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It's all of us, against a god.

X-Men: Apocalypse
(2016)

(SPOILERS) Low expectations? Perhaps. I was expecting something desperately dull, given the trailers. Which had nothing going for them at all, unless a pervading and discouraging air of familiarity is what you’re after. And the reviews I’d dipped into seemed to support that take. But X-Men: Apocalypse is actually quite engaging. Its villain is most certainly a dead loss, and the picture resoundingly fails to make the most of its premise (Raiders of the Lost Ark, or The Mummy-esque ancient forces unleashed), period setting (the ‘80s), and potential for expanding its movie universe (new X-characters, familiar ones introduced for the first and definitive time). At times too, it feels simply as if it’s content to rehearse the same old events or interactions that have been on rotation for a decade and a half now. Yet that wash of valid criticisms is balanced somewhat by Bryan Singer’s fourth X-entry being a lively affair, one that keeps up interest and momentum, at least until the inevitably over-pixelated finale.


Whatever transpires with Singer’s ongoing involvement in the franchise – and there are definitely a good few out there are willing this one to fail just so someone else gets the chance to usher in a new era – a different aesthetic is long overdue, as Apocalypse frequently looks unintentionally ridiculous. Apocalypse himself, and his Four Stooges of the Apocalypse, are decked out in the least impressive fetish gear imaginable, and prone to showing it off in the middle of disused warehouses, building sites or atop mountains (or at Auschwitz, as there’s nothing like summoning the Holocaust for a cheap plot device). Such unflattering posturing can only invite derisive chuckles. Right at the very end (well, not the very end as it has become, rather the last scene pre-the-post-credits scene), new X-costumes are introduced and – bated breath –  they include flashes of colour that aren’t black! Which is simply too little too late, and not nearly enough to shake off the feeling that Singer is stuck in the wrong era, one apparently of his own making.


Whichever era that is, it certainly isn’t the ‘80s, as he does nothing to make you conscious of the decade. It’s so invisible, what with desktop computers adorning every office in ‘83, it could be the present day. Not helping matters are the age-defying antics of the cast, who have leaped 20 years in the space of five. You can get away with ever-youthful mutants at a pinch, I suppose, although there’s no way Nicholas Hoult is selling it as a mature teacher, no matter how good an actor he is (and he’s undoubtedly a good actor). Lawrence is similarly very much not a 40-ish Raven.


Everyone must have been ultra-aware that Rose Byrne’s average human Moira MacTaggert was the rather becoming elephant in the room, though. Hence, dropping in the most obvious of lines (“You haven’t aged a day”), so blatant and winking it almost gets a free pass (sadly, Byrne has a next-to-nothing role, aside from granting James McAvoy a scene in which he’s allowed to be other than stuffy and sincere).


The trip to see Return of the Jedi lobs a deserved slight in the direction of Brett Ratner’s stinker of an X-Men: The Last Stand, when Jean Grey (reincarnated as Sophie Turner) observes, as if she’s been studying Kevin Williamson epics, but couldn’t be as it’s 17 years too early, that third instalments are always the weakest. Which is Singer knowingly playing with fire, Apocalypse being the capper to a three-decades-spanning trilogy of X-movies begun by Matthew Vaughn (First Class is easily the best of them, and the series as a whole). Apocalypse is definitely the least of the three, but fortunately it doesn’t even come near to the excruciating Last Stand.


For all his limitations as a director, which mostly come down to having little in the way of imagination (which lack he’s next due to unleash on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Singer’s a reliable pair of hands. He just isn’t very much more than that; since The Usual Suspects, he’s been relegated from potential auteur to journeyman, brandishing a merit badge simply for being a semi-known director (above and beyond his alleged extra-curricular activities). His saving grace is that, as undemanding as his pictures are, he is at least able to coordinate competent action, with due diligence, sense of location and perspective.


So he really shouldn’t be on the advisory board of the whole Fox X-Men shebang, for reasons both similar and different to Zack Snyder’s head-banger stint of auteurship at Warner Bros/DC (now rudely curtailed, well as much as it can be for someone mid-shoot, short of being fired). Singer doesn’t have much to say, either in terms of content or design, and what he did have, he exhausted in his first two movies (and, by rights, he should have used up all Fox’s good will by turning his back and heading off to make Superman Returns – which is the kind of boring movie I expected this to be – which, along with the by-accident success of Deadpool, rather evidences how undiscerning they are with their Marvel stewardship).


Because Apocalypse is, from conception down, an unenticing prospect. All it has to make it stand out, in contrast to the time travel shenanigans of Days of Future Past, is a lacklustre ‘80s setting. The villain conceit is tiresomely one-note, and Oscar Isaac, for all that he has become fanboys’ wet dream casting choice over the last 18 months (in anything, and everything), is entirely unmemorable. Yes, he shows off rolling the whites of his eyes as one of his many talents, but that isn’t enough. With this and his vastly over-geeked turn in The Force Awakens, he should probably just turn away from the adulation and get back to those really good indie roles, where he shines.


I’m not convinced En Sabah Nur would be interesting with someone else in the role, though, as he’s entirely wit-less (as in, not very witty) and entirely generic in design (when all the mutants here are blue, making your chief villain blue too is asking for apathy, as is giving him unspectacularly rote dreams of conquest). He’s also rather bereft of remarkable talents, aside from a nightmarish knack for meshing living flesh with concrete, rendered less visceral than it might be by the effects-heavy realisation.


There might have been some potential here, but even Roland Emmerich’s extinct-animals-and-aliens 10,000 BC reaped more dividends from a fantasy take on pyramid lore than Singer does (and why not, Emmerich’s a much more skilled director; it’s just that his grasp of material is even less rigorous). A race against time, an homage to Raiders, perhaps, preventing ultimate evil from getting loose, could have worked. What we get is devoid of atmosphere or mystery. The opening sequence is the blandest of bland CG-enhanced ancient visualisations, with only the most facile sense of world and physicality. And the arch-villainy devolves from here on. En Sabah’s only motivation is to be a bad guy, which makes it straightforward when he wakes up, applies himself to some new minions, none of whom are very interesting, with the deadly duds to match, and eventually bites off more than he can chew when the X-Men discover the merits of teamwork.


With some of the stodgy staging of the bad guys, you’d be forgiven for assuming Singer is taking his cues from Gary Goddard’s Masters of the Universe and its daunted sense of scale. If he’d brought a shred of humour to their machinations, he might have turned it to his advantage, but he’s entirely po-faced, completely killing any interest in Magneto when he joins the extra-dark side. Of which, Erik’s “Who the fuck are you?” is supposed to the movie’s funny X-funny-moment, but contextually fails as it completely undermines his inconsolable ire.


It’s ironic – or is it? – that the star-powered main trio of Professor X, Magneto and Mystique have the least interesting roles in the movie, but at least Erik starts off well enough. His domestic bliss comes as an offbeat surprise; it’s only when his beloved are inevitably cut down that Erik reverts to type. Still, though; that short sequence is the kind of thing Singer and these films can do well but all too rarely; exploring something out of the over-familiar wheelhouse. We're straight back into standard business after Erik has cut down a posse of Polish policeman with a pendant, as in almost the next scene En Sabah (I hate calling him Apocalypse, as no one else does, or if they do I blotted it out) initiates a near rerun, offing the heads of several assailants with some choice cuts of sand. When Singer’s onto a good thing he just has to milk it and then milk it some more.


So Fass is a non-event after he becomes one of En Sabah’s foot soldiers, right up until the entirely predictable turn towards the light, and his subsequent fond farewell to “old friend” Charles in the last scene. One thing becomes very evident, however. Magneto’s ability to reconstitute a decimated residence with no more than the power of his mutant-age would see him make a killing in the property market, if only he applied himself.


En Sabah’s other assistants aren’t up to much. Ben Hardy’s Angel is there to get his shirt off and killed, Olivia Munn’s Psylocke to sport a potent lack of pants, and Alexandra Shipp’s Storm to show that Storm needn’t be quite as wooden as she was in the guise of Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry.


Oh, and to be part of Singer’s very own X-Men Just So Stories. Yes, How the Storm got her Hair. How the Charles got his (lack of) Hair. And How the Wolverine got his Adamantine Claws. Oh wait, we’ve already seen that one. Still, it means a Hugh Jackman cameo, and it is a very good scene, even if it’s another rehash in terms of setting and content, so it gets a free pass (the post-credits sequence, with representatives of the Essex Corporation arriving to take vials of mutant extract, apparently hails the arrival of Mr Sinister in upcoming instalments, either Wolverine 3 or Gambit or both. Which I approve of, on the grounds that Mr Sinister is a great name for a villain, rather than because I know anything about him).


I’m not sure it’s possible to make Professor X a truly interesting character, but that may be a consequence of it being impossible to cast Patrick Stewart in an interesting recurring role at that stage in his career.  McAvoy is very good at the sincerely emotive, and relishes the chance for some slapstick verbiage when he first re-encounters Byrne, but how do you really make Charles less than insufferably upstanding? I can see it working if he’s the guy on the side-lines, like Charlie in Charlie’s Angels, but making him a star turn, and central to proceedings, tends to show up his limitations. He is, however, used well in a solid twist when En Sabah infiltrates Cerebro, even if everything that leads to is less than demanding.


Mystique? Well, I know she had a significant role, but I’m damned if I can recall much of it, beyond that she’s held as an exemplar by all the young mutants for coming out the way she did. A bit like Bowie, but inadvertent. But the same, by backtracking and leading a “normal” life. But then not, by embracing the blue. Lawrence is fine as Raven, but rather flounders as Mystique, lacking the the right kind of striking features for being covered head to foot in blue paint.


So what of the rest? One thing about this series is that, with the odd exception, Singer only really hit casting gold by mistake, when Jackman replaced Dougray Scott. I mean, maybe if the material had been more evocative he’d have elicited really incredible turns, but the X-Men franchise is mostly distinguished by merely solid performances. And so it is here.


One of the few standouts of the original iteration was Alan Cumming’s Nightcrawler, a truly idiosyncratic, oddball creation. Kodi Smit-McPhee isn’t that, but he makes a decent fist of things, and Kurt Wagner is sufficiently eccentric in persona and special skills to be memorable. In respect of the latter, the character is good for Singer, encouraging him to think about the scene in kind of technical terms that tend to reap dividends, as he becomes quite methodical and precise (the Whitehouse incursion in X2 is the best scene in that film; it’s just unfortunate that it is also the first one).


There’s altogether too much of mutants who haven’t mastered their skills in Apocalypse, even given that’s part of the point (to be charitable, I’d suggest this young and gifted thing was embracing John Hughes or Brat Pack movies, but given the general ambivalence to the decade I think that’s a stretch – although, that might explain Ally Sheedy showing up), so appropriately it’s another who encourages an overtly technical approach to the set piece, but who has honed his art, who comes up trumps. 


Yes, Quicksilver’s involvement pretty much kicks off with Singer doing a Greatest Hits from his last movie. As such, it couldn’t possibly be as glorious, particularly since it uses the (for me) much more familiar and so less persuasive Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This). But it’s a “can’t lose” visual conceit, and Evan Peters brings just the right casual bravado throughout, even ensuring his “I am your father” obsession doesn’t teeter into the mawkish. Quicksilver’s a highlight of the picture, and the mansion rescue scene is a lot of fun (even seeing it, as I did, in 2D, which is the ultimate tester for a 3D-designed set piece).


Sophie Turner’s okay as Jean Grey, but much better at the under-confident lip-trembling she offers in Game of Thrones than getting all medieval at the climax, which makes me wonder a little at her performance limitations. Tye Sheridan is undoubtedly a fine actor, and instantly makes Cyclops more engaging than James Marsden ever could, but by the end you’re really feeling how thin some of these characters are. I have to admit I didn’t even believe his brother Havok’s (Lucas Till) death was supposed to be real/permanent, because it and he were so disposable. 


Returning Sean William Scott-lookalike Josh Helman scores as Stryker, but – I don’t know how regularly he features in the comics – there is a feeling of over-stuffing the picture with already explored characters, themes and plotlines. Probably the best supporting cast member is incidental in the extreme, though; Tomas Lemarquis’ creepy black marketer Caliban, offering exactly the right kind of unsettling eyeballing.


Simon Kinberg’s screenplay manages to keep things more interesting than they have any right to be, mainly because he’s able to juggle ongoing themes and arcs (even given that they’re mostly familiar), so countering the humdrum of Apocalypse (ah, sod it, it’s easier than typing two names, and easier to remember). True, Erik, Raven and Charles aren’t on great form, but good actors are embodying them, and there’s a less-is-more consequence to intercutting their escapades with the new brood, such that director and screenwriter keep everything moving, be it Charles visiting the CIA or the detention by Stryker.


The movie only really splutters and gives up the will when it arrives at the rote confrontations of the climax, with Charles duelling a very big Apocalypse (the astral battle offered the potential for something different, but marks out just how limited Singer is in terms of flights of fantasy) and much pleading to Erik’s better nature. This needed a different way through its conclusion to satisfy, but instead we have more city-wide disaster-porn fatigue courtesy of a programmer’s desktop. An underwhelming finish for an underwhelming villain.


As I’ve noted, Singer’s aesthetic has long since lost any lustre it might have held back in 2000 (and even then it felt wilfully unremarkable, rewarded with the benefit of the doubt for being a soft entry point into a mostly unproven genre). It isn’t just the costuming, or the unrepentantly undistinguished cinematography from regular Newton Thomas Sigel. It’s the dramatic, or bombastic, choices too. The “X” formed by two girders when Magneto re-enters the fight is cheesy rather than rousing, and the musical cues are consistently tepid. John Ottoman’s score is banal, so consistent with his collaborations with the director to date, while Beethoven’s 7th is the most over-used of picks for that funereal feeling.


And the picture’s thematic undercurrents? It’s certainly curious that Apocalypse, an unparalleled bounder (who, unlike Erik, is simply and unremittingly evil), should be a force of chaos threatening the world from the Middle East, bent on bringing everyone else to his way of thinking. But only so curious, as first and foremost his motivation is lazy and derivative. Which is pretty much sums up the main plot of X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s down to the incidental pleasures, of which there are adequate, that the movie is as entertaining as it is.


I don’t think X-Men 7 (or 9, depending on how you tally) is in any danger of reaching Days of Future Past’s box office heights, which given the price tag may put the wind up Fox, but neither should it nosedive in its second weekend quite as badly as Batman v Superman (which does commit the cardinal sin of being dull). But even a middling-to-decent performance, combined with Deadpool proving you don’t need a $200m+ price tag to make a shedload of readies, may elicit a much-needed clearing of the decks. If there’s one thing Apocalypse proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s that placing fresh blood in front of the camera isn’t enough.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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