As I see it

Movie reviews: X-Men and Edge of Tomorrow

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 1:28pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 May, 2014, 1:35pm

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Suppose you are a Hollywood executive tasked to manage a lucrative but ageing superhero franchise. You have a problem: after putting out a half-dozen sequels and prequels, the cast is getting too old and the formula has gone stale. One solution is what Sony Pictures did with Spider-man: fire everyone on the set and start all over again. They call it the “nuclear option.” A less ugly solution is to exercise a bit of creativity. Why not write a time travel story that brings together two generations of cast members? That way the baton can be passed without sacrificing continuity or alienating fan boys.

That’s exactly what Marvel Entertainment has done with the latest X-Men installment. The story goes something like this: in the post-apocalyptic world, Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellan) sends Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) back in time to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating weapon designer Bollivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). The idea is to alter the course of history to avert the near-total annihilation of mutants by the Sentinels, robot killers designed by Trask and deployed in a genocidal war as a result of his death.

You may be wondering: Haven’t I seen that movie before? Well, sort of. Most of the material is derivative, with plot elements taken from The Terminator and The Matrix. Still, the story flows well and doesn’t get in the way of the great acting. And there is no shortage of that in the film. Stewart and McKellan are so comfortable in their roles that they can make even the most preposterous lines sound credible. Equally at ease is Jackman, who can play Wolverine in his sleep and act with pretty much just his eyebrows and a cigar. Lawrence, despite not having much material to work with (her face and body are covered in blue scales for most of the movie), takes on the female lead role with equal parts grit and vulnerability.

But the MVP awards go to Evan Peters and Michael Fassbender. Peters, the young star in television’s American Horror Story, plays the teenage mutant Quicksilver capable of moving at supersonic speeds. Peters is spot on portraying a millennium kid: aloof, unmotivated but devilishly clever. The prison break he engineers is hands down the film’s best set piece, recalling the bullet-time spectacle in the first Matrix film and pushing Days of Future Past to a climax.

The second stand-out is Michael Fassbender, who has proven himself to be as versatile an actor as Mystique a shape-shifter. His every emotion – whether it is anger, remorse or connivance – transcends the confines of a comic book character. Fassbender dissolves so thoroughly into his role as young Magneto that he becomes the anti-hero, providing the dramatic glue that holds the movie together.

Director Bryan Singer has bounced back from his creative slump after duds like Superman Returns and Valkyrie. Despite that and his rather messy personal life, Singer has taken a page from the Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon playbook and is now back at the top of his game. While some may criticize Days of Future Past for taking itself too seriously (which it does at times), it succeeds in breaking out from the glut of superhero follow-ups and beating genre fatigue.

Edge of Tomorrow

The marketing tagline “Live. Die. Repeat.” sums up the story adapted from Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s 2004 novel All You Need is Kill. Lieutenant William Cage (Tom Cruise) finds himself in a Normandy-like beach invasion by an alien race called the Mimics. Each time Cage dies in combat, however, he wakes up and lives the same day again. Like a video game player, he gets better with each try and progresses from one level to the next. His encounter with heroine Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who once experienced the same Groundhog Day time loop, reveals what has happened to him and how he can use his time-manipulating ability to win the war.

Taking the bold sci-fi story to the big screen is no easy feat. One wrong move and the film adaptation can become unbearably tedious – the audience has to watch the same day play out over and over again. That’s why Warner Brothers put veteran director Doug Liman in charge. Liman is credited for creating the critically acclaimed Bourne franchise and making such smart standalones as Go and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. He has a knack for infusing the perfect balance of humour and dramatic tension into big pyrotechnic action sequences. Incidentally, humour and dramatic tension are precisely what it takes to pull off a plot that goes into an infinite loop.

Casting Tom Cruise in a movie has always been a risky proposition. While the 51-year-old is a convincing action hero, he has the tendency to make every film about himself. Over time, he becomes a kind of distraction that takes the audience out of the movie. To avoid turning Edge of Tomorrow into yet another Minority Report or Oblivion, the actor tries his best to dial back his “Tom Cruise-ness” and let the brainteaser plot line be the film’s real star. For the most part he manages to do just that, which not only saves the film but also makes it one of his recent best.

Emily Blunt – who is Cruise’s 20 years junior – became Hollywood’s “It” girl after her break out role in The Devil Wears Prada. Since then, she has starred in a run of second tier romantic comedies like The Five-Year Engagement and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. Here, Blunt holds her own playing a steely Joan of Arc. But she is no Sigourney Weaver or Carrie-Anne Moss. There are moments when you wonder whether she is charismatic – or indeed photogenic – enough for the role.

In the end none of that matters, because Doug Liman and his team of screenwriters have done such a brilliant job making the story hang together. The film draws you in and earns your respect scene by scene, one new day at a time. It is the best sci-fi entry so far this year and deserves to be watched in 3D on an IMAX screen. And since the movie is so much fun to watch, we will forgive the plot holes and the hasty feel-good ending. We will even forgive that the squid-like aliens, with their many tentacles and propensity to spin, look suspiciously like the Sentinels in The Matrix trilogy.