Thursday, June 09, 2011
Sequels, prequels and remakes seem to be the rule of movie-making these days and it's often hard to dredge up any enthusiasm for films you feel like you've seen before. But X-Men: First Class interested me thanks to a new cast and some very good trailers.
Like the last "Star Trek" movie, "X-Men: First Class" goes back in time to the younger days of well-known characters to establish the back story and flesh out the foundations of the relationships we're already acquainted with. The movie opens with the same scene from the first "X-Men" movie in which we see Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto (Michael Fassbender) being held back as he is separated from his parents as they are being escorted into a concentration camp and the subsequent awakening of his powers. This time, however, we are allowed to see what happens to Erik after his mutant abilities are revealed and his manipulation by a man known as Dr. Schmidt-- who would study and exploit Erik's power.
The story then cuts to a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and his first meeting with Raven Darkholm/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). Unlike their adult characters Raven and Charles are very close as youngsters and grow up much like brother and sister thanks to their shared experiences as mutants. But Raven and Charles grow apart as they get older because of Raven's desire to fit in, and her inability to do so because of her striking natural appearance.
Charles and Erik's paths cross after Charles is approached by the C.I.A. to help them investigate a man known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon)-- who just happens to be the same Dr. Schmidt that terrorized a young Magneto. Erik's anger has fueled his desire to hunt down Shaw, but it has also impeded his ability to fully develop his powers. Charles sees Erik's struggle and helps him to control his anger and the two become friends as they begin to recruit young mutants into their group as they begin to find out what Shaw's larger plan is for his own group of mutant accomplices.
The plot of "X-Men: First Class" is surprisingly similar to the other films in the series. The theme never really wavers from the division among mutants into groups who trust non-mutant humans and those who are certain humankind will only mistrust and fear them. What makes "X-Men: First Class" interesting is the evolution of Charles and Erik's relationship and the early glimmers of what will become the Charles Xavier school.
"X-Men: First Class" is a hard movie for me to classify. Do I recommend it? Well, yes and no. This is a movie that when it works, it's great; when it doesn't work, it lands with a thud.
The movie shines when it focuses on Charles Xavier. James McAvoy not only has a wonderful charisma, but he is also very believable as a young Charles. Unlike the portrayal of Captain Kirk in the prequel version of "Star Trek" you never feel like McAvoy is doing an impersonation of Patrick Stewart. I liked how the young Charles was presented as a smart but slightly egotistical flirt whose relationship with Raven is much defined by his failure to understand her. There are times when the script gets hokey in trying to portray Charles' 'wisdom,' like when he spouts some nonsense about Erik finding his focus somewhere "between serenity and rage"-- which sounds like a bunch of meditative gobbledygook to me (don't all emotions fit somewhere between the two?). Though I'm sure many will think it's the height of enlightenment.
Fassbender is good as Erik as well-- though I can't say the character developed much beyond his need for revenge against Shaw. The story arc between Shaw and Erik is intriguing because much of Erik's beliefs regarding humans mirrors that of Shaw. It's never spelled out explicitly, but it is assumed that Shaw had many years to imprint this philosophy onto a young Magneto who didn't reject those early lessons despite his hatred of Shaw.
Kevin Bacon is great, as always, and he definitely seemed to enjoy playing the villain-- the early scenes in the concentration camp are especially gleeful. There are endearing moments with the rest of the cast as well, though the overall effect was sometimes uneven. Lawrence, as Mystique, alternates between sweetly wistful and sullen brooding, but she doesn't have the edge I've come to associate with the character. Zoe Kravitz, as Angel, was also generally flat throughout, though the award for most wooden acting has to go to January Jones as Emma Frost. I couldn't figure out if she was trying to convey a coldness in keeping with her character's ability to turn to diamond form, or if she was just boring. For an evil henchman (or henchwoman) Emma should have seemed to be something more than indifferent, but she never got there.
But the biggest failure has to be the lack of consistency in the script. The good parts are very good. The movie isn't afraid to be smart and it doesn't shy away from presenting moments of genuine horror. One scene in particular evokes the terrible moments caught on camera during the 9/11 attacks and the awful reality of what a falling body sounds like when it hits the ground. I don't know if it was the intent of the filmmaker to remind the audience of that day, but it was what came to my mind. But I won't say I find that objectionable; it fit with Shaw's character to terrorize his enemies that way. There were nice moments of humor and the Wolverine cameo made me laugh out loud. And I would say that I was thinking this movie was a sure-fire purchase until it got to the climatic sequence.
Where the script falls apart is the moment that it assumes humanity will destroy all mutants at the first opportunity-- no hesitation. Despite the defense Charles puts up for non-mutants, the story itself doesn't back him up. It's like every movie that has the friendly alien being chased and exploited by evil government forces. Or any script about the noble savage and the ignorant white man. There are no shades of gray and very little nuance, which is annoying when you consider that the audience for an "X-Men" movie is likely to be pretty open-minded to begin with. I couldn't figure out, when the moment came for the mutants to be betrayed, whether the writers were trying to make a statement of some kind, or whether it was just a convenient sequence of events. Either way, I was so irritated that I was fully taken out of the movie and what would have been a largely positive review was instantly turned around.
If it hadn't been for that one-note turn of events, I would be an enthusiastic cheerleader for this film. I'd say that despite some slightly cheesy special effects and wooden acting, it had charm and flair. I'd say it was fun and an encouraging harbinger of a better movie season. But that one scene... What to do with that? It deflated my enthusiasm faster than I would have thought possible and I don't know whether to recommend the film or not. That's a first for me. I'm also not sure if I would be open to seeing a sequel or not-- I am that much on the fence.
And that leaves me presenting the most ambivalent review I've ever written.