20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language.
Running time: 131 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
The “X-Men” movies are, for the most part, a giant blur for me. I know I’ve seen them all — there’s got to be a good, solid half-dozen of them at this point, right? — and probably even enjoyed myself from time to time. Last year’s “The Wolverine,” which essentially functioned as a stand-alone film outside the “X-Men” universe, was both thrilling and emotionally weighty.
But not being a comic-book aficionado, these movie adaptations don’t really matter to me. They provide no nostalgic allure. They are, to borrow one of my kid’s favorite phrases, not my favorite. And truly, such massive superhero fatigue has set in by now between all the various Batman and Superman and Avengers movies that the prospect of spending two-plus hours with these mutants inspired a shrug and a bit of dread.
All of which is why “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is such a wonderful surprise. Actually, it’s more than that: It’s a kick in the ass. Director Bryan Singer returns to the series he launched with 2000’s “X-Men” and 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” with a sure hand on both the relationships between his characters and the enormous set pieces you’d expect from a summer blockbuster. The results are both dazzling and intimate, clever and — during one tour-de-force sequence — spectacularly funny.
Yes, there are too many X-Men. There are always too many X-Men. And things get especially crowded here because “Days of Future Past” (which I keep wanting to call “In Through the Out Door”) features the characters from the original “X-Men” trilogy as well as their younger selves from 2011’s “First Class.” Plus, there’s a bunch of other random mutants who get a moment to show off whatever cool thing it is they can do for a second or two during a massive battle. A superstar like Halle Berry, for example, is a mere blip in her nearly dialogue-free performance as Storm.
But the cast is so strong and so present, the actors bring great meaning to their interactions with each other. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender have such a lively and fraught brotherhood as former close friends Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto that it lends a touching poignancy to the later exchanges between the elder statesmen in those roles, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.
“Days of Future Past” is a time-travel movie, but it’s a time-travel movie that actually works. The logic and logistics snap into place and make sense, and at times they’re even mind-blowing. In great and challenging ways, the film is reminiscent of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception”: how it moves through layers of time and the communication that takes place between those layers, with Ellen Page serving as both conduit and guide. (There’s also the destruction of a football stadium during a major set piece, which calls to mind Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises.” Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg were feeling truly ambitious here, and it pays off.)
But it begins, as so many action extravaganzas do these days, in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future. Major world cities have become bleak war zones overrun by giant, flying robots called Sentinels, created to seek out and destroy all mutants. (One of the first images Singer shows us is of corpses being dumped off the back of a truck, in case you’re considering bringing young kids to the theatre). Professor X and Magneto team up to send Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine back in time — or at least send his consciousness back in time, through the telepathic powers of Page’s Kitty Pryde — to change history in 1973.
Wolverine was chosen because his self-healing ability makes him the only one who could withstand such a journey. Plus, he looks particularly groovy in the fashion of the time. The costume and production design are beautifully evocative of the period without veering into full-on parody. Jennifer Lawrence, as the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique, may even have brought a few of her sexy get-ups from the “American Hustle” set. (Lawrence, who’s such a juggernaut these days, doesn’t get to do much beyond slink about and kick butt in that unforgiving blue body paint, but she’s a formidable sight to behold nonetheless.)
Speaking of Mystique, stopping her from doing something drastic is the whole reason Wolverine goes back in time. But he’ll need help from the younger versions of Charles and Erik, who are estranged at this point and will require some coaxing, as their elder versions acknowledge ruefully. This includes breaking Erik out of a prison deep below the Pentagon (the reason he’s there is very amusing), which sets up the most imaginative, thrilling sequence of the entire film. I won’t spoil it for you — I’ll just say it involves the mutant Quicksilver (a scene-stealing Evan Peters) and the beautifully staged and edited manipulation of time. If nothing else, see “Days of Future Past” for this segment alone.
Peter Dinklage also stands out — as he always does with his resonant voice and inspired choices — as the scientist whose development of the Sentinel program has the potential to eradicate mutants once and for all. (We could have used more of Dinklage, actually. He has such a compelling screen presence.) What this means to us as viewers — metaphorically, historically – is crystal clear without being didactic or heavy-handed.
Like everything that preceded it in the “X-Men” series, “Days of Future Past” is about the marginalized and the disenfranchised and the sense of unity that binds and strengthens them. But, being an effects-laden summer blockbuster, it also has to unify the various people who like to eat popcorn in the dark. It morphs between both of these modes seamlessly.