Monday, May 26, 2014

Quick Thoughts: X-Men: Days of Future Past

One of my fondest memories from childhood was when I would laboriously recreate the Clock Tower time travel setpiece from Back to the Future. I would tape a stained shoestring from an old pair of baseball cleats across my open bedroom door. Then in an act of sublime crossover fan fiction, I would send the Ghostbuster’s car, Ecto-1, careening across the floor (if a DeLorean toy was available, alas, I didn’t have it). As Ecto-1 gracefully reached the shoestring wire, I would utter, “Come on, Doc.”  

Suffice it to say, the past—or more accurately the way the present perpetually constructs narratives of the past—has always fascinated me. My enthusiasm lies not in the clumsy notion of changing the past thus effectually altering the present, but projecting onto the past the knowledge you possess in the future. It is precisely that grafting concept, arguably the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy, that make me yearn for a cheaply made toy car and a free afternoon. So I was (or am…who knows?) an easy mark for the latest installment in the X-Men film franchise, X-Men: Days of Future Past. While all movies to some degree require a willed suspension of disbelief, time travel movies are a unique case. I certainly don't want to address the relative plausibility of time travel here (did you catch how I make it sound like I can do such a thing?). But because time travel is too often premise rather than subject matter, it is handled in a gloriously clumsy and hyper-simplified fashion. By my estimation, however, that is what makes time travel movies so entertaining. If anyone pauses to earnestly think about the workability of time travel itself, then they are prematurely lost.

Days of Future Past opens to a dystopian future where mutants, mutant sympathizers, and anyone predisposed to eventually produce mutant offspring (basically everyone) are hunted, captured and imprisoned in holocaust-style internment camps, or killed by Sentinels (sentient, indestructible machines that adapt to mutant abilities). The few remaining mutants in a desperate final gambit send Logan’s consciousness back to 1973 to prevent Mystique from murdering weapons developer Bolivar Trask. Trask develops the prototypes that function as precursors to the impervious future Sentinels, and Mystique’s assignation triggers mass anti-mutant support that inevitably leads to the film’s dystopian future.

However, what separates Days of Future Past from previous comic book movie blockbusters is the relative lack of bombastic action sequences. By my count there are four big action setpieces, and unlike too many comic book movies these actions sequences are comparatively short. That is to say, these actions sequences service the plot—the film’s overarching narrative and thematic conceit—rather than the narrative servicing the film’s action sequences. Therefore, Days of Future Past prioritizes performance and character development over mind-numbing action. Days of Future Past is invariable about the characters, their internal and external conflicts, and the allegorical significance of being constituted as an “other.” While many films within this genre purport such anagenda, very few actually make good on those promises. For example, the scene when 1973 Xavier (James McAvoy) communicates via telepathy (Logan functions as a proxy) with his future iteration (Patrick Stewart) is so measured, nuanced, and pathos driven I momentarily forgot I was watching a superhero film. Even with exemplar efforts like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, character development, dialogue, and performance are too often undervalued in the service of something else (e.g. plot, action, special or practical effects, etc.), but not with Days of Future Past. Yes, the film has action and special effects, but they are implemented as a means to an end rather than functioning as an end unto themselves.

However, the time travel plot contrivance (let us be frank, time travel is a contrivance) may be too sticky for some. But I am reminded of what happens in Hamlet. Early in the play Hamlet learns that his father’s death was not simply an untimely tragedy: his uncle, Claudius, murdered the former King. Once Hamlet obtains what he suspects is definitive proof of Claudius’s guilt, he waits to exact his revenge. In fact, Hamlet has an opportune moment in Act III to kill Claudius without fear of immediate retribution (Claudius is alone and meditating on the sins he has committed). However, Hamlet cannot do the deed. He argues:

But in our circumstance and course of thought,
Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?  

Hamlet argues that killing Claudius while he is asking forgiveness for his sins negates the revenge act, because Claudius will die with a pure, unencumbered soul thus ensuring his ascension to heaven. This is perhaps a rational excuse that yields mild philosophical insight, but I tend to think that it is simply a plot contrivance. An entertaining scene that Shakespeare wanted in his play despite the practical ramifications it has on the play’s plot. But no one should dismiss or undervalue the play because of this plot problem. Hamlet more than compensates for this with lyrical, poetic dialogue and dynamic character development. Days of Future Past is no different. Days of Future Past begs its audience to ignore the inconsistencies of the time travel plot by producing a rich character-driven film the likes of which the summer blockbuster has failed to fully realize in recent memory.

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