The regeneration game

 

 

In 1994, some bright spark in Paramount Pictures had the idea of bringing the original ‘Star Trek’ cast together with the cast of the TV spin-off ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’.

David Carson’s ‘Star Trek: Generations’ brought William Shatner’s Captain Kirk together with Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean Luc Picard in what represented the handing over the cinematic baton to the newer franchise.

Much to Paramount’s delight, it made a very handsome profit – scooping almost four times its $35 million budget at the box office.

Stewart’s other signature role has been, of course, as the wheelchair confined Charles Xavier/Professor X in the ‘X Men’ movies – appearing in five of 20th Century Fox films based on Marvel Comics’ series about a band of mutant superheroes.

However unlike ‘Star Trek’, the cinematic baton has already been passed on to a new generation of actors.

James McAvoy became Charles Xavier/Professor X in Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 prequel to the first three ‘X Men’ films, ‘X Men: First Class’.

This used the Cuban Missile Crisis as a backdrop to the tale of how Charles Xavier came into conflict with his fellow mutant, Magneto played by Ian McKellen in the original movies and Michael Fassbender in the prequel.

For the uninitiated, the first three ‘X Men’ movies in 2000, 2003 and 2006 saw two rival camps of mutants do battle with each other – the more benign “X Men” featuring Charles Xavier, Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine and Anna Paquin’s Rogue and Magneto’s angry “Brotherhood” which included Famke Jansen’s Phoenix (formerly Dr Jean Grey) and Rebecca Romijn’s Mystique.

The success of Bryan Singer’s first two ‘X Men’ films, with its shifting personalities and allegorical plots, had a profound effect on Hollywood superhero blockbusters.

Both were intelligent meditations on the tendency throughout history of the US for the ruling class to instinctively fear those living among them – whether they were women, immigrant groups, African slaves, socialists or gay – and oppress them.

The human fear of mutants in Singer’s movies could easily be interpreted as a commentary on the hysteria surrounding the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism and the Red Scare, racism or hysteria about homosexuals.

But what also marked out Singer’s movies was the way in which they toyed with audience emotions.

The director was careful to ensure audiences understood the pain and brutality which fed Magneto’s animosity towards humans.

From the off, ‘X Men’ showed his experiences as a child in a Nazi concentration camp where he was separated from his parents – unleashing his powers.

Not only did Matthew Vaughn in his prequel recreate this back story but he wisely built upon it with Kevin Bacon taking on the role of Magneto’s Nazi tormentor, Dr Klaus Schmidt/Sebastian Shaw who had taken on mutant powers.

Vaughn also fleshed out the back stories of Professor X, Mystique and Beast who was played by Kelsey Grammer in ‘X Men: The Last Stand’ and by Nicholas Hoult in ‘X Men: First Class’

After two Wolverine spin-off movies, both sets of ‘X Men’ are back with Bryan Singer once again behind the camera for ‘X Men: Days of Future Past’.

In Singer’s time shifting tale, the Mutants are facing extinction in 2023 as a group of sophisticated robots, known as the Sentinels, hunt them down them down and eliminate them.

At the beginning of the film, the Sentinels have tracked a group of mutants to Moscow.

Ellen Page’s Kitty Pryde, AKA Shadowcat, and Omar Sy’s Bishop manage to escape and make contact in China with Stewart’s Professor X, McKellen’s Magneto, Jackman’s Wolverine and Halle Berry’s Storm.

In order to avoid extinction, the mutants know one of them will have to travel back in time to 1973 and alter the course of history with the help of their younger selves to ensure the Sentinel robot programme is never approved by the US Government.

This means preventing Jennifer Lawrence’s shapeshifting Mystique from assassinating Peter Drinklage’s military scientist, Bolivar Task in 1973 – the inventor of the all powerful Sentinels.

Because if she is caught, Task’s scientific colleagues will capture Mystique and experiment on her – extracting her genes to make the Sentinel robots capable of not only identifying mutants living among them but adopting her shapeshifting powers which will make them indestructible.

Wolverine volunteers to go back to 1973 under a trance utilising Shadowcat’s powers because he is the only mutant capable of withstanding the physical damage that time travelling could inflict on him.

First, he must unite Fassbender’s Magneto, who has been imprisoned in the Pentagon after being suspected of killing President Kennedy, and McAvoy’s Charles Xavier who has become disillusioned ever since Mystique left him to join forces with Magneto.

This is no mean feat.

McAvoy’s Xavier has sacrificed his telepathic abilities for a serum which gives him back the use of his legs temporarily but he is wallowing in self-pity and bitterness towards Magneto.

He has lost confidence in his ability to get into the brains of fellow mutants and the desire to do so.

Wolverine must persuade him to rekindle that desire and make peace with Magento as the future survival of the mutant race depends on it.

What follows is without a doubt the most entertaining blockbuster since ‘Dark Knight Rises’ as Singer intercuts between the hunt for Mystique in 1973 and the borrowed time the mutants appear to be on 50 years later.

If you are being really honest, the plot is extremely daft but, let’s face it, isn’t that true of the best blockbusters? They are thrill rides but the best Hollywood thrill rides also hint at something more.

This is something Singer and the X Men creators have always understood and, as daft as the plot is, it is thrillingly and stylishly told by the director, working from a solid script by Simon Kinberg.

The director is aided and abetted by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel’s foreboding imagery, John Ottman’s pacy editing (he also composed the musical score) and some breathtaking special effects – particularly in the climactic showdown.

As for the cast, Jackman is as charismatic as ever as Wolverine, McAvoy impresses as the younger Charles Xavier and Fassbender is a commanding presence as Magneto, oscillating between good and evil.

Lawrence continues to mesmerise on the big screen in a way that belies her youth, more than holding her own among contemporaries and more experienced actors, while Nicholas Hoult also turns in a strong performance.

As the older versions of Magneto and Charles Xavier, McKellen and Stewart bring gravitas to their roles, while Peter Drinklage is as good as ever as the latest in the line of human bigots in the ‘X Men’ series.

Ellen Page as Shadowcat, Omar Sy as Bishop, Shawn Ashmore as Iceman and Evan Peters as Quicksilver also make their presence felt.

Special mention should also go to Mark Camacho’s amusing performance as President Nixon.

Like Vaughn’s ‘X Men: First Class’, Singer cleverly uses real life events as a backdrop to his tale. In this case, he evokes the ending of the Vietnam War to hang his story on.

As with the previous ‘X Men’ films, there are shifting loyalties throughout – so you never are quite sure how cohesive the Mutants can be.

But what is most gratifying about Singer’s blockbuster is that it jettisons the ‘Marvel Avengers Assemble’ approach of cocky superheroes, wiseass comments and an over reliance on wanton destruction.

The director instead delivers a more cerebral blockbuster as well as thrills and spills – with nuanced, flawed characters as opposed to the simplistic good and evil tales of one dimensional superheroes from the ‘Avengers’ films.

At a running time of 131 minutes, it feels less bloated than the Avengers franchise and less reliant on the crash, bang, wallop set pieces of ‘Iron Man’, ‘Thor’ and ‘Captain America’.

There is plenty of destruction and combat for those who like that sort of thing – a sequence where Magneto raises a Washington DC baseball stadium off the ground is particularly impressive.

But it’s nice to exercise your brain for a change during a blockbuster and for that alone Singer should be applauded.

(‘X Men: Days of Future Past’ opened in the Movie House cinemas in Northern Ireland and other UK and Irish cinemas on May 22, 2014).

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