By NATHAN LERNER
After helming the much ballyhooed “The Usual Suspects,” Bryan Singer was tapped to direct “X-Men” and “X-Men 2.” However, when Singer and producers reached a contractual impasse, he left to direct “Superman Returns.” He followed up with “Valkyrie” and “Jack the Giant Slayer.” These films underperformed at the box office and elicited lackluster critical reviews. Meanwhile, the quality of subsequent installments of the “X-Men” series declined precipitously. The new “X-Men: Days of Future Past” marks Singer’s overdue return and the results are impressive.
In a dark dystopian future, our mutant heroes are on the verge of being exterminated by an army of invincible Sentinel automatons. The mature versions of long-term frenemies, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan), must put aside their differences and conjure up a solution.
They decide to exploit the skill of Kitty Pride (Ellen Page). She can render a human intangible and send their consciousness back in time. Because of his powers of regeneration, it is decided that only Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) can withstand a trip all the way back to 1973. That is the year when the Sentinel program was first hatched.
Wolverine is tasked with undoing the past and thereby averting the grim future. It is a dubious premise conceptually, but places Jackman at the narrative epicenter of the film. Since the muscled-up actor is the most compelling presence in the extensive ensemble, this is a savvy plot device.
After temporal teletransport, a disoriented Wolverine emerges in the lava lamp era. He must convince the skeptical younger version of Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) that his future self has dispatched Wolverine back in time to seek the help of his past self.
Together, they must extricate the younger version of Magneto (Michael Fassbender) from a subterranean prison, buried hundreds of feet beneath the Pentagon. Magneto has been incarcerated for his purported role in the Kennedy assassination. As an accomplice, they recruit the services of Quicksilver (Peter Evans), a super-speedy, silver-haired adolescent. Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), Professor Xavier’s loyal acolyte, also assists.
These allies must intercept fellow mutant, Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). She plans to crash the Paris Peace Talks, held at the end of the Vietnam War. There, the renegade shape-shifter intends to assassinate Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, exuding gravitas). He is the malevolent genius, who designed the Sentinel program. Mystique is unable to anticipate the disastrous consequences of her lethal action. Only Wolverine, who has experienced the future, fully understands what will ensue.
The film’s stunning special effects enliven a succession of dynamic set pieces. In early scenes, set in the future, mutants battle valiantly, albeit unsuccessfully, against the Sentinels. Later, Magneto is sprung from captivity, courtesy of Quicksilver’s ability to move faster than the human eye can register. Throughout the film, Mystique segues from her own persona to assume the identities of others. Near the denouement, Magneto levitates an entire stadium above the White House. All of these vignettes are visually spectacular.
In addition to the eye-popping f/x and well-choreographed action, the film affords a textured consideration of the inner lives of its characters. Professor Xavier vacillates over whether or not to inject a special serum. It enables him to escape confinement in a wheelchair, but suppresses his special powers. There is the ongoing triangle, in which Professor Xavier and Magneto vie for Mystique’s loyalty. Wolverine’s unfettered individualism is invariably engaging.
This film is chock-full of stock Marvel Comic characters. It presupposes that the viewer has antecedent familiarity with the respective back stories and special powers of these figures. Unless you’re well-versed in the source material, you will struggle to keep them all straight. There are brief appearances by Storm (Halle Berry), Rouge (Anna Paquin), Iceman (Shawn Ashmore), Blink (Fan Bingbing), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto), and Bishop (Omar Sy).
This is further complicated by the narrative density of the plot and its inclusion of the time travel theme. For some, the film may not warrant the considerable effort entailed in unraveling its convoluted storyline.
Nevertheless, the latest “X-Men” is a fun experience with plenty of excitement to recommend it.
“X-Men: Days of Future Past”
*** PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi violence and action, some suggestive material, nudity and language) 131 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.