Drab in look and overly talky, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” lacks the life force and lilt of its 2011 predecessor, “X-Men: First Class.”
And that one had January Jones in it.
But it also offered more moments that appealed to viewers who did not have the X-Men canon frontloaded in their brains. “Future Past,” by contrast, cannot be enjoyed fully by those unfamiliar with X-Men films, or even by people who have seen them, but not recently.
The time-traveling, whole-cast-of-the-franchise-including “Future Past” aims squarely at devoted fans – the only ones who can glean satisfaction from seeing characters on screen in 30-second bursts.
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Halle Berry, as the weather-churning Storm, barely appears. Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, though reliably twinkly, seem as if they breezed in from the street to play the older Erik/Magneto and Charles Xavier/Professor X.
Even Jennifer Lawrence, part of the “main” cast of younger actors from the origin-story “First Class,” shows her real face for about five minutes, looking bored for all five. Otherwise, her shape-shifting character, Mystique, assumes the physical guise of others or her own blue, special-effects-eyed, near-naked form. (Lawrence has a killer figure, but I prefer my Oscar-winning actresses more clothed.)
If you enter “Future Past” just having watched an “X-Men” marathon, you are golden. You can use your encyclopedic knowledge of this comics universe to understand the importance of a seconds-long appearance of a character, and cheer it.
Otherwise, “Future Past” just seems crowded with characters constantly talking philosophies or trying to persuade someone else to change his or her mind or take action – and not enough subsequent action.
Mystique shape-shifts and Erik/Magneto controls airborne metal objects, but the big set pieces one expects from a comics film are few. Either that, or they did not leave enough of an impression to seem like set pieces.
A rousing third act, and stirring performances by Michael Fassbender (younger Erik) and James McAvoy (younger Charles), who do get enough screen time, and by Hugh Jackman – always a cranky, grounding force amid the sci-fi as Logan/Wolverine – will compensate. But not fully.
Bryan Singer, director of the first two X-men films, returns to the franchise with “Future Past,” which starts in a near future in which giant government-sent enforcers called Sentinels are killing mutants. The mutant brain trust – Professor X, Magneto, Kitty (Ellen Page) – try to stop this by sending Logan back to 1973 to change the future. The age-less, injury-defying Logan goes back because he seems most able to weather the taxing nature of time travel.
Logan’s aim is to stop Mystique, assassin of mutant haters, from killing the Sentinels’ designer, Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), which she did in 1973. The government apprehended her, and used her extraordinary DNA to further empower the Sentinels.
Logan’s body stays at the X-Men compound as his consciousness travels back to his 1973 self. Kitty, an old hand at moving through objects, aids his transition, her hands sending waves of power to his head. Logan says goodbye to the older Charles (Stewart) whose younger self (McAvoy) he will need to lobby for help to stop Mystique, with whom Charles grew up.
Got it? It’s convoluted, and requires making character connections quickly. But the prospect of seeing the gruff-but-game Logan in ’70s clothes seems fun enough. A sense of fun intensifies when 1973 Logan wakes up gruff but also in the buff, with Jacked-man allowing a gratuitous shot of his nude haunches as well as his veiny arms.
But Singer quickly dashes hopes for “American Hustle” flash. First off, ’73 was not a good year for clothes or design. But Singer, who always has displayed a dreary visual sense, drags out the ugliest examples, with tons of browns and diagonal patterns.
Second, Washington, D.C., is America’s least sexy city now and especially then, and key scenes in “Future Past” happen there, because Trask wants to work with the government. The appearance of President Richard Nixon (a dead-on Mark Camacho) kills any semblance of friskiness.
The visuals also carry a slightly darkened cast that never allows sunlight fully through. “Future Past” always looks flat compared with director Matthew Vaughn’s warmer, 1960s-set “First Class.”
But McAvoy and Fassbender shine anyhow, getting around all that bad fashion by going the British-chic route associated with Formula One racing and Julie Christie. And they slice through all visual gloom with their razor-sharp charisma. The eyes of each glisten with emotion and/or determination. Contrast this with Lawrence’s eyes, which glisten with “I already am doing ‘The Hunger Games,’ do I have to keep doing this, too?”
When Logan visits Charles’ mutant school in ’73, there’s no one there but Charles and Hank/Beast (a winning Nicholas Hoult). Charles drinks liquor all day and takes a serum that restores function to his legs but robs him of mind-reading powers.
McAvoy, a soulful actor not seen enough on screen lately, shows that Charles is pained by his injury but also because Mystique chose Erik/Magneto and his violent mutant-protecting tactics over his more peaceable approach.
Charles wants nothing to do with the plan. Logan must convince him. Then they must convince Fassbinder’s Erik, who displays an assured bearing that says Erik always makes his own decisions, to help.
People constantly are pitching something in this film, including Trask, seeking the government’s help with the Sentinels.
Only occasionally does this talk inspire immediate action, as it does in a memorable sequence involving the super-fast Quicksilver (Evan Peters, looking happy as clam to be a comics film). Logan and Charles seek his help in freeing Erik from a concrete prison below the Pentagon. (The government thinks Erik killed JFK; he claims innocence). The kid immediately agrees, and the nifty sequence that follows, with its perfectly timed slowdowns and speedups, is the film’s action highlight.
“Future Past” ends on a qualitatively high note, with action scenes and emotional moments even casual fans will understand. But this comes after far too much clique-ishness for a movie about outsiders.