‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ – time travel for dummies

Breaking news – X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) has been critically and financially successful! And why on earth wouldn’t it be? It has Hugh Jackman in it, growling and flexing his scarily vascular torso (seriously, what’s he on?), it has Sir Ian McKellen glowering and waving his arms around. It even has Jennifer Lawrence doing her “ACTRESS” impression that people can’t seem to get enough of – especially grating in a movie which requires actual actor Ellen Page to literally stand around and squint for two hours.

AAAAACTIIIIIING

AAAAACTEEEEEEEENG

It even gave us the return of Bryan Singer, director of the only two X-Men movies anyone really cares about. This was a real PR coup for the Fox corporation, seeming to promise a return to the glory days before Brett Ratner’s franchise-derailing The Last Stand. Just one problem – they forgot to fire the screenwriter.

Singer does manage to inject a few visually inventive scenes and moments of humour in, but the film is ultimately doomed by another cowpat of a script from Simon Kinberg. The flaws of the script are too numerous to wade through, but a great example is the way the film handles its central plot mechanic of time travel. As we all know, in right hands this can be a great mechanic for all kinds of entertaining stories. Simon Kinberg has the wrong hands.

Our vision of the dystopian future starts promisingly enough, with a glimpse of pink neon laser cages in Central Park suggesting that what we are watching will at least be entertainingly barmy. However, this quickly gives way to a series of dull, expository conversations, and more dull CGI battles, in a number of identical grayscale quarries. On-screen titles tell us that some of these take place in MOSCOW, others in CHINA – without the titles, you’d assume they were all just New York.

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“What’s my character’s name, again?”

Patrick Stewart uses every ounce of his considerable gravitas to explain the setup to us – the original timeline of the franchise has led to an apocalyptic nightmare, in which copies of the rubbish CGI robot from the end of Thor (2011) is exterminating a number of characters we are given no reason to care about. We are told this is all down to blue meanie Mystique – who, like Wolverine, has been forced to the front of the stage due to the fact that she is being played by a popular movie star. She shot the man who designed them – the hilariously named Bolivar Trask – back in 1973, which had several effects:

  1. Government convinced that mutants are dangerous, and must be annihilated
  2. Government captured Mystique and used her DNA to create adaptive super-killbots

This is the first time the film undermines the internal logic of its own world – if the killing of Bolivar was such a turning point, why on earth did it take 50 years for any action to be taken? This tenuous thread is snipped entirely when it transpires, later in the film, that he already had a fleet of classic-model killbots ready-made, just waiting for someone to switch them on. The half-century delay is never given even a hand-wave.

The real problems emerge surrounding the “victory” or “game over” conditions of Wolverine’s time-travel mission. Consider how clear the goal line is in, say, The Terminator (1984). An evil robot comes back from the future, to kill the mother of humanity’s saviour. If Sarah Conner dies, her son is never born, and humanity will be wiped out. If she lives, the original timeline is preserved and everything will be fine. Back to the Future (1985) gives us the opposite dilemma, but its terms are just as clear. Having split up his parents, Marty has to reunite them or be erased from existence. Even something like 12 Monkeys (1995) which deliberately tries to bewilder the viewer, blurring the line between reality and fantasy, has a coherent set of rules and consequences surrounding its fictional time travel mechanics – we just don’t get to know what they are until the end.

Days of Future Past, on the other hand, seems to have been written by someone with only a tenuous grasp on the core concept. Firstly, the original un-altered timeline doesn’t make a lick of sense – why on earth did it take 50 years for anyone to act on the mutant menace? With Trask dead, who masterminded the sentinel project which seemed to be entirely his brainchild? However, it’s in the area of “game over/victory” conditions that things really get wobbly.

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© Marvel Studios

Despite Patrick Stewart’s best efforts, the central victory condition – that stopping Mystique from shooting Bolivar will prevent the future from suffering an outbreak of CGI Thor-bots – never feels quite solid. As things play out they get a lot more nebulous, as partway through Wolverine and his ragtag band accomplish their goal in the dumbest way possible.

Again, the main damage done by Mystique’s assassination is that the Government is convinced that mutants are dangerous, and must be annihilated. Magneto tries to avoid this by shooting a blue alien-looking lady in full view of an assembled crowd, then using his magic powers to drag her along the ground and murder her right in front of their rolling cameras. Admittedly, it’s not quite as terrible as his plan to save JFK’s life by guiding a bullet directly into his head, but still – he was clearly a “late-bloomer” in the planning department.

In the end, the film still tries to maintain this “Mystique shoots Trask” scene as the lynchpin of its time-dilemma, but in a way which no longer makes any sense. By the time Wolverine BAMPFS back to the future, a sinister British mutant in a metal helmet has dumped half a football stadium on the White House, and came within a hair’s breadth of assassinating a really crap lookalike of Richard Nixon, along with his entire staff. The fact that this culminates in a blue alien-looking lady saving the day doesn’t really seem enough to takes us from “Unleash the CGI Thor-bots!” to “I declare this National Mutants Day!”.

Of course, none of this really matters, because time travel was not included in the film for plot purposes at all. It was financially motivated – simultaneously allowing Fox to market the film as being “adapted” from a classic, much loved comic storyline (as they did with The Wolverine [2013]), while also getting the old actors to pass the baton to their younger counterparts, in a clumsy attempt at rebooting the franchise Abrams-style. Just as important, it also allowed them to  keep aping the facile retro-porn fad of Mad Men/American Hustle etc…

Unfortunately, its success guarantees us at least one more cowpat of a script from Simon Kinberg for the upcoming X-Men: Apocalypse. Although, on the bright side, it presumably also means we’ll get some more hilarious attempts at speaking foreign languages from Jennifer Lawrence.

I mean…come on. That was really her best take of “Vietnamese”?

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