I have seen the future, brother, and it is a real bummer. Ahhh, look, X-Men: Days of Future Past could be much worse than it is. The last two adventures of Marvel's Merry Mutants were execrable; this one is merely doughily pointless. X-Men: The Last Stand was like watching your big brother break your favorite toys. X-Men: First Class was more like watching somebody else's awful, sticky children have a slap fight in a sandbox, except with the Cuban Missile Crisis going on as well.
Days, by contrast, introduces a ridiculously fun new mutant and offers tiny hints of theme. The basic storyline is that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, I still don't get her in this role) killed a man back in 1973, a man who was developing anti-mutant drones. This assassination only fueled anti-mutant fervor, and Mystique's DNA was used to make the drones incredibly powerful and adaptable. Almost all the mutants were killed, except for a tiny remnant who are now trying to send Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back to the '70s to warn everybody and stop Mystique. In order to do this he'll need to persuade friends-turned-enemies Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to work together—not an easy task, since the breakup of their partnership included spinal cord injury and threats of genocide.
With these subjunctive-tense themes of time and regret, if-only, if-you-would-have, it makes sense that the best part of the new movie is its introduction of a mutant whose power effectively slows down time. “Peter,” known to comics fans as Pietro Maximoff or Quicksilver, is a super-fast mutant: He can stop several speeding bullets and still have time to grab a snack.
Evan Peters plays him with an array of giant grins, from sassy to gleeful to slightly awed. He's introduced in his bedroom, which is filled with stuff he's stolen: street signs, cool TVs, and a nuclear bunker's worth of Ding Dongs. (He burns a lot of calories, okay?) When he's asked to join the X-Men in breaking Magneto out of prison, he asks what's in it for him.
“You great klepto, you get to break into the Pentagon,” Xavier tells him. Those big delinquent eyes get wide, and Peters's grin says that's all the reward he needs.
Quicksilver's sheer criminal joy offers much-needed relief from the movie's sturm und drang. The scenes from the future are all ruins covered in clouds, very video-game Gothic, and while there's an in-movie explanation (Storm, a mutant who controls the weather, is trying to keep the drones from finding them), it looks like a thousand depressing dystopias you've seen on film before. The music is loud and insistent and very standard-issue superhero. The dialogue is padded with X-platitudes like, “Just because someone loses their way, doesn't mean they're lost forever.” Did you know that “the most human power” is hope?
Compared to that stuff, Quicksilver's bullet-time counterattack scored to “Time in a Bottle” feels like pure genius.
Wolverine is also relatively well-used here. His superpower is that he can heal almost any wound or injury, so he can sustain huge amounts of damage, regenerate lost limbs, pop bullets back out of his flesh, etc. In this movie he has one tactic and one strategy, and they are both: Why don't we just throw me at the problem? Surely I can suffer us a way out of this!
That's endearing, and the movie for once does not hammer on the pathos of it. Jackman sells Wolverine's humor and his sincerity. The (overwrought) dialogue picks up on this idea that Wolverine's power and approach to using it is the key to a better future: Xavier says that the ability to bear pain without breaking is “the greatest gift we have,” and in his own storyline he needs to accept pain and disability in order to get his superpowers back.
Far too much of this movie is repetitive arguments about what I think is supposed to be pacifism, and bland trailer-friendly dialogue. (“I have faith in you, Raven.”) But my biggest disappointment lay in what isn't here.
Science fiction offers the possibility of new aesthetic experiences: the look of a changed, barely-imaginable future, or an alien world. The recent Battlestar Galactica remake gave us a genuinely eldritch, unsettling aesthetic which merged human and machine.
X2: X-Men United is actually the superhero movie I've seen which best exploited the mutants' abilities to create bizarre new forms of beauty. X2 opens with a teleporting mutant attacking inside the White House: a thrill ride full of color, lilting smoke shapes, and unexpected interplay of sound and silence, which couldn't happen in any other kind of movie. Later, when Magneto breaks out of a plastic prison, the scene is perfectly-paced, full of triumph and dread, sublime silver gleams in the dark. There's a kiss between mutants in which she gains his power, and reveals it by breathing out a little puff of icy air; a dying woman cries metal tears. This is what I watch science fiction for.
Days of Future Past, although it features not one but two strange new worlds, feels aesthetically shopworn rather than startling.