Future (and Past) Imperfect

aka the first in an occasional series of analysis pieces on film, TV and popular culture, this time focusing on X-Men: Days of Future Past. Disclaimer – Spoilers for the film lie ahead, and it’s worth saying that I’m no expert in film critique (though hopefully writing this will help me learn) and I’m not hugely familiar with the comics and source material for this story.

The Mutant Gene

For my money, the central theme of the X-Men stories has always been one of interrogating difference and discrimination in society – be that sexual, racial, disability and so on. It is, in my view, a very clear reaction to the horrors, ideology and reaction to World War Two. The message being one, ultimately, of tolerance – whilst acknowledging that there are different responses to the issue of difference in society. Magneto’s more antagonistic approach isn’t presented entirely without sympathy, but it’s clear, ultimately, which side the writers fall on – that of Professor X’s calm pleas for tolerance.

This then, should be the interesting theme to explore in any X-Men story. And Days of Future Past certainly sets up some interesting issues. Leaving aside the established Magneto/Xavier approaches, we’re told that the threat in the future essentially stems from a technology designed to identify the mutant gene, and destroy the carrier.

Whilst initially conceived as a way to tackle current mutants, the flaw in the technology soon becomes clear – the mutant gene may be present, but that doesn’t mean that it’s active in the current host, or even that it will necessarily become active in future generations – but the mere presence of the gene is enough to trigger the destructive technology.

This could be the spur for a really interesting (and exciting, of course!) film which ultimately hinges around how we judge difference and how far into the future we’re willing to pursue grudges. How much should what we know about the present inform our decisions about how we shape the future?

And yet, the explanation I gave for what we’re told is the main cause of everything we see, is glossed over in a couple of sentences. Instead, the film concentrates essentially on the chase to find Mystique, and a confused dilemma between Mystique and Magneto about how their decisions might shape the future.

Note that this is subtly different from what I outlined above – it becomes one of “will the characters fulfil their destiny or change the future” – there’s even that whole discussion of whether the future is immutable or not.

But in a story like this, that’s a dead end – it reduces the whole film down to a choice of two endings – either the world is saved, or it’s doomed, and it doesn’t really matter which, given this is a film franchise which could either just stop or find some way to continue.

Instead, the more interesting angle, I would argue, would have been to stick with the main action in the past, yes, but really explore the consequences of Trask’s technology, and how that causes former enemies to unite.

Obviously the producers and writers had no control over events in the real world around the time of the film’s release, but watching it in the cinema, only days after extremists have made major strides in the both the UK local and EU Parliament elections, meant that this felt like even more of a missed opportunity. Now more than ever, we need a mainstream blockbuster that really concentrates on that main message of how to deal with difference in society. And Days of Future Past is found wanting here.

Developing Relationships

The film starts in the future, essentially in the final act of the narrative. We’re told that Magneto and Professor X are allies now (although it’s a strangely passive alliance, hardly even a hint of their different approaches which has been so central to almost any other story with them in). It’s completely glossed over in those few lines, and slightly acknowledged as Magento apparently dies.

Again, surely this would have been a better tack for the movie to take. In the excellent First Class, we saw Magneto and Xavier as allies (so we know it’s within them to work together). We then saw the friction and ultimately the consequences of their differing approaches to dealing with the rest of humanity.

Yes, we’re given some good scenes in Days of Future Past where the two characters confront what happened in First Class, but again, it doesn’t really move on from there. I would have loved to have seen the circumstances in which their, and indeed, the ‘normal’ humans’ antagonism, is forced to falter in the face of Trask’s weapons. Confronting the horror of what has been unleashed, and seeing how the consequences unfold, would have been a much more interesting story, than just skipping to the end and telling us that there’s an unstoppable menace at large.

Time Travel

The other main selling point for this film was the time travel aspect – or rather, the blending together of the cast from the original trilogy, and the First Class crew. Once the film settles into the initial premise – stop Mystique – there was one moment in the film where I thought we were going to be in for something really special.

There’s an assault on the White House, and in the ensuing chaos, the young Stryker (he who will go on to experiment on Wolverine) is electrocuted, and is on the verge of dying. This leads us to a lovely sequence where the consequences of such a death are played out – very reminiscent of Back to the Future, where the consequences of time travel are real and dangerous.

This was excellent – for the first time in the film, it felt like there was real jeopardy for the main characters, and the potential of a real twist in the plot. Sadly, it was never followed up on. Which is strange, because we’re told that changing the past is essentially what will save the future. So, aside from the film not seeming to want to concentrate on what the underlying theme probably should have been, when the *apparent* main message is dealt with, it’s thrown away moments later.

This is especially evident in what happens with Magneto. The film takes great care to make something of the relationship between him and Mystique – quite rightly (Fassbender and Lawrence are great in their respective roles). But once the initial crucial event is prevented, and Magneto starts to take matters into his own hands, this would have been the moment to reintroduce the concept of both changing the future, and of the real underlying theme I discussed previously.

Because this is the interesting thing – what is Magento’s motivation, and how is it shifting and changing throughout the film? Like I said at the beginning, his rationale is ultimately presented as wrong, but it’s never really presented as evil – it’s understandable, and thus ripe for exploration. That conflict – whether to take arms to protect your kin, or to work together with your enemy to acknowledge a diverse society, lies just behind all of Magneto’s actions, and yet it’s never really explored. Instead we get flying stadia and Iron Man-lite robots.

No Future

I’ve already talked about why the scenes set in the future don’t seem to carry much menace – instead being an excuse for special effects. But this is worsened by two other things.

Firstly, the aforementioned lack of antagonism between Magneto and Professor X in the future. Yes, it’s fine for them to be allies, and yes, McKellen and Stewart are getting on in years, but there’s hardly even a flicker of what surely should be an age old argument of different approaches between them. They’re allies, certainly, in the face of an enemy without empathy, but you would have imagined that their fundamental differences would have manifested ever so slightly more.

Secondly, Ellen Page is criminally underused – forget the slight plot weirdness over her powers, and presuming that her part is small due to other production reasons (ultimately we have to be realistic and realise that such things will affect the story being told, though I’d be interested to hear whether this film passes the Bechdel test) – there’s the moment when Wolverine, in the panic of the assault on Stryker, impales Page’s character.

Now, given the cold start to the film, where it’s assumed the audience is pretty familiar with most of the characters, we can also make the assumption that this moment is meant to be a call-back to a similar incident (albeit I think with Anna Paquin’s character?) in one of the previous movies, where Wolverine accidentally does the same thing, but the victim is healed.

Given too, that this moment of tension occurs at the exact same time as the plot is seemingly about to go into full on twist mode, finally giving us something that would be an exciting surprise, it’s strange that again, there are really no consequences to this action. Yes, we see in a couple more scenes that Kitty Pryde is still mortally wounded, and that this *might* have an impact on her ability to send Wolverine back in time – but it doesn’t. It’s not even hinted at. Which again negates the whole point of it.

Imagine if those two moments, which seem to work in perfect harmony, had been given a much bigger impact – not only is Wolverine expected to change the past by uniting Magneto and Professor X much earlier than usual, and stop Mystique, but he now has to do it whilst the future is ripped out from beneath him. Again, real danger for our protagonists.

Indeed, apart from having the thrill of having Patrick Stewart utter a single word (alas, it’s ‘Future’ rather than ‘Space’) as the first line, I would have *started* the film in the 70s. Take it from the point of view of First Class Magento, Xavier and Mystique. They have their own problems to work through, their own conflicts and different approaches to resolve, when suddenly Wolverine appears on the scene, seemingly crazy and talking about the future.

This way, we have no idea if we can trust Wolverine, but we slowly reveal what’s happening in the future – via the Back to the Future-esque moments, and then finally we flick between the two eras as the conclusion comes into view. That’s what I would have done, anyway. I appreciate I’ve offered a lot of critique, with relatively slim solutions, but I’m not a screenwriter (yet), and well, I’m not intending to insult the choices made in production – just put across my thoughts after having seen the film.

So, whilst being a fairly entertaining film, with some moments of quality, and a brilliant cast, Days of Future Past ultimately feels like a missed opportunity and a disappointment. I can only hope that the third instalment in the series returns to the roots of the franchise and concentrates on developing characters, rather than fancy set pieces and an emotionless future.

1 Comment

  1. X-men films always curiously disappointing. Perhaps the scale makes me expect more. So many good actors, fancy Fx, etc. Would rather watch the last episode of Agents of SHIELD again though. The character motivations and payoffs were superb. Thats how to write!


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