By Howard Hawks’ definition of a good movie (three good scenes, no bad scenes), X-Men: Days of Future Past(2014) is not quite a good movie. It has no bad scenes, which is admirable, but it has only two good scenes, though I would argue that they are a little bit better than good. The problem is (besides missing that third good scene) is that all the rest is neither good nor bad; it simply exists, it’s just there. That’s a lot of filler. Please don’t misread this as an argument for bad scenes, but it would be nice if the movie, from moment to moment, would move the needle. True, there’s more here to like than there is not to like, but ultimately, there’s a lot more here not to care about than anything else.
“The future—a dark, desolate world,” is the movie’s opening line, uttered by Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), in voiceover. This line became emblematic of the whole movie for me because it is entirely unnecessary. The movie opens on a sad march of people being herded into dystopian camps under threat of violence while treading along streets lined with human remains. I was able to deduce, without any help, that it was a dark, desolate world and, because the skyline was of New York and not Detroit, I could tell it was the future. Things have gotten bad for our X-Men heroes who are genetic mutants with incredible powers. They are persecuted because of their abilities, and the government has come up with the perfect way of keeping them down.
These are the Sentinels, giant unkillable robots that are able to mirror and deflect the mutant’s powers. These machines are further equipped with sensors that recognize mutants from non-mutants and can even tell which non-mutants have genes that will mutate in future generations. That’s a neat trick, but it’s also the end of humanity as the Sentinels are designed to effectively stop evolution. In the first scene of the movie we see a number of X-Men battle these bots and we see the chameleon-like Sentinels fight the mutants using their own powers against them (being clear, I was using expressive language there: the Sentinels don’t look like chameleons; they look like uninteresting robots). The mutants are quickly wiped out. Everyone dies. But then, no, they don’t. Because of a complicated time-travel device that will form the basis of the movie’s plot, the event never took place.
This is, in the business, called the dissolution of tension. It is also called, using another industry term, “we have to make a certain amount of these movies every so often in order to keep the rights so let’s find a complicated time-travel device so we can kill characters off without really killing them off.” That one needs a workable acronym. The mutant resistance, on its last legs, is led by Xavier, who can control minds, Storm (Halle Berry), who can control the weather, the fast-healing and retractable blade-bearing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, who has now played this character as many times as anybody has played James Bond) and Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), whose ability is to send people back in time a little while in order to warn them of upcoming Sentinel attacks.
The group is also joined by Magneto (Ian McKellen), their usual nemesis, with the power to move metal objects with his mind. These can be everything from bullets to, as we find out, vast arenas. The X-Men have entered into a strained trust with Magneto for the greater good. The development of the Sentinels is pinpointed to a moment in the early ’70s in which events are set in motion that lead the world to where it is now. The X-Men plan is to send Xavier back in time to convince his younger self to stop the chain of events. Wisely, the movie invents the science of Kitty Pryde’s ability to send people into the past in such a way that only Wolverine, the handsome, fan-favorite, can survive the trip.
This brings about the meeting of the franchise’s original cast, played by Stewart et al, and the people who embody the younger versions of the characters so when Wolverine is sent back he meets the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), as well as Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who is imbued with animal strength and agility, and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is able to take any form she wishes. They were last seen in the franchise’s prequel, X-Men: First Class (2012). Wolverine’s mission involves preventing Mystique from murdering Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) who will invent the Sentinels. Trask’s death, though, would not stop the rise of the machines and would only lead to Mystique’s capture, and it is her DNA that will eventually give the Sentinels their ability to adapt to the mutants’ power. The mission involves a breakout from the secret basement of the Pentagon, the Vietnam War, Nixon (Mark Camacho), infiltrating an international peace summit and an attack on the White House, and that’s just the action in the ‘70s. The activities in the future become more and more strained as well.
“Strained” isn’t the right word. It’s hard to be strained when we’ve been taught in the opening lesson that actions have no consequence. “Harried” would be a better descriptor. The goal of the movie is to have as much happen as possible and with as many X-Men as are available. The great thing about X-Men, as I’m sure lazy screenwriters everywhere would agree, is that their powers can be used as substitutes for character development, and we have a lot of characters here that are developed little beyond their ability to turn into steel or blast searing heat. The only new character I got a sufficient bead on was Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a teen with the ability to stop time for everyone but himself, giving him the impression to others of lightning speed.
There is a wonderfully inventive scene in which we get a hilarious look at what a mischievous teen would do with such a power. In a movie in which people can control the weather and slice through steel with claws they produce from their own hands, it’s unfortunate that we rarely get the impression these new and god-like powers are any fun. The movie takes the same view of superpowers that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) does, which is that if people were given extraordinary abilities, they would immediately use them for destruction and mayhem. My guess that it’s more likely that people would do things in the spirit of what Quicksilver does—essentially set up an elaborate version of the “quit hitting yourself” gag.
The movie has a little more fun early in Wolverine’s trip to the ’70s and retains some of the wry cleverness that X-Men: First Class had with the ’60s (We learn that Magneto, a militant protector of mutant rights, was wrongly accused of assassinating President Kennedy with his ability to bend the path of bullets and was, in fact, trying to protect the Commander-In-Chief because JFK was himself a mutant). But for the most part it sticks to the duty of telling the story. That it tells this story without major lapses or irrevocable mistakes is something. That it tells this story without any sort of self-editing or communicable joy is something else entirely. And at the end, like the characters, the needle remains right where it was when it started.