Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Film Review - 'X-Men: Apocalypse'

Following the wildly successful release of Deadpool, earlier in the year, X-Men: Apocalypse finds itself in the somewhat unusual position of actually being the second film set in the franchises newly rebooted time-line – taking place in the aftermath of the time altering events of X-Men: Days of Future Past. At the same time, though, thanks to some increasingly convoluted internal chronology, this actually still does serve as the first film of the reboot franchise. Deadpool was, after all, a film set in the 'present day', while this film takes place in 1983.

Does that all seem a little too confusing? Well, as a life-long fan of both science fiction and fantasy, I haven't had any real issues keeping track of it all. But, I can imagine it as something that might need to be explained to any audience-members who haven't been keeping tabs on the franchises film history.

After the time travel shenanigans of the previous film, though, X-Men: Apocalypse also seems to be a film determined to present something a little more straight-forward to the audience.

Opening with a tense, and very entertaining, sequence set in Ancient Egypt, the audience is quickly introduced to En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), a powerful mutant well on his way toward conquering the entirety of the ancient world. It is only be virtue of a desperate, last-minute, betrayal during an important ritual that his campaign of conquest was stopped – with En Sabah Nur (who is, of course, better known as the villain, Apocalypse – though, that name is never actually used, in the film) being left buried beneath a collapsed pyramid, as a result.

Jump to the present day, and it seems that a small, but very devoted, cult as built up around this mysterious figure – all firmly convinced that, one day, En Sabah Nur will return. Which, of course, he soon does. Emerging into the modern world, this mysterious figure sees nothing but corruption and weakness – and so, he is more determined than ever to take over, and to reshape the world in his own image.

But, of course, he can't do it alone. Before he can begin his new reign of terror, En Sabah Nur sets out to track down the four most formidable mutants that he can find – recruiting them to fill out the ranks of his new 'Four Horsemen' (an idea which the bible, apparently, borrowed from him).

So, with this mysterious figure active in the world, once more, it seems that the only ones capable of stopping him are the X-Men – though, unfortunately, the previous team of X-Men have entirely disbanded, as Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) now seems more interested in turning his mansion into a genuine school, and something of a sanctuary for gifted individuals. Fortunately, there also happen to be individuals among the current group of students who may prove to be both willing and able to step forward, when they are needed.

So, it's a much more straightforward film, when compared to the previous one – but, the stakes are clearly just as high. Unfortunately, though, X-Men: Apocalypse is also a film let down by some fairly significant issues.

In the end, I think that one of the main problems that I had with this film was simply with the fact that none of its individual elements received the time, or attention, that they needed to make any sort of strong impression. Once we move past that, admittedly very effective, opening sequence, the film begins to display a frustrating tendency toward glossing over its various plot-points.

One moment, for example, we are being introduced to the idea that Magneto (Michael Fassbender) has tried to build a new life for himself, with a new family, in the time since the last film – then, in the next, they are taken from him in an abrupt, and painfully contrived, manner, so that he is angry enough to willingly join Apocalypse's 'Four Horsemen'. It was obviously intended to be a very important arc for this, already established, character – but, it also felt as though the film was a little too willing to gloss over the details in its efforts to get to the next important plot-point.

It is far from the only example of this particular issue I could call on, either - with many of the newly introduced characters, both among Xavier's new students and Apocalypse's 'Four Horsemen', receiving unfocused treatment. The younger versions of Cyclops and Nightcrawler that we meet, here (played by Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee, respectively), are each able to make a good impression – thanks, largely, to the likable performances given by the two young actors. But, unfortunately, the same can't really be said about the young Jean Grey – with Sophie Turner's efforts to portray such a reserved coming across as a little too emotionless. Though, in her case, it also didn't help that she seemed to be struggling with some truly awful dialogue.

Storm, Psylocke, and Angel (who round out the 'Four Horsemen', along with Magneto) also receive so little attention, throughout the film, that they barely even qualify as characters. But, beyond that, the fact that each of them seems to have been so easily won over by Apocalypse's vague promises makes them look either incredibly stupid, or irredeemably evil.

Maybe I'm remembering this incorrectly, but I always thought that the entire point of Apocalypse's 'Four Horsemen' was that there were brainwashed slaves who were, essentially, forced to serve him. But, here, we have each of them seeming to be perfectly willing to side with him, of their own free will. It's a seemingly simple change of context which proved to be very problematic to me, for some very specific reasons – primarily, with the issue of whether any of these people actually deserved to be allowed to 'redeem' themselves.

Even Magneto, who has had multiple films worth of character development to draw on, comes across as frustratingly shallow once he joins up with Apocalypse – and, the new characters don't even have that prior history to work with. This is especially frustrating when you consider that, if the film had simply kept the original context of the 'Four Horsemen' being brainwashed slaves, it would have been a significant improvement. It would have allowed for some genuinely dramatic scenes, where each of them was pulled away from whatever life they had managed to build for themselves (something which would have benefited Magneto, in particular). And, it would have made each of them into genuinely sympathetic figures. And, more importantly, it would gone some way toward excusing the lack of focus that each received throughout the film.

On a somewhat related note, I am perfectly aware, of course, that the entire point of changing the time-line was to give the film-makers the chance to do things a little differently – so, I don't have any real issue with the basic idea of Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) being cast as a reluctant hero, as opposed to the very eager villain she used to be. But, at the same time, I'm still not entirely convinced by Jennifer Lawrence's performance. There was just something oddly flat about her delivery, during many of her scenes.

These were fairly glaring issues, for me – which made it increasingly difficult to actually enjoy X-Men: Apocalypse, as the film progressed. But, despite that, the film also had some strong moments. The film's action sequences were, more often than not, genuinely impressive – clearly reliant on a fair bit of CGI, but presented in a way which still manages to feel suitable 'real'. Quicksilver's 'rescue' sequence, in particular, may actually be the best part of the entire film – managing to provide a great follow-up to his scene from the previous film. Also, the not entirely surprising (since it was spoiled in one of the film's own trailers) appearance put in by 'Weapon X' provided a very satisfying display of, admittedly somewhat toned down, brutality.

Performance-wise, also, James McAvoy continues to be a very entertaining as Charles Xavier. He still doesn't have quite the same level of presence and gravitas that Patrick Stewart was able to portray – but, he is also still playing a younger version of the character, so that doesn't feel like a failing. Tye Sheridan and Kodi Smit-McPhee also, as I have already mentioned, quickly proved to be entertaining new additions to the franchise. More important, though, while Oscar Isaac seemed to struggle during the character's more grandiose moments, he was still able to give a convincing sense of subtle menace during the film's quieter moments.

So, in the end, X-Men: Apocalypse was a film that felt messy, and more than a little unfocused – but, which still featured some strong moments. Unfortunately, though, the end result of all of this, for me, was still one of disappointment. As much as I might have wished it were otherwise, X-Men: Apocalypse just wasn't a film that I enjoyed.

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