The future is often grim when featured in sci-fi movies, but in the latest X-Men pic, X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s the past that’s particularly depressing. Well, okay, it’s the future, too. For the seventh X-Men movie (as long as you count two lackluster Wolverine spin-off movies that clearly intended to be counted), Bryan Singer has returned to the director’s chair after kicking off the franchise in 2000 and keeping it on course with the terrific 2003 sequel. This time around, the plan is to adapt Chris Claremont’s celebrated comic arc Days of Future Past for the screen as a means of tying together the disparate pieces of this ridiculously dysfunctional franchise. The basic framework of Claremont’s story has been carried over, so there’s a post-apocalyptic future from which the consciousness of an X-character is passed back in time in order to prevent an assassination that will plant the seeds of that post-apocalyptic future. It’s a neat idea, but in a laughably ironic twist, the efforts to clean up this franchise just result in another, uglier mess crammed into a single movie.
At least the future looks, um, expensive, with an evolved version of the mutant-hunting robots known as Sentinels flying around in giant coffins in search of whatever mutants haven’t been captured already. The surviving mutants include X-Men (and Women) from the previous flicks, such as Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), and of course, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). When Professor X (Patrick Stewart) shows up in a fancily hovering chair (the future has its perks!) and explains that the current hell they’re all living in stemmed from a single event in 1973, the decision is made to send someone back to the past to change the future. Wolverine is forced to be the volunteer in part due to his super healing factor, but mainly because his most significant role in the team is that of screen hog.
This whole chunk of exposition is handled efficiently and the opening action sequence that introduces us to the future world and its devastating dangers is a decent display of multiple superpowers all battling together in a tight, well manipulated environment. The effects are somewhat shoddy by today’s standards, though the heightened ambition initially offsets the unremarkable CGI. During the sequence, one mutant hero is literally on fire, another is covered in chromed metal, and then there’s Iceman, who appropriately fights fully iced. The powers are aplenty here and there’s a slightly exciting energy at work, but it’s a bit of a messy jumble all the same. Talk about foreshadowing.
Once the action sequence is complete and the central conceit established, it’s time for X-Men: Days of Future Past to commit to the Past portion of the timeline. And it doesn’t take long for Singer to pollute the picture with cheese and sap. When Wolverine’s future consciousness wakes up in the past, the first thing he sees is the floating globs of a lava lamp. Moments later, the soundtrack hits a few notes that feel like they were stolen from a Shaft movie. It’s one thing to play to the audience’s general awareness by ticking a few iconic boxes, but it’s another to reduce the unveiling of a whole decade to a collection of kitschy identifiers that would be more at home in an episode of “That 70s Show.” Well, that covers the cheese.
The sap comes soon after when Wolverine hunts down Professor X’s younger self, just Charles (James McAvoy) at this point, a now drug addled self-loather who’s fallen even deeper into despair since the events of “X-Men: First Class.” Wolverine seeks help in locating Charles’ childhood friend Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), who is a key player in the plot, probably because Lawrence’s fame and popularity have skyrocketed since she joined the franchise three years ago. There’s certainly nothing organic about the way she’s shoehorned into scenes. Lawrence is hugely talented, but she makes a weak impression along with nearly everyone else in the cast, guilty of disengaging from the material, even though it’s understandable given what Simon Kinberg’s clumsy script is providing.
McAvoy, a refreshing presence in the previous installment, is equally unimpressive and clearly let down by the writing in X-Men: Days of Future Past. At one point, the junkie version of Charles, who wants nothing to do with Wolverine’s mission, retreats to his bedroom so he can shoot up and feel sorry for himself. Knowing that the show has to go on, Singer mounts a shot with Charles in the background and a framed photo of Lawrence’s Mystique in the foreground. Melancholic music plays, Charles looks longingly, and we all know where this is headed. But Singer takes it one egregious step further by employing a silly flashback that was horrible the first time we saw it in “X-Men: First Class.” A moment later, Charles has changed his mind, convinced that he must help his childhood friend. The flashback is the true superhero here, able to force characters to do the right thing for themselves and the plot with a few groan-inducing seconds of recycled footage.
As the hunt for Mystique gets underway, the narrative becomes blandly repetitive, gathering up more heroes and villains as it goes, threatening the future-determining assassination and taking brief pit stops at the other end of the timeline. There are flashes of inspiration throughout, such as a sequence with new character Quicksilver (Evan Peters) putting his hyper speed to good use by causing a comical ruckus in super slow motion. It’s a goofy bit, but a sharply executed one, a nifty twist on slo-mo in a movie stuffed with otherwise bad uses of the effect. Other positives achieved by Singer and company include the showing of Super 8 footage captured by innocent bystanders getting their first look at mutant menaces like blue, scaly skinned Mystique. This amounts to a smart and interesting recreation of the decade’s images and technology.
None of these touches contribute enough to the whole to make a significant difference, though. Beyond a good idea here and there lies Singer’s hokey hold on the material and his suffocating sentimentality. A cast that should be absolutely astonishing is almost entirely underwhelming and the various action sequences tend to fall flat. It’s tough to feel anything anymore when Wolverine extends his claws and disposes of a few non-descript bad guys in a mostly off-camera brawl that’s sure to please the ratings board if no one else. Despite the dark suggestions of the post-apocalyptic existence the heroes are trying to prevent, X-Men: Days of Future Past is a superhero movie that’s light on dramatic punch. It has a clear mission, though. The overly silly picture basically exists to mop up the disastrous franchise spill that “X-Men 3 – The Last Stand” caused. Singer’s latest X-flick targets a convenient conclusion where happy reunions mend broken dreams with treacle in an attempt to set the series’ timeline straight, but when both the past and future are as lame as this, who cares about the present?