'X-Men: Days Of Future Past' Review: A Tight Blast Of Mutant Action

X-Men: Days of Future Past is not only the latest chapter in the cinematic life of the X-Men. It is an attempt to rectify some mistakes made in previous films, particularly X-Men: The Last Stand. It is a Charles Xavier origin story of sorts, and also a Wolverine movie; no matter how many mutants Fox splashes on the posters, this is the continuation of Wolverine's evolution from animal to man. And for a film that ranges from 1973 to future decades hence, it is also a rather contained, character-oriented story.

As Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) travels into the past to help Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) realize his potential, Wolverine also truly comes into his own. As a character piece, there's a bit of a cheat, as Wolverine has the benefit of tremendous foresight. But while he knows where he has to go, he doesn't know how to get there. Despite the myriad ways in which Days of Future Past is unlike the X-Men comics, it plays out as a solid special issue, a rip-roaring tale of power and old-fashioned good versus evil. It is an unusual summer "blockbuster," and stands among the better X-Men movies.

In the early '70s, while Nixon is still in office, the shape-shifter Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) kills the anti-mutant industrialist Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). That act leads to a future in which mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, designed by Trask, are put into service. The Sentinels hunt and eventually kill nearly every mutant alive. The robots' actions lead to a point where, in the not-too-distant future, much of the Earth looks like an apocalyptic set for a Terminator movie.

A few X-Men survive, using a combination of powers to stay just ahead of — and, in a temporal sense, behind — the Sentinels. They rally around Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page), who uses her powers to send the consciousness of present-day Wolverine back to his early '70s body. His task: gather the discouraged Charles Xavier and the imprisoned Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) to prevent Mystique from ever killing Trask. Hopefully, that will avert the crisis of the future.

Time-travel stories can become complicated quickly, and director Bryan Singer, screenwriter Simon Kinberg, and especially editor (and composer) John Ottman keep the action flowing in a clear stream that carries the audience along at a good clip. Ottman deserves an award, frankly, for ensuring that the audience is never confused, and that the stakes in any given segment are always clear.

Those who've read the original comics run that gives the film its basic plot and title should know by now that this is a liberal "translation" of that tale. There are character and tonal differences, among many alterations. What the two stories share is an attention-getting premise ("This Issue: Everybody Dies!" proclaimed the cover of one original issue) that changes far less than it threatens to, and ends with a sense of re-established status quo.

Most of the mutants in the future are little more than action figures. They fight with glorious displays of power, but you won't learn a thing about Blink (Fan Bingbing), who is like a human version of the game Portal, or Warpath (Boooo Stewart), who tracks people, or something. Seeing all those powers in action is enough to give the movie a kick, however, and the ticking clock established by the "future" scenes allow Ottman to maintain an insistent energy.

The meat is all in the past, where Xavier battles an addiction metaphor to evolve into a leader. Simultaneously, Wolverine finds himself struggling to lead, and the tension between he and Xavier is the film's heart. Jackman has grown so thoroughly into his role that he can hold his own against the forceful, intuitive performances from McAvoy and Fassbender, and Singer clearly enjoys crafting the scenes in which their story develops.

Yet no character represents the movie's personality better than Quicksilver, who like most of the film's characters is quite different from his comic book counterpart. Evan Peters plays the hyper-fast child of Magneto (a fact hinted at through pointed allusions) as a troubled, headstrong kid. At a time when mutants are still living mostly underground, Quicksilver isn't shy about his nature. He has embraced his powers, and uses them to steal, gather information, and win at Pong. His mom seems to take it all in stride, to whatever degree possible — this is a far cry from Bobby Drake's mom asking him, in X2, if he'd ever tried "...not being a mutant?"

But Quicksilver is not the film's focus; instead, he's a guy racing by the movie's plot. He's there, and captivating to watch while on screen, and then gone.

His action looks great in the moment; Peters strikes the perfect tone as the brash, haughty speedster. He runs about, careening from speed-ramped velocity to hyper-slow motion, impishly attacking foes. And if you get the feeling that Singer is redoing the first Nightcrawler action scene from X2 with better effects... yeah, he is, to a degree. But that's OK. The sequence works. It is fun, and brash, and fairly unique, despite the resemblance to Nightcrawler's debut on film.

The run of Marvel Studios films has conditioned us to expect a strict sense of continuity from one film to the next. The X-Men movies, however, tend more to live in the moment, disregarding hardcore continuity rules in order to tell whatever story is at hand. From time to time Days of Future Past is intent on dealing with some continuity questions created by previous films. But once this film is over, serious trainspotters might spend weeks talking about a few issues.

One thing bugs me about the ending, and to reveal the problem would be a spoiler. I'll say simply that the end of this film nearly invalidates the emotional victories of at least one other movie in this series. The trade-off? A gain that is significant in a certain sense, but raises questions when considered across the span of the X-Men series. While series-building previously was not the concern of any one story, it is now part of how these films are made, and something audiences expect to see. Watching future X-Men filmmakers capitalize upon this ending will be interesting.

Days of Future Past allows Singer to revisit familiar themes of mutant persecution and some familiar action points as well. This may not be much of a game-changer for the X-Men series, but it is an action film with a speedy pulse that spends just as much time with characters as it does setpieces. It builds on the fresh cast of First Class and proves that Singer, Kinberg & Co. can use confidence and showmanship to keep the X-Men alive for years to come./Film score: 7.5 out of 10