X-Men: Apocalypse

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When the term “apocalypse” appears in a film title, let alone as the name of a character, you know you’re in for some over-the-top storylines and visuals. In fact, it typically raises alarms because it clearly lacks subtly and will be the focus of the plot. This latest of the X-Men saga certainly goes into world-shaking destruction mode, but it manages to keep the story focused on the characters… which is also probably hurting it among fans and viewers who expected something to top the rocking Days of Future Past.

This latest sequel re-pairs director Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) and writer Kinberg so they can continue the universe they’ve created. Some of the clunkiness of the script certainly lies with Kinberg, whose previous delights included Fantastic Four, but which also include Days of Future Past and, arguably the worst of the series, X-Men: The Last Stand. He’s clearly a little erratic in his deliveries, wanting to focus on character, but not always capturing the truth or story construction. Then again, Singer has his ups and downs as well, and he helped with the script too.

What the two manage to do together, however, is carry an incredibly complicated timeline forward. The story touches on almost every previous X-Men movie and subplot to bring us a new tale in the new timeline, correcting bad choices of the past, setting up the movies already in production, and offering up a path to new adventures. But they focused on the characters rather than the explosions and fights… not that there aren’t plenty of the latter. The pacing of the 2.5 hour film is steady, but it isn’t the heart pounding adventure I think most people expected, especially given the title. I do think it will rewatch as part of the, now, double trilogy rather well, where the introspection and emotional toll will have context going in rather than feel distracting on first watch.

The cast you know is there and relatively solid, particularly Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) this round, though Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2) felt quite flat to me. Evan Peters (The Lazarus Effect) also continued to develop his version of Quicksilver… though the script didn’t quite help him with it. The rest of the returnees were what you’d expect in quality and capability.

But it is the newcomers that stick out after this many films, and who get the plot focus. In particular, Sophie Turner (The Thirteenth Tale) as the young Jean Grey tries her darndest to be the precursor to Famke Janssen’s version. She has her moments, but generally lacks the depth, allure, and complexity that Jensen oozes. Tye Sheridan (Mud) as the young Cyclops was likewise not quite the self-confident ass that his older self would become, though you could see the path he might take to get there. On the other hand, Kodi Smit-McPhee (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) did a great, younger Nightcrawler. And, finally,  Alexandra Shipp (Straight Outta Compton) as Storm, despite the rewrite of her origin, did a nice job. In a solid cameo, Tómas Lemarquis (Snowpiercer) had a fun role as Caliban that I’d love to see reprised at some point.

In the end, though, it all had to rest with Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina) as Apocalypse. He is the core of the plot and the threat that must drive all other action. It is an interesting performance. Quiet, controlled, focused. He has none of the real bluster I was used to. The sense of it all was paternalistic. This was appropriate, given the plot, but it did tend to pull down the energy. Still, he could explode when needed and it certainly helped it to run counter to expectation, making Apocalypse more interesting than a typical meglomaniac.

I do have two main gripes about the film. The first is the obligatory cameo by Stan Lee. Usually these are brief comic moments somewhere in the story. They are contractually obligated as well as, now, a fun “where’s Waldo” tradition. However, Singer decided to use him at a particularly poignant moment in this movie and it pulled me out of the film instantly, shattering what should have been an emotional build-up. The second is Apocalypse’s make-up, which just didn’t survive the close-ups. You could see the join lines and edges of the prosthetics in nearly every shot. Honestly, worst effect in a major I’ve seen in years. Not sure how it past the testing phase, but it was embarrassing.

Finally, a comment on 3D or not to 3D. This film didn’t need it, which is both a compliment and a warning. 3D has been improving, as I’ve recently mentioned. In this case it was RealD’s technology, which I always find easier to watch anyway. But the story just didn’t need that particular bell or whistle. It was a fine story without that. On the other hand, it was done, mostly, immersively rather than in-you-face, which I also appreciated but left me wondering why it was used. Perhaps it was so natural that I just am not seeing the effect it had, but I don’t think it was necessary for this outing.

As part of the growing X-Men universe, this is a fun addition and one that will work best on rewatch. While paying the price for their approach, Snger and co realized you can’t just keep raising the stakes and not burn out your audience, or break their credulity and willingness to follow the story as it gets more ridiculous in order to top itself. You have to have pauses, deal with characters, bring down the tempo and volume so you have somewhere to go. Apocalypse still has plenty of thrills, if over-the-top and stupid science, and a ton of character work and growth. It may not be the best of the series, but it has plenty to recommend. As part of a larger whole it stands up well.

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