This one got away from them somehow. The most recent entry in this franchise, 2014’s Days of Future Past, was a big hit and a solid chapter of the X-Men series, deftly blending two disparate storylines while being a pretty decent continuation of the franchise’s primary themes. The same creative team returns here, and X-Men: Apocalypse begins with promise. It’s able to sustain that promise roughly as long as it takes for the villain and his plot to remain hidden; what follows are two hours that retread and rehash familiar character notes and story beats, with visual cacophony and ear-splitting volume working hard to compensate for a curious lack of energy, tension, or momentum.
Movie Review: X-Men: Apocalypse
By Ben Gruchow
May 31, 2016
About that beginning: It takes place in ancient Egypt, with thousands of slaves and citizens prostrating themselves before a mysterious, withered figure known as En Sabah Nur. We saw him at the very end of the last film; here, he’s led into a massive pyramidal temple and prepared for a ritual that will transfer his soul into the body of a younger man, or mutant, which will prepare him for immortality in some vague fashion (specificity is not this movie’s priority or strong suit). A cabal of nonbelievers, though, has rigged the temple to collapse with a neat use of masonry and tunnels; they intend to seal En Sabah Nur inside for eternity. What’s their motivation? We’re never told. I say they do it so he can escape later and give modern audiences this film. Sealed inside he is, in a virtuoso sequence of falling rocks and various force fields. Then we enter the opening credits, with John Ottman’s kinetic series theme still proving to be the best and most memorable of the contemporary superhero films (quick, hum the Avengers theme), and I was feeling optimistic.
We pick up little pieces of various X-Men whereabouts since the last film’s conclusion ten years prior; Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has dreams of his school becoming a collegiate campus for all people, mutant and non-mutant alike; Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has been holed up in rural Poland, with a wife and daughter, hiding from the authorities and working at one of those industrial factories that seems to produce mostly smoke and fire and grease. There are roughly, oh, 458 named mutant characters in the film, and we get glancing introductions to each one; the movie cheats on its introductions and mostly gets away with it, because we’ve seen these characters in at least three prior films in greater detail, and we’re familiar with their powers.
For example, early on we are introduced to the character Storm, played by Halle Berry in earlier films and by Alexandra Shipp here. She is never addressed by that name or any other during the film, but we know who she is because the first thing we see her do is cause a minor dust storm. We get more screen time with Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), who gets introduced as a high schooler to Xavier’s school for the first time, and scores a good laugh during a demonstration of his capabilities. And we see welcome continuity glimmers with character psychology in Xavier’s interaction with Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Five years ago, he acted as surrogate big brother to Mystique (played here as then by Jennifer Lawrence); now that she’s gone off on her own, he’s taking the same tack with another powerful and confused mutant. Again, the movie cheats and gets away with it; there is no explication within this film in and of itself as to any special relationship between the two; we get the significance primarily because we’re shorthanding the interactions and doing the film’s work for it.
Over in Cairo, CIA agent Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) is investigating religious mutant cults, and accidentally uncovers the buried temple of En Sabah Nur. I mean “accidentally uncovers” almost literally; if I’m not mistaken, her actions are directly responsible for his discovery and subsequent reawakening. Now played by Oscar Isaac under several pounds of rubbery prosthetics and makeup, he begins to recruit mutants as acolytes to put his grand plan into motion. What is this plan? It involves something about cleansing the entire planet of all life, or some life, or the weak. This rather expectedly escalates into something resembling all-out war between good and evil. Why is this his plan? See Paragraph B, Sentence 5. I say it’s because he woke up, took a look at himself in the mirror, and said, “Well, why not?” How droll it would be to have an ancient evil being wake up after thousands of years of slumber and escape their enchanted prison to discover that the world is already exactly what they were envisioning, and there’s nothing really left to do but build a nice throne and be served delicacies. Discerning readers will note that my opinion of the film appears to be slipping southward.
In the best of the X-Men movies, each character has a bit of background or motivation for why they do what they do, even the bad guys. Just for fun, let’s take a look at X-Men: The Last Stand, so clearly the most maligned of the direct sequels (undeservedly so, in my opinion) that this film makes an oblique crack about it. In that 2006 film, you had the character of Angel as a confused and frightened kid grown into a confused and frightened adult. He didn’t get much screen time, but there was a conveyance of raw and unmodulated emotion, obviously directed at him alternately hiding from and seeking approval from his father. It was an effective manifestation of both the character and a character arc.
Or what about Rogue’s struggle with whether or not to take the mutant “cure”? In both cases (and others), we had talented actors utilizing competent screenwriting to open a window for us into their character’s minds. There is no such limited sophistication to be found here; we are given brief flashes of mutant introduction and quick displays of mutant power, so perfunctory in its character interest that popular characters like Psylocke might as well be replaced by mo-cap dots with on-screen text stating, “Insert SFX Here”. The lucky characters are the ones who get to express a sentence or two’s worth of thought (it’s a cruel joke that most of these end up with Lawrence - who also happens to turn in what might be her most shockingly detached and ineffectual performance in years, or ever) before the fireworks take over.
And there are so, so many fireworks. There are way too many fireworks, all of them obtrusively clad in slick, shiny, and somehow insubstantial CGI. We have reached the point in these types of films, I believe, where a protracted sequence involving a collapsing city requires more intelligent exploration of mood and consequence in order to be effective; it is not enough to simply ramp up the destruction, or plant the camera and show lots and lots of light beams and crumbling structures. The prosthetic work fares no better; how many hours Isaac - a charismatic and dynamic presence - must have spent in the makeup chair. The final result makes him look, yes, like a villain from the old Power Rangers TV series. There’s something wrong when the mere sight of your apocalyptic, all-powerful villain walking around in daylight elicits indifference, and at no point intimidation. There is none of the quiet menace of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, or the near-religious fanaticism of Brian Cox’s Stryker, nor the perversion of scientific curiosity by Peter Dinklage’s Bolivar Trask. He’s just a big, egocentric demagogue with cataracts and a cape. Subtract the last two, and we have national politics for that.
There was real enthusiasm when director Bryan Singer returned to the helm for Days of Future Past; maybe he tapped out on creative energy shepherding that one to the screen. Or maybe nobody dared to second-guess him or the writers at the screenplay stage. Whatever the case may be, this is a deflated misfire. We get the hints of a good story, and we are disappointed as it’s steadily replaced with characters making grand pronouncements they’ve grandly pronounced before, making oblique references to things they’ll do in later timelines or alternate universes (which we’ve already seen), and firing off lukewarm quips and winks to the fans in the audience, all in undistinguished manner in flat settings, with overheated visuals, at several decibels louder than necessary. It’s no fun.