Editor’s note: Our “Double Exposure” reviews pit two or more critics against one another on the same film to hash out their differences in opinion. Agree with what we have to say or want to offer your own take? Leave it in the comments below.
Final Rating: 5 out of 10
Bottom Line: X-Men: Days of Future Past works as a pastiche of excellent set design, individual scene construction, special effects, and overly competent acting that’s undercut in every way by serious failures in narrative logic and an excess of melodrama–in short, it’s a film that is less than a sum of its parts.
Final Rating: 7 out of 10
Bottom Line: Director Bryan Singer wields a deft hand as “X-Men: Days of Future Past” skillfully balances its inexhaustible characters and multiple timelines.
Will: Before seeing “X-Men: Days of Future Past” I’ve never really enjoyed a single film in the series. They never seemed to find a way to introduce their heroes and villains without showing the heavy hand of the screenwriter and for all the tension and perils injected into the story, very little actually resonated with me. Despite having to juggle a team of protagonists, the films still seemed clumsy and cold. This was often due in part to very wooden performances that reflected an inability on behalf of the directors (there have been five over the course of this seven film series) to direct their casts. This is with the exception of Hugh Jackman who always seemed to be having the most fun escaping into the role of the mutant of many monikers, Wolverine. But this most recent addition to the series seems to have gotten it right, for the most part, and I can unequivocally state that this is the finest X-Men film to date. Seventh time’s the charm, that’s what I always say.
Steve: The problem with Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past isn’t in the set designs, special effects, characterizations, or fealty to the original comic books. The major problem is in the application of the time travel idea it uses to weave disparate canonical films together. The other X-Men films in the Fox Studios lineup, like those of the Spider Man canon, suffered from a kind of narrative entropy, wherein the writing seemed to replace genuine excitement for the story with an overreliance on too many characters, too many plot devices, and too many special effects at the expense of characterization, logic, and a celebration of the spirit of the comics upon which they were based.
Will: Based on one of the most well regarded and darkest X-Men comics, the film focuses on the near future and near past. The team is forced to send Wolverine back in time to thwart a dystopian future where mutants are hunted down by endlessly powerful robots known as Sentinels.
Steve: The latest installment of the “X-Men” franchise allows the special effects team carte blanche to fully explore both the fantastic landscape of the apocalypse as well as the unbridled powers of its heroes and villains. The sets are hypnotizing, the special effects are nearly seamless, and the fight scenes are choreographed in ways that the action was fairly easy to follow. We see and understand without any exposition, for instance, that the Sentinels in the future have the capacity to absorb the attack methods of each mutant, sharing that information with the other sentinels, and then using that power against their foes. Ice Man freezes one Sentinel, and another Sentinel, fighting Sunspot (a mutant who absorbs solar energy and releases it as fire) responds with the ability to freeze him into submission. Likewise, Sunspot’s fire power is absorbed and the Sentinel that was frozen suddenly melts the ice and rips the head off of Ice Man.
Will: Earlier, these films seemed obsessed with unnecessary prefaces. We were forced to see all these characters as children or adolescents discovering their powers and it was consistently lackluster. The immediate predecessor to this film, “X-Men: First Class” was perhaps the most flagrant perpetrator of this. But “Days of Future Past” allows the audience to learn about its ensemble organically; it never pauses to sit us on its knee while it awkwardly explains their various eccentricities, like a drunken uncle describing his platoon in Vietnam. Prior films suffered greatly from violations of the “show, don’t tell” rule but here the director seems to have accepted the fact that audiences will not be completely flabbergasted if no one explains why a mutant is doing mutant things after they paid to see a movie about mutants.
Steve: The seriousness with which the deaths of the iconic heroes, who are presented here with very little backstory (a departure from the standard plot of earlier comic book adaptations), is punctuated by a continuous dramatic score. The music becomes problematic when the same rising tones are used to underscore conversations between the 1973 Professor X and Magneto as those that accompany scenes of future X-Men being impaled or torn to pieces. The drama, turned on like a water cannon, seems to have satisfied most of the critics and fans alike (the film presently enjoys a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) in spite of the fact that the story makes very little sense at all, even for a comic book adaptation.
Will: So Wolverine’s consciousness is telepathically transported back to his own body in 1973. From here, he must gather the young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in order to stop the inciting incident behind future extermination of the X-Men. And though the narrative is often times tedious and contrived, in fact it often relies on these traits, it does lead to quite a bit of fun. The fight sequences are the best they have ever looked and the dueling climaxes of the timelines are massively satisfying and exceptionally well articulated. And while I never really enjoyed early incarnations of this comic, I would usually give some adulation for their ability to keep track of its characters. It’s an exceptionally difficult task to craft teams of both villains and protagonists, each one possessing a distinct personality, and not have an audience leave feeling underwhelmed by the lack of development. But this film vastly exceeds expectations in that regard. When we move from scene to scene, from past to present, we rarely lose sight of motivation and characterization. And this is only done through exceptional writing and editing.
Steve: Time travel is an intensely difficult narrative convention to apply successfully to any story, but applying the power of mutants and their ability to change history to our own, fully realized historical past becomes increasingly problematic, even when our disbelief has already been suspended by the presence of superheroes. The original story in the comic books was called “Days of Future Past” because the “past” was the present moment (1981) and the future was 2013. The year, 1981, then, becomes the past of a post-apocalypse. Readers of the comic book could then immerse themselves in the idea that, whatever happens today writes the future of tomorrow. In this 2014 film, however, the “days of future past” are not hypothetical, but our actual past as it relates to a hypothetical present and future.
This sounds like a nitpick, but a film has to stand on its own and a comic book movie, even one that revises history while applying fantasy and science fiction to the present, has to follow some basic rules of logic. For instance, the use of Hydra in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is done for similar reasons that X-Men uses Magneto’s relationship to the John F. Kennedy assassination. At first, we get the impression that his involvement was part of a larger cover-up, and we can fantasize that the official history we know didn’t record what actually happened. Hydra, similarly, was an occulted presence operating behind the scenes during the 20th century’s most important events to explain that the present we actually live in is, allegorically, the result of social engineering. We can suspend our disbelief here with impunity because it cleverly attaches a hidden explanation to actual historical circumstances. While this revisionist strategy works, for the most part, with mutant-kind being a hidden presence in the actual past of America, it simply crumbles as the story expands and our history is revised whole-sale. It changes the film from one with a semblance of verisimilitude to an all-out fantasy devoid of any risk to an actual world the viewer understands.
Will: There is an entirely underdeveloped plotline involving the Vietnam War that completely lacks taste or even apparent use. They likewise seem to use the Kennedy assassination as a sort of punchline, but it comes across as crass, unnecessary, and nonsensical. The film tries to find the cultural aesthetic of 1973, but it comes off as a cheap imitation. In one scene, many news outlets bare witness to a mutant and the film attempts to emulate the grainy film stock used by cameras at the time, a noble effort and had they copied it precisely it would have worked fantastically. But instead it looks as if it was obviously accomplished with filters and effects. Capturing a single, distinct era is difficult; with every frame the audience should know where and when a scene takes place, which is a challenge to do without being excessive. But “Days of Future Past” seems to have gone into this idea half-cocked, thinking that if they showed you enough bellbottoms, vintage t-shirts, and Richard Nixon, it would succeed in its establishment of time and place, but that simply isn’t the case.
Steve: Time travel and historical revision have a long history in SF and fantasy, and its rules are fairly clear. Butterfly effects, the ineffability of the future, the care that must be taken when creating the present from a modified “real” history, are all considerations that must deftly be woven into the plot for the story to have any semblance of meaning.
I get why they wrote it this way. There were actors who were part of the canon who are known for their roles, the canon became hokey and convoluted over time, but they successfully and surprisingly revisited the story with a past setting, and then they needed to tie every single thing that went wrong and right from every other films together to continue the franchise. The film is strongest in individual scenes and the special effects, but each of those factors in the context of the overall narrative becomes as messy as trying to tie everything in the world into a neat package. There’s simply too much going on in the film and it ultimately collapses under its own weight. I have to think that Marvel Studios is pleased with the monetary success of the film, but they must be shaking their heads at how the stories they created continue to be handled so poorly while nevertheless raking in millions. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” proves that the bar set by the masterpieces of comic book film franchises such as “The Dark Knight” and “The Avengers” (and their individuated character pieces), doesn’t need to be set so high to rake in revenue.
Will: Like so many comic book films before it, “Days of Future Past” is replete with product placement, logic gaps, and bad jokes. But for all its failings, I left the theater after watching an “X-Men” film and for the first time was fully satisfied. Many issues I had were soon forgotten in the midst of its fantastic final action sequences. And also for the first time, most of the actors involved were in fine form, with exceptional performances given by both McAvoy and Fassbender, and Jackman once again escaping into his role of that clawed Captain Canada with a penchant for calling people “Bub.” So after a long road, the X-Men seem to have finally found their footing, I only hope they dig in for the next seven.Continue Reading Issue #4
May 23, 2014
2 hr. 11 min.
Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Peter Dinklage, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page