tacks and plunges us into a complex time-travel story that will tax the most literal minded of moviegoers and confound those who opt to go out for popcorn at the wrong time.  The time is the not-so-distant future where everything has been laid to waste.  The governments of the world have dedicated themselves to wiping not just mutants off the map, but any humans who have DNA that may produce one.  Adaptive war machines called Sentinels, invented by Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), are used to hunt them down and what makes them so effective is that they’ve been modeled after the shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). These killer robots are first set loose in 1973 and Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and his rival Magneto (Ian McKellen) have determined that if Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) can send one of their members back in time to prevent this from happening, their dismal present – our future – can be averted.  Reasoning that only the most durable among them could survive such a trip, Logan (Hugh Jackman) is charged with saving the day.

Of course, once our hero is sent back, things become even more tangled and complicated, which provides the film with its most entertaining and intriguing moments.  The younger version of Professor X (James McAvoy) is a disillusioned sot who Logan must rally if he’s to do any good, while Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is far more impulsive and dangerous, making it even more difficult to recruit him for the cause. 

Quicksilver (Evan Peters) shows what he's made of in "X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Courtesy 20th Century-Fox

 

While the film‘s intent is a serious one – to remind us once more to cherish individuality, to encourage us to look past our worse selves and strive to be better – Singer doesn’t forget that this is also a movie of big moments.  He delivers with one big set piece after another in which all of the heroes are allowed to stretch their abilities.  Scenes depicting Magneto lifting the shell of Washington D.C.’s old RFK stadium and transporting it above the city or the Sentinels assaulting the heroes stronghold in China demonstrate that Singer is effectively using every modern effects tool at his disposal to create a grand spectacle.  However the highlight of the movie – and perhaps what will be the greatest action sequence of the year – involves the new recruit Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a blindingly fast speedster, breaking Magneto out of his Pentagon prison cell.  Slowing all the action to a crawl, we’re able to see him move about at a heightened rate, altering the paths of bullets as well as changing the direction of their pursuers so that they end up harming themselves.  Not only is it one of the funniest moments of the movie year but one of the most inventive.

Singer has the ability to render these and other moments inventively and with humor, giving his entries in the series a sense of assuredness that others lack.  With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, the X-Men films are consistently the smartest of the superhero entertainments, delivering not just grand spectacle, but lofty ideas as well.  There’s meat to these comic book capers and in setting and maintaining a high standard, Singer should be commended for continuing to push himself as well as challenging his audience.

 
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