Thursday, 6 June 2019

Review: X-Men - Dark Phoenix

X-Men Dark Phoenix (3D)
Cert: 12A / 114 mins / Dir. Simon Kinberg / Trailer

Well, you have to admire Simon Kinberg's optimism, if you can tear yourself away from pitying him for it. With the Disney / 20th Century Fox takeover-deal now a paperwork exercise and its far-reaching effect on superhero franchises a headache in the making, the twelfth film in Fox's X-Men roster closes with a crane-shot of the School For Gifted Youngsters, accompanied by a stirring narration, boldly leaving an 'open road' approach for future stories to be told.

That this arrives after two of the absolute dullest hours audiences will see this year is glossed over with equal wistfulness.


Let us not chase this one around the houses for too long, X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not good. It's not awful, but that's only because the movie's not interesting enough to be awful. The cinematic equivalent of a contractual obligation album, it's two hours of watching people you know can do better*1 making it resolutely clear that they have no intention of doing so. What's the point? They're staring into the DVD bargain bin on a hiding to nothing. When Marvel Studios finally get round to bringing mutants into the MCU, they'll be rebooted and recast at absolute best. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

After a 1975 flashback to Jean Grey's traumatic childhood, we open properly in 1992 with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) dispatching his best and brightest into the Earth's orbit to assist stricken United States space shuttle. What appears to be a solar storm is in fact something more malign, and in the kerfuffle Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbs a hitherto unimaginable amount of raw power, almost dying as a result.

Back on terra firma, Jean struggles to come to terms with her experience and terrifying new strengths, while a task force of shape-shifting aliens led by Jessica Chastain in an atrocious wig arrives to claim what they were after in space, the gift that Jean Grey - the dark phoenix - unsteadily holds…


Now that we're past the watershed of Future Past, the series*2 has been using its clout to re-craft the origins and fates of characters we've known for almost two decades. But Fox's longstanding cavalier approach to continuity means that this just comes over as 'yeah, thanks for the time and money you spent taking in those earlier flicks; they don't matter now by the way'. And this more than takes the edge off the new stories, too. The problem is that there's no jeopardy when the audience sees narrative consequence as a moot point, and even less when the cast are acting like that too.

Jean's struggle with newly heightened powers, repressed (and/or censored) memories of her past and fear for the future is nowhere near as emotionally complex as it should be (and Turner does not play this role well). Almost a side character in her own movie, cinematographer Mauro Fiore seems more interested in Jean's cleavage than her character. No, really.

In its quieter scenes, Dark Phoenix isn't particularly interesting, but when the action really ramps up it's positively boring. The bigger and louder the CGI mayhem becomes, the less it all means. That's a hurdle of which many modern movies fall afoul, granted, but with little actual story to act as a foundation in the first place, there's nothing for these sequences to even distract from. The driving force of the alien antagonists trying to steal back Jean's power is treated like a subplot, left over from an earlier draft of the screenplay and which can't be dropped completely because of a clause Chastain's contract. And It may seem a little late in the game for Fox to be introducing new, specially written characters, but lo and behold the debut of Captain Exposition™, a shapeshifter who mimics the appearance of central characters to read out a CliffsNotes summary of key scenes in the movie.


But it's not just big, tonal, structural problems. On an entirely civilian nitpicking level - how come the team are teleporting from the X-Jet into a space shuttle which has a massively ruptured hull, yet they don't need to wear space suits? Nightcrawler pops one on towards the end of the mission, seemingly for no reason since he's been in and out of open space three times by then, as have Jean and Quicksilver. And speaking of such matters, how come the X-gang spend so much time fighting the alien enemies during the final train-heist battle, when Nightcrawler could just bamf each one away from the train and then return for the next, like Azazel in First Class? And speaking of those such matters, wasn't the heavy, heavy implication at the end of First Class that Azazel and Mystique were Nightcrawler's parents? Because the latter two are on missions together here and there's not so much as a sniff of that idea.

And it's amazing that a movie which is so visually meticulous in its effects can be so slapdash when it comes to the basics of serial storytelling. From First Class's 1962 onward, we've leapfrogged around ten years in each installment. So here we are thirty years later and the central characters seem to have only aged around a decade (in line with the real-world production schedules, of course). This can easily be explained for Jennifer Lawrence's chameleon Raven/Mystique, but just shaving James McAvoy's head as Xavier isn't going to cut it, lads (Michael Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult aren't even awarded that concession - and let's leave aside that they're theoretically only a few years away from looking like Ian McKellen and Kelsey Grammer by this point).

Speaking of Mystique, how come she changes into her 'human' form here while knocking around in the mansion and there's no need for that subterfuge? We know Charles disapproves of this form as 'hiding her true self', yet in Dark Phoenix he doesn't bat an eyelid. Are we in a strand of continuity where they didn't have that previous conversation? On a similar note, we see Hank 'Beast' McCoy in his human-guise while in the depths of despair and grief, also within the walls of the school. Wouldn't this be a time when Hank would drop that pretence? He then turns 'human' when he's stunned by attackers in a later scene. But isn't the blue beast his natural resting form now? Isn't that his true self? Isn't the facade of duality the whole point of the X-Men movies?


But in all honesty I probably can't score this one too lowly, if only because I went easy on Aquaman and this movie has nowhere near as many problems as DC's last offering. At least that was knowingly silly. But given the absolute heights of what the X-Men movies are capable of, Dark Phoenix is unforgivably weak.

I'm not even saddened to say that I look forward to no more of these films being made. 20th Century Fox have, over the years, told stories where outsiders band together to fight oppression and prejudice, where they learn the value of working as a team without losing sight of the individual, where they rise above those who hate and fear them to save everyone, including their persecutors. 20th century Fox have taken the quintessential essence of what superhero stories are supposed to be about, and watered it down to the point where I - a fan of superheroes - no longer care what happens to the X-Men. Well done guys, now give it back to Marvel.

The business-end:

• Is there a Wilhelm Scream? There is.
• Is there a Stan Lee cameo? There isn't.
• Is there a mid-credits scene? There isn't.
• Is there a post-credits scene? There isn't.

So, what sort of thing is it similar to?
X-Men: Apocalypse. Make of that what you will.

Is it worth paying cinema-prices to see?
If you're going to watch it at all, you may as well. This will be dire when witnessed through your TV, no matter how big that is. I saw Dark Phoenix in 3D, which was basically fine considering live-action rarely translates well into stereoscopy.

It's perhaps also worth noting that I saw it on opening day and in 'the big screen' with only ten other people, but that perhaps says more about the popularity of 3D than of the franchise itself (this was the only 3D screening of the day, the format really is on its absolute arse unless you're going for IMAX).

Is it worth hunting out on DVD, Blu-ray or streaming, though?
Completists may want to wait until the Blu-ray price drops significantly before adding it to their collection. Personally I'm not sure if I'll even bother doing that, and I say this as someone who eventually bought Apocalypse as a shelf-warmer.

Is this the best work of the cast or director?
James McAvoy's good, but he's been this good and better elsewhere.

Will we disagree about this film in a pub?
Y'know what, that's entirely possible.

Is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Yes. There's a low-level Wilhelm scream during the train brawl. Fucking FINALLY. I've watched 59 movies at the cinema in 2019 so far, and Dark Phoenix has been the first one with a clear, unambiguous (albeit quiet) Wilhelm. I'm thankful for that, if nothing else.

Yeah but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: This movie is written and directed by Rogue One and Rebels producer, Simon Kinberg.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 With the honourable exception of Tye Sheridan of course, who is just Dreadful As Usual. [ BACK ]

*2 Although I really shouldn't use that word. As a wise person recently noted, "There is no X-Men movie series. There are X-Men movies." [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

No comments:

Post a Comment