jennifer lawrence Michael Fassbender

X-MEN: APOCALYPSE Review: Let's All Squander Our Potential!

Monday, May 30, 2016 Rob Samuelson

X-Men: Apocalypse

Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Bryan Singer, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Oscar Isaac, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Evan Peters, Olivia Munn
Rating: Two stars out of five
Available in theaters now

It is unlikely that any filmmaker in Hollywood has benefitted more from the rise of pre-visualization artists than Bryan Singer. The army of digital painters shape most of the action sequences in major motion pictures, perhaps to a larger degree than even a film’s director. For someone who struggles with shooting believable action the practical way like Singer does, this has opened up the X-Men films in significantly positive ways. Such is the case with the ninth installment of the convoluted series, X-Men: Apocalypse, about a band of superpowered mutants who swear to protect a world that hates and fears them, this time in the early 1980s against a threat from the Biblical era. It features a handful of strong CGI set pieces, including the cave-in of a pyramid in ancient Egypt and a dynamite sequence with Quicksilver (Evan Peters) using his super speed to save dozens of people from an exploding building.

But, oh dear, the rest of the movie is a slog.

This is not to say Apocalypse is a wholly inept movie. Its structure is generally fine, with rising and falling action pretty much happening as it should -- nothing special, but it holds up well enough. It wraps things up in a relatively tidy bow. It is all about the proper use of power -- use it to help the powerless, Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) preaches in defiance of a totalitarian murderer who is instructing him to say just the opposite. That theoretically affecting, and perhaps even noble moral is implemented fairly efficiently, even if it is not prevalent enough to fully register. But the movie’s ambivalence about itself does it in and its technical elements obscure what is a potentially powerful theme. It leads to a condescending and lazy execution that doesn’t trust the audience to understand anything that is put on the screen.

Singer and company often start scenes the right way. Because they work in a visual medium, they are supposed to show rather than tell the audience what is happening in the film. However, after providing the visual information needed to understand what is going on, Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg immediately jump to explain it through clunky dialogue. It seems like they feel they need to really hammer home the point to the rubes spilling their buttery snacks all over the sticky floors in the darkened auditorium. When Beast (Nicholas Hoult) helps Xavier program Cerebro, the machine that amplifies Xavier’s psychic, mutant-finding powers to a worldwide degree, he says, “I’ll put in the coordinates,” as he pushes some buttons absentmindedly. Cerebro has appeared in almost every X-Men movie to date and probably does not need much explaining to people who are likely already fans of the cinematic series -- and maybe the comic books that inspired it, too. Of course, there may be newbies in the seats who are unfamiliar with how the machine works. But all they need to do is watch the special effects on display to clearly see that the machine is zeroing in on a map of Cairo, Egypt, a place already set up as important to the story.

If this were the only case of that tendency, it would result in nothing more than mild annoyance. Unfortunately this stuff is all over the movie. Someone explains electrified walls that trap our mutant heroes as if it were not obvious they were already trapped. Most groan inducing is a line from Quicksilver about not being able to break through an electromagnetic field generated by Magneto (Michael Fassbender) -- but before he even opens his mouth, there are several seconds of him becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to break through the field. It’s like Singer directed the actors to recite stage directions as part of their dialogue. It should be noted that it’s possible that Singer and the rest of the filmmaking team did not have smug feelings about the audience’s ability (or lack thereof) to understand simple visual cues. Instead, they may not trust their visual story’s potency. Either way, it reeks of unconfident filmmaking.

If the storytelling is lacking confidence, Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis), as the ancient Egyptian villain Apocalypse, is lacking sleep. His performance is like a punch-drunk fighter. He stares foggily into space past the other actors, speaking in a slightly malevolent (and electronically-enhanced) monotone 90 percent of the time. There are fleeting moments when lucidity snaps into place and he’s all rage. Otherwise he’s a bore. Jennifer Lawrence, in her third go-round with the franchise as Mystique, fares slightly better as the de facto new leader of the X-Men, although her been-there-done-that approach may reflect more on her attitude toward the series than a genuine starting point for a character arc.

Apocalypse, the world’s first mutant and mastermind of every dominant society’s extinction throughout history, goes about finding his mythical Four Horsemen to usher in the end of the world. They are all mutants familiar to fans of the previous films and the comics. Storm (Alexandra Shipp, playing the younger and curiously accented version of Halle Berry’s seemingly American character from previous installments), Angel (Ben Hardy, playing a weirdly time-traveling version of the same character Ben Foster played in the present-day X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006), and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, whose face may not move once throughout the movie) are as blank as blank slates can get. They join a grieving Magneto -- Fassbender is, as always, one of the strongest parts of these movies -- to form the ground troops that will help Apocalypse build a new world order, unless the X-Men can stop them.

The X-Men take a lot of time to get in gear for that showdown. The movie has a lot of characters to service, and it takes a long time to get to all of them. Some characters, like Mystique and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), disappear for nearly an hour while other characters and plot elements are introduced. This is where another of X-Men: Apocalypse’s key weaknesses comes in. The editing is not bad in the micro sense -- its shot-to-shot cutting is fine. But its pacing suffers greatly as it introduces the teenage versions of Cyclops (Tye Sheridan of Mud, taking over for James Marsden) and Jean Grey (Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner, replacing Famke Janssen). They are meant to be the audience identification characters, although the rest of the X-Men have already done the hard work of building empathy through the previous entries in the series. The bloat becomes too much and the already lengthy 144-minute runtime begins to feel much longer.

The action sequences thankfully provide some relief, at least in the big CGI extravaganzas. Golds and purples and reds clash in sometimes beautiful, almost abstract ways. It’s a shame that Singer’s longstanding issues with physical action come up time and again. His shot choices highlight that the actors being tossed around are connected to elaborate wire rigs -- they float through the air unnaturally rather than Singer cutting from them to make the effect believable. Within the combat sequences, Apocalypse takes some confounding leaps in logic, especially in regard to Psylocke’s abilities. Her pinkish-purple lightsaber-looking powers can either slice a car in half or act as nothing more than a colorful lasso, whichever the plot requires at the moment -- it’s never made clear why or how those changes happen, sometimes within seconds of each other.

Other logical inconsistencies irritate, most notably a kidnapped Charles Xavier being used against his will as a Fifth Horseman, which busts the movie’s previous attempts at Biblical symbolism. It never quite spirals out of control to become a true-blue fiasco, but X-Men: Apocalypse’s modest strengths never come close to balancing its many weaknesses. If the series gains greater confidence in itself, its audience, and perhaps even its genre, it could right the ship. Until that happens, it may be doomed to subpar entries full of over-explanation, performers bored out of their minds, and an overly long march to a halfway satisfactory moral ending.

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