Director Bryan Singer, reclaiming the film franchise he launched in 2000, means to establish from the first reel that Days of Future Past is not messing around. Via voiceover, Professor X (Stewart) explains the catastrophic present, in which killing machines called Sentinels have wiped out most of the world’s mutant population and many of their human defenders, too. The accompanying visuals are … unsettling. Holocaust associations both explicit and implicit have run throughout the X-Men films, and I’ll be first in line to argue that pop-culture films are as worthy a place as any to say something meaningful about a historic atrocity. But if you’re going to employ 3-D technology to more viscerally convey a dead body rolling down a mountain of corpses and toward an audience snacking on Milk Duds, you better be sure the movie you’re making can walk the talk.
So how does Days of Future Past fare? It has its moments, though nothing here approaches the emotional sock in the jaw of Jean Grey’s self-sacrifice, or that bullet to Charles Xavier’s spine, or, more to the point, the way mutants’ few options – live a closeted life or risk being hunted down for being different – resonated with gay viewers, an analogy the first X-Men movies made movingly. (And progressively: Anti-bullying messages and the push for gay marriage were barely part of the cultural conversation back then, let alone national rallying cries.) Which is all to say: Comic-book movies have the capability of being a lot more than just two air-conditioned hours of snazzy special effects.
Days of Future Past has superior special effects. There’s a doozy of a sequence set in the Pentagon that inspired applause at an advance screening, and rightly so: It compounds digital technology, character motivation, and wit for clever alchemy. But moments of magic are few and far between. With its past and future dual timelines Days of Future Past is cannily constructed to pull in actors from both the original trilogy and the origin-story reboot, 2011’s First Class, and top to bottom it’s a terrific cast, including new additions Peter Dinklage and Evan Peters. But the material doesn’t push anyone to greatness.
The script (by Simon Kinberg) positions the series’ constant, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as a potential savior of a future terrorized by Sentinels. He’s sent back to the past to dissuade the blue-skinned shapeshifter Mystique, née Raven (Lawrence), from an assassination that will set off a ruinous ripple effect. Send the stone skimming in another direction, the theory goes, and war may be averted. Awaking in the early Seventies, Wolverine swiftly rallies a gang: young Charles Xavier (McAvoy), driven to drink after Raven, his surrogate sister, abandoned him in First Class; the nerdy Beast (Hoult), who still nurses a crush on her; and Magneto (Fassbender), the revolutionist godhead to her disciple.
Mystique is the linchpin and plot engine, but the film is vaguely disinterested in her; she’s visible, but not exactly present, if you get my drift. And is it worth noting here that the early-Eighties “Days of Future Past” comic storyline had Kitty Pryde as its bridge between past and future, not Wolverine? I hesitate to cry disenfranchisement of the female players – Lawrence, ever feisty, more than holds her own with a script that could have served her better. So we’ll leave it at this: Days of Future Past capitalizes on the audience’s familiarity with the many players and their complex backstories, but never advances the ball down the field, tenders no new thought or wrinkle to the franchise. It’s the difference between a diverting entertainment, and a riveting one.