The cast, by my back-of-the-envelope tally, has collectively earned 10 Oscar nominations over the years, along with more Golden Globes, Emmys, and BAFTAs than I care to count.
If I’d written that sentence two decades ago, one might have assumed I was describing a Robert Altman film. But it is a testament to the remarkable tenacity of the superhero genre—a genre that has more than once seemed utterly spent—that I’m referring not to an Altman but to an X-Men.
Now it’s true that X-Men: Days of Future Past has achieved this milestone in part through arithmetic sleight of hand, by essentially combining the cast of the first three X-Men films (Hugh Jackman, Halle Barry, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin—here present only in minute cameo—Patrick Stewart, Ellen Page, etc.) with that of its subsequent pre-boot, X-Men: First Class (Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Nicholas Hoult…) Still, it is an impressive accumulation of talent, one reinforced by the return of director Bryan Singer, who masterfully helmed the first two installments of the franchise.
As he demonstrated in those earlier films, Singer has a particular aptitude for taking narratives that teeter on the precipice of preposterousness and imbuing them with unexpected moral resonance and gravity. It’s a skill set in notable demand over the course of this exceptionally ambitious new chapter, which interweaves not only casts but storylines, time periods, and dramatic moods.
Singer opens in the dystopian near-future, with a shot of a post-apocalyptic Manhattan presided over by an Empire State Building with a hole punched through its upper floors. Intelligent robots called the Sentinels have conducted a decade-long war to eradicate mutants, a war that they have unilaterally expanded to include human beings suspected of helping mutants as well as those who might produce mutant offspring down the road. In practice, this seems to mean “pretty much all humankind.” (Yes, the echoes of Skynet rumble loudly.)
A few familiar franchisees (Professor X, Magneto, Wolverine, Storm) and assorted minor mutants (Bishop, Blink, Sunspot) take sanctuary in a remote Himalayan monastery, where they adopt a plan to save the future by altering the past. Kitty Pryde (Page) will project the consciousness of Wolverine (Jackman) back to his semi-ageless 1973 self. There he will enlist the aid of the younger versions of Professor X (McAvoy) and Magneto (Fassbender) in an effort to prevent Mystique (Lawrence) from killing the Sentinels’ inventor, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage)—a murder that precipitated the all-out war against mutants that has wrought such global havoc.
Still with me? From this conceit, the movie proceeds in relatively straightforward fashion, with a slumbering future Wolverine (shades of The Matrix) trying to accomplish his mission in the past (a whiff of Austin Powers), before time runs out and the Sentinels hunt down the last remaining mutants in the monastery.
There are missteps here and there. The Sentinels are a disappointingly familiar hybrid of the T-1000 Terminator and (especially) the Destroyer from Thor. Even by blockbuster standards, the movie plays awfully fast and loose with the consequences of time travel. And the climactic sequence, in which the Nixon White House is encircled by—nope, it’s a detail too good to reveal—seems like an event far more likely to have started a war against mutants than to have averted one.
But given the scope and audacity of the film, Singer does a masterful job of keeping his many balls in the air. The ‘70s-era storyline has fun not only with the fashion and the cultural touchstones (lava lamps, Roberta Flack), but neatly conjures the look of period film. A central sequence takes place in the midst of the Paris Peace Accords, and there are cunning references to the Kennedy assassination (what could have accounted for the magic bullet?), as well as the introductions of a few characters who appeared earlier (which is to say, later) in the franchise.