Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Wow, another couple of years between posts. Well, there you go. I've been thinking lately of doing this as a video blog because.. why not? The reason for making anything and, it seems, the reason for making the latest X-Men movie. Where to start with this one? There's a certain laziness when it comes to this movie. I say laziness because the issues I had could have easily been fixed by a moment's research online. Oddities like the character Quicksilver (who is never mentioned by name, other than 'Peter,' though I think his name in the comics is Pietro) wearing mini-headphones like those of a Walkman which wouldn't be invented until the 80s. Why is this a problem? Because the greater part of the movie takes place in 1973. The technology is a definite problem because on one hand, we have Cerebro, a computer which not only has retinal scanning and recognition abilities, it also has a synthesized voice and allows Charles Xavier the ability to tap into any mind on the planet. On the other hand, we have an entire room filled with reel-to-reel tape recorders, tvs and other transistorized electronics that have to take the place of the VCR. One of the film's ostensible villains has fingerprint scanning tech which is only now becoming widely used or available, yet the Pentagon uses only metal detectors and CCTV. The summer of 1973 was nearly the height of the Watergate scandal which is only visually alluded to by showing a tape recorder in the oval office even though by then it was widely known what was going on. The portrayal of Nixon shows no signs of nervousness or tension under which he must have been suffering by this point and instead shows a Nixon totally in control and dealing with things from a position of strength. Even Quicksilver's costume looked far more at home in the 80s than anywhere else (except his wig which belonged back in its box). The design and tech of the Sentinels, the giant robots that are the crux of the whole movie looked and acted far too advanced for the decade as well. It's also really hard to believe that such things were already being built and yet the government seemed to have no idea that they had been. In short, there was no part of this movie that felt like it was taking place in the 70s. At best, we see some old cars and the occasional rotary dial phone. Otherwise, none of this part of the movie makes much sense. And that's just the beginning. At the Movie Wrench, I try to offer 'solutions' to what I see are problems, and in this case, I have to say that research was very very necessary to make this feel like the era it was supposed to depict. And this is just the beginning.

Then there are the characters. There are so many mutants here that it's hard to keep them straight. Even though I read the X-Men and other related titles, some characters slipped by without me even realizing who they are. Sunspot of the New Mutants was only named in the credits. I'm betting a lot of the audience was wondering what the Human Torch was doing with the X-Men. Bishop is a character I vaguely remember but here, all we can guess is that he absorbs energy of various kinds and does something with it. There's a young woman who opens up teleportation gates, but it doesn't seem to be either Kitty Pryde or Nightcrawler. When these characters all die (sort of) we're supposed to care, but we know nothing about them. Even Quicksilver, who has a larger part, is there and gone. We don't know where he goes nor do we care. Why should we? This movie isn't about characters, it's really about the plot. I think that what I'd recommend here is that the number of characters was pared down to those that the audience has seen and recognizes and that more of the 'future' is shown. We're -told- that things are bad for the mutants, that this future and bleak, and we see one city that looks pretty trashed, but there's nothing seen of the rest of the world, and how they're dealing with this, what life is like. There's a lot of spoken monologue, voiceover telling us what happens and comes just short of telling us that what we're seeing is bad and we should care about it. The writing here isn't particularly well done and we're not given enough time to really come to grips with this and to judge for ourselves. There's a decent fight scene here but it's really just there to explain the main Maguffin of the whole movie, which is the source of the biggest problem in the whole thing; time travel. I would rather have seen more of this future world, both sides of it, felt it, experienced it. Long moments of voice over are a sure sign that we're missing out and that, more likely than not, something was poorly written. It's the first rule of most writing; show don't tell.

And then there's the giant elephant in the corner of the room that we're really really not supposed to think about at all. Time travel. Having any kind of travel through time is always asking for trouble. The likelihood of a paradox, or two events that contradict each other, is huge and generally not well dealt with. Some stories weave this better than others. Personal favorites include, "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure," "Back to the Future," and Stephen King's novel, "11/22/63." Bill and Ted is a comedy, sure but those two characters were the only ones I've ever seen that found a way out of current problems by remembering to go back in time -in their future- to help themselves get past obstacles. They get around the whole paradox problem mostly because we're never meant to take their whole movie seriously. Because of this, the audience never has reason to look too closely, or wonder if this whole premise makes sense. None of it does and that's fine. "Back to the Future" deals with paradox with the inclusion of the fading photos. While this really doesn't make sense, the idea of messing up one's own parent's past is reason enough to make sure things go well. Also, with both of these examples, there is a very important aspect that's missing from the X-Men; the contrivance for getting the time traveller back in time -goes with them-. This is an important point which I'll address in a moment. In King's novel, paradox is dealt with by having the main character go to places that have nothing to do with his own past. He's there to prevent the Kennedy assassination. King introduces a very interesting twist to his version of time travel, and that is that history actively resists change. How does it do this? By having obstacles place their way in the path of the hero every time he tries to make major changes. A flat tire, a blown circuit, a fire, any of these things which in and of themselves are minor and would not majorly affect the past fall into place to deflect the hero's chances of succeeding. The reason or 'will' behind these chance occurrences is never revealed and isn't really important. But it does lead to a choice that has to be made when dealing with time travel that the X-Men doesn't seem to have made, and that is the idea that time is either mutable or immutable. King's novel leans towards the latter, but not entirely so. Most time travel leans towards the former, which makes sense as if there is not mutability in the past, there's no story.

In the X-Men, Wolverine's consciousness is sent back to his younger self to prevent one event that is seen as the cause of the whole war on mutants and the concentration camp future as briefly depicted in the movie. There is a huge huge problem with this which doesn't bear much inspection. If Wolverine arrives back in 1973, he is either successful or unsuccessful in his mission. If he is unsuccessful, and we have to assume that he has 'one chance,' and there is only 'one event' that can be changed that will have this chain-reaction effect, then the folks in the future know it -as soon as he arrives in the past.- Because otherwise, the future, as we've seen it, as these characters know it -never happens.- Fifty years of history don't need 'time' to catch up. It makes no sense for us to watch the 'progress' from the future as it either happens or it doesn't. So the whole approaching attack by the Sentinels is pointless. Because if they're coming, it means that Wolverine failed. Period.

If he IS successful, then as soon as he prevents whatever it is that cements the future we've seen from happening, all knowledge of that future goes away -because it will never happen.- No one will send Wolverine back in time because there will be no reason to. At best, the characters will have to assume that he had a momentary bit of craziness, or precognition but the war on the mutants will not happen, or won't happen in the way that we've seen it happen. Regardless, it goes away and Wolverine was not sent back. If this is the case, and it has to be, then when he wakes up and it is again either 'present day,' or 2023 (we're never sure), there's no reason for him to be surprised to see Jean Grey or Cyclops alive. There's no reason for his memory to have blanked between 1973 and whatever year this is. He -should- wake up and remember those intervening years as they happened, however that was. The future has been erased, not remembered because -it doesn't happen.- This is very messy and hard for the audience to deal with, if they think about it at all. And, because of the way the movie is structured, we have no way of knowing if this series of events will be better than what we saw at the beginning of the movie or not. We assume so, but really, there's no reason for us to do so. All we know is that things won't happen exactly as they did. So really, the movie wants it both ways; that Wolverine was in the future we saw and he wasn't.

This is really really hard to fix. At the very least, I think it would have been better to point out that whoever takes the trip back in time will be making a one-way journey. There can be no coming back unless everything goes to hell and the traveler is unsuccessful. That's the heroic crux of the movie, or could be. It might also have worked that the closer Wolverine got to success, the more his memories start to fade, and the more his future consciousness is lost. In other words, the better he's doing, the less he knows. Failure would bring clarity, success would bring cloudiness and doubt. I don't think this would have been harder to grasp than what was done and would have made it, I think, a more interesting movie. Time travel is complicated at its best, and this was not its best. At the very least, it made no sense to send Wolverine back to a point so close to when the one and only event at the crux of time is going to occur. Why not give him months? Since it won't matter about the so-called upcoming attack from the Sentinels, he can take as long as he wants this way, and have a much greater chance of success. Many time travel stories have this same problem, where someone wants to go back and make some sort of change and yet the traveler only gives him or herself moments before to make that change. King's novel is the only one that doesn't fall into this trap, and most of the novel takes place in the -years- that must be lived through before the Kennedy assassination will take place.

As I mentioned earlier, this movie isn't about characters, it's about the plot. The time travel, and the -event- are the stars and the characters just dance around these two things while explosions go off and people we know nothing about nor care about die. And that's a shame. We -need- to care about them or the rest is just a jumble of vaguely connected images, lame jokes and cameos. "X-Men: Days of Future Past" is a movie made from precariously balanced toothpicks. Poke even one of them just a little and the whole thing falls apart. And that's time travel. I would honestly remove more than half the characters here, leaving only those we know and have some history with. I'd show them more dealing with this future, what they have to do to survive, the ones that have given up hope. It would make a better contrast to the 1973 portion and perhaps make the audience long for that time period as well (as long as it was deftly depicted and not so sloppily shown). I might even suggest splitting the movie in half, putting that much effort into showing us the reasons why this future is so bad. Let us see the suffering, and let us see the humans that live outside the fence. Maybe it's not so great for them either. Maybe Trask is a lot more than a scientist in this future; maybe he's in a ruling position. Because right now, all we know is he hates mutants, because he tells us he does (well, he tells us he admires them and doesn't want to be lost in the inevitable shuffle of homo sapiens vs. homo superior). We could easily see him as misguided. Since his character is so undeveloped, mostly what we do is look at him and try our best not to think of Tyrion Lannister because he is a far more interesting person to watch.

Even if my solutions don't satisfy everyone, they're an attempt, which is how I try and make my 'reviews' different from others. For me, this movie felt like a first draft, rushed and not well put together. Likely it will make a good deal of money and few will think to question the storytelling. I go to the movies because I want to fall into someone else's world for awhile, and put my own aside. If details get in the way of that, to me, the movie fails. There should be a flow, not the jerky motion of a decrepit roller coaster being yanked up its first hill. And that's what this is about. Thank you, fan.