In the erstwhile Soviet Union, where revisionism of inconvenient history had been elevated to an art form, it used to be said in jest that the future was certain enough, only the past was unpredictable. Sci-fi fantasists have frequently advanced imaginative time-travel narratives where it is possible to change the course of the future by tweaking the past.
The latest offering from the X-Men franchise, Days of Future Past, is a fanciful (and enormously entertaining) exploration of that theme. It’s 2023, and mutants — those shape-shifting beings endowed with super powers — have been exterminated to near-extinction by the Sentinels, giant killer robots designed by humans in the 1970s ostensibly to protect humans from the ‘other’. If the mutants are to be saved from that apocalyptic fate, the course of history — and, in particular, one key event centred around the killing in 1973 of the robots’ creator — must be changed with retrospective effect. The responsibility of breaching the time-space continuum and flicking the switch of history the right way falls on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), whose consciousness is teleported to the Richard Nixon era. How he goes about accomplishing his mission makes up the details.
Of details, there are aplenty. The many-layered narrative, which shifts back and forth in time and space, requires a mind-bend to grasp, not unlike Christopher Nolan’s Inception. But it is a tribute to director Bryan Singer’s finesse that he transports us on that epic journey without inducing motion sickness or getting us muddled.
Time travel genre storylines are also challenging for screenplay writers, since an internal consistency in the narrative must be maintained with earlier stories. Recent offerings from the X-Men franchise haven’t quite been so particular, compromising fidelity at the altar of expediency of the moment. But Singer, who essayed the first two X-Men films (which were by far the best and the most successful), is evidently acutely aware of the burden of his legacy.
He marshals an all-star team, reprising his original stars Patrick Stewart (the elder Professor X), Ian McKellen (the elder Magneto) and Halle Berry (Storm); and, of course, Hugh Jackman carries the film on his broad and muscular shoulders, along with other old-faithful mutants. Singer also returns the X-Men franchise to doing what it’s best at: providing wholesome, spectacular entertainment, with a quirky touch. For instance, the scene in which Quicksilver (Evan Peters) freezes time, in a thrilling action sequence set in the kitchen of the Pentagon, and goofs off while simultaneously staging the jailbreak of a young Magneto, is both gripping and giggle-inducing.
In that sense, the film’s theme itself is a metaphor for what the X-Men franchise was going through. After the success it enjoyed under Singer’s directorial venture in the first two outings, the X-Men storyline had seemingly run out of steam. And in handing the project back to Singer, it is the X-Men franchise that is, in a manner of speaking, travelling back in time to fix a few glitches and avert a dismal fate. That enterprise is a huge success: the X-Men franchise may have just secured its future with this one.
Genre: Sci-fi superhero action
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Halle Berry
Storyline: Exterminated in the future, mutants tweak their past to avert their extinction.
Bottomline: Travelling back in time to fix things — and returning to what it’s good at — the X-Men franchise redeems itself.