In my preview of 2014 movies a few months ago, I said that X-Men: Days of Future Past was probably my most-anticipated movie of 2014. And now, having finally seen the film, I can say that it’s a hell of a movie.
A word of warning: I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the new movie as much as I can, but there may be spoilers for earlier movies in the series. I don’t think that’s too big of a deal, since the first X-Men movie came out all the way back in 2000, but since people are super-sensitive about spoilers these days, consider yourself warned.
Days of Future Past is based on an X-Men comic series from the 80’s involving time travel and multiple timelines.
Right off the bat this presents problems for any attempted adaptation. Time-travel stories are incredibly difficult to pull off convincingly, and messing around with previously-established continuity in a popular film series is an equally risky proposition (just look at Spider-Man 3. I’m still pissed about how stupid that whole “a different guy really killed Uncle Ben” thing was).
Days of Future Past (I’m going to call it DOFP from here on out) is the seventh X-Men related movie since the original was released in 2000 (by comparison, since 1978 Superman has had only six movies). There’s a lot of previously-established continuity from the previous six films that DOFP has to deal with, and one of my biggest questions going into the new movie was how well director Bryan Singer, who directed the first two X-Men movies but hasn’t directed one since, would pull it off.
Well…he succeeded. Mostly.
But let’s step back for a second and take a look at the plot of the new movie. In a post-apocalyptic future, mutants and humans who carry mutant genes are hunted by Sentinels, vicious mutant-exterminating robots with the ability to adapt to fight mutants with different powers. A small group of mutants is able to evade the sentinels thanks to Kitty Pryde, who is able to project a person’s consciousness back in time to deliver warnings to past versions of themselves.
They meet up with Storm, Wolverine, Professor X and Magneto and decide to send Wolverine’s consciousness back in time to inhabit his body in 1973 to try to prevent the war with the Sentinels from ever happening in the first place. Wolverine is chosen because his healing factor allows him to be the only one whose mind would be able to withstand the stress of being sent back in time such a long way. Once back in 1973, he seeks out the young versions of Professor X and Magneto in order to enlist their help in preventing the apocalyptic future.
Whew. I may have left out a few details, but without giving too much away, that’s the plot setup in a nutshell. If any part of that confused you, then this movie might not be for you. DOFP is very much a comic-book movie in that it assumes a lot of familiarity with the stories that preceded it. Little time is spent setting up the plot, as the movie starts, the world is in chaos. No time is spent recapping the events of the previous movies, which ultimately works to the movie’s advantage.
Most of the movie takes place in 1973, with periodic interludes to the future. So for all of its futuristic trappings, one of the biggest movies of the year is also largely a period piece.
One of the most enjoyable things about 2011’s prequel X-Men: First Class was how it had fun adapting historical events to fit within its fictional universe. DOFP also has a lot of fun with this, and I’m sure there are references to historical events that a kid like me who was born in 1988 probably wouldn’t notice, but someone who grew up in the 70’s probably would.
I’m also okay with this because it lets Jennifer Lawrence wear 70’s outfits, which, as she so capably demonstrated in American Hustle, is something she does extremely well.
Lawrence plays shape-shifting mutant Mystique, aka Raven Darkholme, who is crucial to the plot. Her assassination of the lead designer of the Sentinels and subsequent capture by the US government are the events that lead to the apocalyptic future, and are subsequently the events which Wolverine must enlist Professor X and Magneto to help prevent from happening in 1973. It’s fitting that Lawrence plays a shape-shifter, since she’s something of a shape-shifter herself. I mean really, is there any role this woman can’t play?
The movie is tremendously well-cast all around, which is particularly impressive considering the sheer number of characters.
I count seventeen in the picture above, and there are even a couple who aren’t pictured there. Given the sheer number of characters and the movie’s epic scope, I think it’s really nothing short of a minor miracle that the movie works as well as it does. This could easily have been a train wreck, but for the most part it works like gangbusters.
A good part of this, I think, is due to the movie’s running time. The movie runs a brisk 131 minutes, which I think is just about perfect. It seems like a lot of blockbusters these days have bloated running times, frequently in excess of two and a half hours. And while I don’t have a problem with long movies per se, I admire the makers of DOFP for keeping the film at a reasonable length. There’s easily enough material in the story for a two and a half hour-plus movie, but Bryan Singer clearly realized the movie just didn’t need to be that long. It’s exactly as long as it needs to be to tell the story, with a minimum of excess. Everything in the movie feels like it belongs in the movie, which gives it a very streamlined sort of feel.
There are sacrifices, however. Some of the characters don’t get much to do except have cool fight scenes, and while I also don’t have a problem with cool fight scenes, it would have been nice to learn a little bit more about some of the characters, especially the ones in the future storyline who hadn’t appeared in any other X-Men films.
But at the same time, I don’t think that the lack of development of some of the supporting characters hurts the movie very much. The characters the movie spends the most time with are the characters who are most important to the story. Halle Berry’s Storm, for example, has maybe three or four lines of dialogue, but she’s not very important in the overall scheme of things, so it doesn’t really matter.
From a storytelling perspective, the whole movie is a study in what is important to the plot versus what isn’t. What I mean by that is that there are quite a few unanswered questions in this movie that frustrated me a little bit, but, as with the less-important characters, they don’t hurt the movie too much overall. Spoilers ahead.
For example: How is Professor X alive in the future when he was obliterated in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Magneto have his powers in the future when he lost them in X-Men: The Last Stand? How does Wolverine have his metal claws back in the future when he lost them at the end of The Wolverine? No explanations are given for these questions, which I’ll admit frustrated me a little. Even just a few lines of dialogue would have sufficed. But ultimately, I was able to forgive these minor annoyances once I realized that they didn’t really matter. It’s enough that these things are the way they are, how they came to be isn’t really important.
These quibbles certainly don’t keep DOFP from being a really great movie. The acting is solid across the board, the special effects and action setpieces are exciting and look fantastic (I saw the movie in 3D, which was really fun) and the movie ends on a very hopeful and positive note. It left me with a hopeful feeling, and there’s never a bad time for that. It balances exciting action with genuine emotion and heart, although it might be a little confusing for anyone not familiar with previous X-Men movies. Still, this is easily one of the best entries in the series, and it’s that rare kind of summer blockbuster which is extremely entertaining and will also stay with you after it’s over. There are some aspects of the ending in particular (that I won’t spoil) that I am still pondering nearly a week after seeing the movie. The movie does have flaws, but they don’t prevent it from being a smart, sleek, finely-crafted piece of summer entertainment.