Tuesday, May 24, 2016

REVIEW 393: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE


Release date:
May 20, 2016
Director:
Bryan Singer
Cast:



Language:
James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Munn, Evan Peters
English


The first hour of X-Men: Apocalypse holds out the promise of fun, if nothing else, of the kind we have had with the best films of the series so far. It is filled with self-deprecating humour and pathos, rich in reminders that superhuman abilities are a double-edged sword for those on whom they are bestowed.

The central antagonist, En Sabah Nur / Apocalypse, has the ability to embed his enemies in walls and reduce human beings to dust. His first encounter with people here is as wolf-whistle-worthy as the introduction of a villain in a superhero flick ought to be.

A continent away, the tour of Magneto’s personal life is poignant and beautifully shot, even if not terribly original. And across the Atlantic, sparks fly between the younger mutants.

There is much to recommend then, not counting of course the ridiculousness of an army of men and women being named X-Men, not X-People. Their christening comes at the end of the film and sounds even more jarring here than it usually does because the task of announcing the name to the troops has been sneakily given to a female character – it seems like a strategic directorial and/or writing decision to silence feminists, but ends up highlighting the series’ innate sexism.

The downslide begins well before that point though.

The second half of X-Men: Apocalypse is a damp squib in comparison with the first hour. In terms of storytelling and SFX gimmicks, it feels as if once they allow us into En Sabah Nur’s bag of tricks, Magneto’s home and heart, Team Apocalypse does not know quite what to do with either of them. And so, while the rest of the X-People… note: yeah, that’s what they will be collectively called henceforth on this blog, except in the film’s title… As I was saying, while the rest of the X-People zip around the world, the pace slackens each time Nur and Magneto get more than a few moments on screen.

This of course is disappointing considering that Magneto – a sometimes-bad-sometimes-not mutant with the ability to generate and manipulate powerful magnetic fields – is played by the charismatic Michael Fassbender who reminds us in those well-handled opening scenes that he has so much to offer as an actor. It is almost scandalous that he is wasted thereafter.

The fizzling out of the fizz in Apocalypse is particularly surprising since it marks the return to the franchise of director Bryan Singer whose X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003) have been the best of the lot so far. Perhaps his over-rated X-Men: Days of Future Past was a sign. Apocalypse is the ninth in the series and Singer’s fourth. It is the least interesting instalment.

The story initially takes us between Egypt and the US in the 1980s. In Cairo, Nur (Oscar Isaac) rises from a long deep sleep, while in Westchester County, New York, the telepathic paraplegic Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) runs his school for the specially gifted a.k.a. mutants. Xavier remains a pacifist who is keen to bring Magneto to the good side, but Magneto’s bitterness and grief make him a prime target for Nur’s fear-mongering and human-bashing.

Nur believes that humanity was lost during his centuries-long absence, while he lay entombed alive by his enemies from his previous avatar. He now wants to re-shape the earth to suit his worldview, which sounds grand, though to be honest the details are more like wannabe mumbo-jumbo. Nur is not merely a megalomaniac who believes he is God. He is God. To set the world right, he must find four lieutenants (the Four Horsemen, a reference drawn from the last book of the Bible, The Apocalypse of St John The Apostle a.k.a. The Book of Revelation). While the sub-plots via which he locates them are entertaining enough, at least two of them turn out to be such lacklustre creatures that you have to wonder why he bothered with them at all.


The four are: Psylocke, Storm, Angel and Magneto himself. Psylocke’s energy blade and actress Olivia Munn’s swagger have potential, but she can do little in the face of the sketchy writing and her colleagues’ lifelessness. Their dullness is the starting point of the film’s undoing.

Storm’s ability to control weather is as fascinating a superpower as any, yet the characterisation of this mutant has been consistently insipid throughout the series. Watching Alexandra Shipp at work in a role earlier played by Halle Berry is all the evidence you need to know it is not Berry’s fault alone that Storm has been such a bore in all the films so far. It’s the writing, stupid!

The mutants ranged against them (some are younger versions of seniors seen in earlier films) are certainly a more appealing lot, though the film is so over-populated that only three truly stand out: Evan Peters playing Peter Maximoff / Quicksilver who can move faster than time, Tye Sheridan as Scott Summers / Cyclops from whose eyes pour out destructive beams of fire and Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones) as Jean Grey / Phoenix who struggles to control her telekinetic powers. For the record, Peters is way more memorable as Quicksilver than Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the same character in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).

The showstopper of this film is a scene involving Quicksilver with a delightful revisitation of ’80s pop group Eurythmics’ Sweet dreams are made of this. That the idea is borrowed from a previous X-Film is forgivable since it is still so amusing. What is inexplicable though is its placement, right in the middle of an intense scene of mass destruction, like a comical interlude involving Asrani or Keshto Mukherjee during gory dishum dishum between the hero and the villain in a 1970/80s formulaic Bollywood film.  

The mutants whose potential is frittered away in the over-crowding are Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy / Beast, Kodi Smit-McPhee as Kurt Wagner / Nightcrawler and the always-nice-to-watch-yet-wasted-here Jennifer Lawrence playing the shape-shifting Mystique.

Perhaps the problem is that there have been too many X-Films already and they have all been making so much money that the producers rushed into this one. There is certainly a great deal of mindlessness in the way X-Men: Apocalypse confuses the introduction of multiple characters for excitement. En Sabah Nur and his Four Horsemen are such anti-climactic villains. For someone who is supposed to be God, Nur seems pretty helpless in the face of the combined force of the good mutants, and at least two of his soldiers seem to look on more than join him in battle.

As criminal as the under-utilisation of Fassbender and Lawrence is the cursory treatment of themes that made the first two films so relevant: prejudice, fear of the other, a celebration of heterogeneity. Many viewers consider the X-Films a metaphor for homophobia. In a post-9/11 age, they could be seen too as a metaphor for Islamophobia. A year in which Donald Trump could well become the next President of the most powerful nation on the globe is a year crying out for a solid, well-thought-out X-Film, not this generic affair. Bryan Singer, how could you?

Rating (out of five): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
U/A
Running time:
MPAA Rating (US):
145 minutes
PG-13 (for sequences of violence, action and destruction, brief strong language and some suggestive images)
Release date in US:
May 27, 2016

Related article by Anna MM Vetticad: “Boys will be boys and girls will be afterthoughts: The hyper-masculine world of superhero films”


  

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