The Old, the New, and the In-Between
As a story that is itself a shortcut – a fast-and-easy way to bridge the old X-Men pictures with the new prequels through the well-worn medium of time travel – Days of Future Past is the last movie that should be cutting corners. Thankfully, the allure of the time travel factor and various, niftily orchestrated action scenes keep the film afloat and even occasionally soaring, but the accumulation of plot holes and aesthetic miscalculations results in a movie that could have been great – at the very least, a great comic book movie – but is merely solid.
It all begins with the time travel. As the film informs us from the get-go, the war between humans and mutants has escalated to the point where the latter faces extinction and our planet has devolved into a wasteland. This dystopian earth is a bland, uninteresting place, so stripped of idiosyncratic features that it’s all but indistinguishable from the Klingon planet of Star Trek: Into Darkness and the realm of the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World, which themselves resemble 90 percent of the blockbuster dystopias that cycle through our nation’s silver screens. Strike one for shortcuts. Instead of fleshing out a fine-grained futurescape, the vie puts just enough detail to evoke “the future” in its most abstract form without any care for originality. Futurity here is simply a time marker, a way to indicate the point after things have gone apocalyptically awry (as things always do in the movies of our cynical day and age) so that time travel can occur, justified as a means to alter mutant humanity’s doomed course.
To clarify, it’s not time travel per se. The physical body doesn’t enter a wormhole and emerge half a century into the past. Rather, only the mind travels, annexing the body of the time traveler’s younger self. It’s all lovably kitschy until we get to the how-to’s of this entire process – somehow, it’s Kitty Pryde, the character who can walk through walls, that has the ability to tweak time’s flow. Huh? Perhaps I’m lacking context provided by the comics, but this plot development didn’t make sense to me, especially since the psychic Professor X sits five feet away from her the entire movie. Things get odder – because this time travel procedure puts enormous strain on the psyche, Wolverine volunteers to go back under the rationale that his mind can heal like his body can, a fact which he declares as if it were obvious (it isn’t). I suppose his logic holds if you view human consciousness as inseparable from the physical brain, but the movie most likely isn’t thinking that far (no pun intended) because, well, it’s about mental time travel isn’t it? Biology has no place in this story. Plus, the word “brain” is never used – the “mind” gets all the attention, which suggests a more conceptual interpretation of human consciousness.
You might think I’m nitpicking here, and maybe I am. But it is precisely these little things – a tiny nuisance here, a loose thread there – that hinder Days of Future Past from its full potential. Take another example. Shortly after traveling with Wolverine back into ’60s Manhattan, we find out that Magneto was allegedly behind the JFK assassination. It’s a delicious bit of revisionist history à la the opening credits sequence to Watchmen, rendered silly because it stands mostly alone. Whereas Snyder’s film adaptation of Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel immerses us in an alternate past down to the gaudy headlines of the local tabloids, it’s obvious that the historical details in Days of Future Past are little more than dutiful window dressing. Director Bryan Singer and crew probably figured that they couldn’t make a superhero movie set in the ’60s without addressing the period’s political milieu and so hastily incorporated the most headline-worthy bit of history (the Vietnam War also gets multiple mentions) into the film’s events. This would have been okay if the film had followed it up with a capacious awareness of the story’s time and place, and how the presence of mutants affects this environment, but alas the plot darts on by, preoccupied with the superhero genre’s more routine concerns. It thus becomes overly apparent that the JFK tidbit is merely historical filler, and the plot detail takes on a gimmicky air. While Days of Future Past was by no means required to engage its setting in any especially meaningful way (plus, the advantage of novelty – superheroes in the ’60s? Wow! – came and went with First Class), its failure to do so feels like a missed opportunity.
But wait. Here I am, raining criticisms on the film when I actually enjoyed it. Granted, it falls short of the darkly stylish First Class, but it holds its own against its comic-book-movie contemporaries. As we accompany Wolverine on his quest to rewrite the past, we are treated to flights of time travel-related intrigue and modestly scaled action scenes that thrill with their inventiveness. You’ve gotta love those double-take moments when history realigns itself in the wake of the characters’ attempts to change it. These goosebumps-inducing instances are a joy common to most time travel movies, and while Days of Future Past never ramps up the fascination to the level of Shane Carruth’s Primer, the film delightfully invokes our awe-inspired obsession with the uncontrollability of time, a puzzle we can never fully solve. Amid all this is the customary smattering of superpowered fight scenes, except these scuffles are somewhat less customary than usual. For one thing, they’re not incessant. To its credit, Days of Future Past demonstrates restraint in its use of sounds, lights, and explosions. For the most part, the movie’s action scenes feel driven by plot rather than the other way around, and they have a sense of strategy to them. One notable exception is a slo-mo sequence featuring a character who can move at supersonic speeds – it’s a smug bit of comic relief that screams “look how hip and funny I am!” but we forgive it because, well, it is pretty cool.
Ultimately, Days of Future Past is essential viewing for anyone who’s faithfully followed X-Men up until this point (I’m such an audience member). Despite not reaching its full potential, the movie still emerges one of the better installments of the series for its twisty plot and smartly composed action scenes, and if neither suits your fancy, then the characters are plenty reason to check the film out. They’ve been around this long, after all, and First Class did a bang-up job of casting chic, spunky actors to fill their predecessors’ shoes. Here, the actors are somewhat overshadowed by the film’s elaborate narrative, but they sustain their roles admirably. Keep your eye out for James McAvoy, who plays the young Charles Xavier with a surprising emotional nakedness, and of course, Hugh Jackman is always endearingly gruff as Wolverine. No, the debate around Days of Future Past won’t be about its quality as an X-Men film but its status as a link between the old X-Men order and the new, a preemptive measure against any inconsistencies that may arise between the earlier films and their subsequent prequels. I found the whole time-travel-as-quick-fix to be a copout, a cure-all solution that feels contrived and a little lazy. But I still liked the movie. There’s something to be said about a film – really, an entire series – that, even despite disappointing you in one way or another, still manages to keep you loyal.