the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

X-Men: The Last Stand

I disliked the first X-Men. As any screenwriting 101 course will teach you, a film must have a beginning, a middle and an end. X-Men had no middle. Just as you felt yourself settling into the universe and its characters, the climax roared into view and the film ended. Very unsatisfying.

So I don't know why it was that I gave X-2 a chance. But I'm glad I did. The sequel was a fantastic thrill ride and easily one of the best superhero movies ever made. (The others, in case you are curious, are Superman 1 and 2, Spider-man 2, 1989's Batman and Batman Begins. I might be willing to include M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable if pushed ever so slightly.) The genre, for all its strengths, lends itself all too easily to, shall we say, silliness. It is this silliness that scuttles most superhero movies before they even have a chance to begin and use their admittedly unique genre-specific characteristics to comment on what human beings and our culture esteem, find heroic, and deem worthy of adulation and protection. But that is another blog.

It is only because of the supremacy of X-2 that I gave X-Men: The Last Stand a chance. I heard so many mediocre reviews and naysaying from friends that I went into the theater with low expectations and found myself, in the end, pleasantly surprised.

Oh, it's not a great film, but it doesn't suck either.

If I have one major complaint, it's that X-3 settles for style over substance. Say what you want about the first films, the franchise has always had a very strong undergirding of morality. While X-3 incorporates some of these ideas, it plays with them as a child would an advanced tool instead of utilizing it for its full and intended purpose. X-3 is satisfied with hints where it's predecessors were decidedly and unapologetically blatant.

The theme of mutants, the "other" if you will, and their persecution, exclusion and mistrust at the hands of the rest of the world's population is a powerful idea--one with which we can all relate. In X-3, a cure is discovered that has the capability to render the mutant gene ineffective, thus, for all intents and purposes, making mutants just like any other human being. Some mutants find this idea appealing--they just want to be able to fit in. Others see it as a false positive--this is who they are--there is nothing wrong with them in the first place. Still others fear the ramifications of such a cure--will it be administered voluntarily or without regard to free will?

But this is as far as X-3 is willing to take its philosophy. With just enough structure to hold a flimsy story, X-3 turns to what it, admittedly, does best--blowing things up in spectacular fashion. X-3 imagines an apocalypse with stunning detail. Rarely has a film resolved itself with this much bombast.

X-3 is shallower and because of it, may be more fun than the other films. It's a shame it cannot be both deep and fun. It may not be inspired, but it is terrifically entertaining. Brett Ratner has not destroyed the franchise as many fan-boys prophesied (though he dispatches our heroes as if he's reading from the Lost playbook). While former helmer Brian Singer's touch is missing, Ratner's hand is mostly invisible except in the aforementioned "dumbing down" of the storyline. Though Ratner cannot hold onto the same emotional intensity and philosophical gravity of the first two films, he puts on one hell of a show.

There's a lot going on in this film--too much, really and X-3 suffers under its own weight, especially in the first act. The scenes move clumsily and feel rushed, the dialogue is stilted, the characters inaccessible. But above all else, X-3 is about momentum and what's a little sacrificed character development and pathos if you can quickly get to another scene where you can ensure your CGI artists are worth what you're paying them? There are certainly moments here where effects appear for their own sake. It is not as obvious or shameless as last year's King Kong, but as impressive as it is to uproot the Golden Gate Bridge and turn it into a hovercraft, wouldn't it have been easier to simply commandeer a ferry? I know, I know, not nearly as dramatic. Still... Right or wrong, these are some of the best special effects I have ever seen, be they shades of the end of the world or a remarkable sequence in which Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen are de-aged.

It's a shame though--one senses that, given a different director (perhaps Singer) and some more time, X-Men: The Last Stand could have been a great, epic-length feature. Instead, it will have to settle for what it is--terrific summer pop-corn fare with dollops of unfulfilled potential.


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