Thursday, 26 May 2016
Review: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse,’ a Sequel 5,000 Years in the Making
“Mutants are born with extraordinary abilities,” James McAvoy says as this movie begins in darkness. He pronounces “extraordinary” in the same plummy way that British actors have been doing since, oh, “Lawrence of Arabia,” at least. The darkness gives way to the largely C.G.I.-generated landscape of “Egypt, 3,600 B.C.” Inside a pyramid, a peculiar ritual is taking place. Stone-faced royals and functionaries partaking in it sport jewelry, makeup and scars that once again inspire a viewer to ponder why contemporary Hollywood insistently looks to Burning Man to inform its vision of the ancient world.
The ritual involves transportation of souls and is accompanied by the glowing and throbbing of what looks like large-scale electronic circuitry embedded in the pyramid’s interiors. Mutant business, we are meant to infer, existed well before the X-Men.
The bombast of the opening sequence — which ends with the pyramid sabotaged into collapse, obliging the movie’s eventual mutant villain to cool his heels for about five millenniums — leaves no doubt that the viewer is in for more of the superhero same old, same old. Directed by Bryan Singer, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the ninth film in the X-Men franchise, indeed hews hard to all the genre verities. Including, as its title more than implies, an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it threat.
The sequel to “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” which was a mutant-origins time-travel saga, “Apocalypse” begins — after beginning in ancient Egypt, that is — in 1983, 10 years after most of the events of “Past.” Those had resulted in an uneasy détente between boring regular humanity and the superpowered mutants who walked among them.
Much of the first hour is devoted to getting-the-band-back-together mechanics, which also lets the scenarists — Mr. Singer, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris and Simon Kinberg — give the characters some new emotional scars. Michael Fassbender’s Magneto, for instance, has found peaceful anonymity in Poland and has started a family. As adepts know, however, Magneto is destined for major supervillainy, and in the logic of supervillain character development, a mere tragic separation from one’s family just doesn’t cut it.
Because Mr. Singer has the technical chops to be a near-distinctive filmmaker (remember “The Usual Suspects”?), his X-Men movies have always delivered what could be called a higher class of superhero entertainment. It is no accident that no character in this movie appears wearing a costume until nearly a whole hour has passed.
It’s also pertinent that the X-Men movies have always been anchored by great actors. In the early ones, the roles of rival frenemy mutants Dr. Charles Xavier (he of the “live and let live” school regarding ordinary humans) and Magneto (of the “take care of them before they wipe us out” school) were played by Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Mr. McAvoy as the younger Xavier and Mr. Fassbender as Magneto are, in their way, just as convincing, and this film also, of course, boasts Jennifer Lawrence as the morphable mutant called either Raven or Mystique, depending on who’s doing the calling.
As for the potential bringer of apocalypse,En Sabah Nur is played by Oscar Isaac, who fares poorly through no fault of his own. Buried under makeup that leaves him looking like a renegade member of Blue Man Group, he has no chance to display the charisma that made him such a vital component of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” last year. Perhaps as a sort of private joke, he delivers many of his lines in the same kind of portent-laden stage whisper that Marlon Brando used as Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”
After laying waste to what looks like a deserted Cairo (En Sabah Nur has a real problem with post-Bronze Age architecture), the mutant villain and his handpicked four horsemen (don’t look at me, that reference is in the script) face off against Xavier and varied seasoned and unseasoned good mutants. The battle is more interesting for being played out on fields both physical and psychic. The wit of the moviemakers is displayed effectively here, and even more so in a rescue sequence showcasing the impossibly fast moves of the young Quicksilver.
But for every lively moment, there’s a reminder that the franchise is tiring. The genre’s emphasis on potential mass death is obsessive and unimaginative. At one point in “Apocalypse,” El Sabah Nur takes Magneto on a visit to Auschwitz, where Mr. Singer placed that character’s back story in “X-Men” (2000), the first film in the series. This narrative element seemed in extremely questionable taste at the time, although Mr. Singer presented it in a way that could also be seen as laudably ambitious. In this movie, the use of Auschwitz feels utterly cavalier.
“X-Men: Apocalypse” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned) for language and apocalypse. Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes.