With the vast number of movies dipping their dystopian toes into the grim waters of the post-apocalyptic future, you could be forgiven for wanting to bury all your calendars, switch off any computing device with more memory than a toaster and hightailing it to a remote cabin in the woods somewhere.
The future in short does not appear to be all that much of an appealing place and if countless films’ bleak narratives are to be believed, coming face to face with its bleakly oppressive countenance is all but inevitable.
But X-Men Days of Future Past, which marks Bryan Singer’s very welcome return to the mutant franchise fold, is that rare beast in the apocalypse-heavy fold that dares to argue that fate is an mutable commodity, one that can be twisted and played with until it takes on a more pleasing visage.
It’s the central philosophical idea underlying the sequel to the excellent X-Men First Class, with Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart as the older version; James McAvoy as the younger) wondering at length if you can avoid that which lies before you or whether your actions to change or elude it simply means it takes on a slightly different but no less deadly form?
Truth be told in 2023, when the film opens, neither Charles, nor any of the other mutants such as now compatriot Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen older; Michael Fassbender younger), Storm (Halle Barry), Iceman/Bobby (Shawn Ashmore) or Blink (Bingbing Fan) have time for anything other than concentrating on staying alive.
Hunted down across a Terminator-like landscape by endlessly changeable robots called Sentinels, who, thanks to innovative sampling of Raven/Mystique’s (Jennifer Lawrence) chameleon-like blood can take on the skills and talents of their foe de jour, mutants and their human allies alike are an endangered species, always on the run from a soulless enemy that always seems to find them eventually.
Developed by one Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage in fine form as a cold calculating very un-Bond-like villain), the Sentinels are unleashed by a virulently reactionary world leadership when Mystique kills Trask, determined to avenge his inhuman experimenting on mutants to develop the weapon which is now laying waste to not just mutants and their allies but to the better angels of humanity’s nature as well.
The situation appears hopeless until Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) lets slip to Charles that she’s been able to stay one step ahead of the Sentinels by projecting the consciousness of Bishop (Omar Sy) back a few days into his slightly younger self so he can warn the others of a then-impending Sentinels attack.
And so a plan is hatched to send the mind of damn near unbreakable Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 in the hopes of convincing much younger versions of Charles and Magneto/Eric to come together and somehow stop the unstoppable, a vengeful, singularly-focused Mystique.
Piece of apocalypse-avoiding cake right?
In the hands of Bryan Singer, and the masterful writing team of Simon Kinberg, Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn, it’s a damn sight less convoluted than you might have been expecting.
Somehow avoiding the usual pitfalls of time travel tales which end up so twisted into pretzel-shaped plots that your brain hurts just thinking about it, X-Men Days of Future Past is a thing of elegant storytelling beauty, keeping its focus simply on bringing the two combatants together with a minimum of fuss, and a maximum of wit, rich characterisation, and cleverly-inserted ’70s references.
By slowing down the almost-habitual superhero movie action pace somewhat, but not to the point where everything slackens off to a slo-mo blur, Singer’s largely triumphant return to the mutant world, manages to explore the complicated relationships between Charles, Eric/Magneto and Raven/Mystique, contrast and compare the differing worldviews inherent in the X-Men camp, while telling a rip-roaring satisfying tale into the bargain.
That is has over the top elements is hardly the point – flying stadium anyone? – since it is after all a superhero film; what sets X-Men Days of Future Past, which hands down has one of the best scenes in any movie ever as newly introduced Quicksilver (Evan Peters) flies around a kitchen in the blink of an eye tasting soup, pushing bullets off their trajectories and setting up the “baddies” for some Three Stooges-like physical violence, apart from the pack is that it brings intelligence and substance into the mix.
Not to the point of weighing down the movie, which still moves along at a fair, crowd-pleasing clip but enough that you fully appreciate that you are watching real people who just happen to be mutants grapple with extraordinary, fantastical situations that could, handled poorly, spell their certain doom.
It’s this pleasing mix of authentic humanity, rich relationships, and high stakes time-traveling action that lends X-Men Days of Future Past an aura of a clever but not portentous superhero movie that takes all the tropes of the genre and uses them in ways that give you the sense that someone has given actually some thought to this, beyond wondering what gee-whiz CGI effects to use.
And it sets everything up quite nicely for the next instalment, X-Men Apocalypse, which is teased at the end of the credits (if you still have no idea what it all means, read this), a sign that Singer intends to keep the X-Men franchise humming along on its new way wholly engrossing, elegantly told and visually eye-popping way.