Days of Godzilla past

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Lately, I found myself on a Qatar Airlines flight – tired, practically brain-dead, but with a neat little inflight entertainment audio / video system installed in the seat-back in front of me.  It seemed a good time to search the system’s cache of recent movie releases and select a couple of big dumb blockbusters that’d pass the time and not tax my weary mind unduly.  I ended up watching X-Men: Days of Future Past, the second prequel to the original trilogy of X-Men movies that appeared between 2000 and 2006 and were based on the Marvel comics; and this year’s remake of Godzilla.  Here’s what I thought of them.

 

When I heard in 2011 that they were filming a first prequel to the X-Men trilogy, entitled X-Men: First Class, set in the 1960s and featuring Scotsman James McAvoy and Irishman Michael Fassbender in the roles of the saintly Professor Xavier and the villainous Magneto (who’d been played in the original series by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen), I was apprehensive.  I had bad memories of the last time there’d been a prequel to a successful science-fiction movie trilogy starring a Scotsman and an Irishman.  Yes, Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson and Star Wars 1: The Phantom Menace, I’m looking at you.

 

In fact, I didn’t think X-Men: First Class was bad – it was just slightly disappointing that its story was told in such broad brushstrokes.  Now comes X-Men: Days of Future Past, with a cast that includes McAvoy and Fassbender and Stewart and McKellen.  You see, while most of it is set in 1973, part of it is set in a grim war-torn future, which means we get to see the young non-wrinkly Xavier and Magneto in the 1973 bits and their old wrinkly versions in the future bits.

 

Actually, watching this movie was weird for me because it was around 1973 that I started reading Marvel’s X-Men comic.  In the 1970s comic I remember Professor Xavier already being old, bald and confined to a wheelchair – i.e. he already looked like Patrick Stewart.  He certainly didn’t look young and funky like James MacAvoy in Future Past.  Meanwhile, the comic’s themes of ostracism, exclusion and racism, in a world where humanity co-exists uneasily with mutants who’ve developed superhuman powers, went completely over my juvenile head.

 

The movie starts in the future, with a surviving band of mutant superheroes, including Xavier and Magneto in their Stewart and McKellen incarnations (obliged yet again to join forces), making a final stand against an onslaught of destructive super-robots called Sentinels that’ve been programmed to wipe out mutant life-forms.  Indeed, in this apocalyptic future-world, the robots seemed to have done a good job of wiping out ordinary human beings too.  Desperately, Xavier and Magneto send the soul of the spike-fisted and eternally-youthful Wolverine, played as usual by Hugh Jackman, back in time to 1973.  There, in the body of his earlier self, he’ll try to prevent the incident that causes the creation of the Sentinels and begins the chain of events leading to the future war.

 

Yes, James Cameron ought to have sued the filmmakers for nicking his future-war / time-travel ideas from The Terminator movies.  Then again, Cameron himself was sued by the writer Harlan Ellison, who accused him of nicking his ideas from episodes he’d written for the old Outer Limits TV series.  So who knows where this scenario originally comes from?

 

Once Wolverine is back in 1973 (or in an exaggerated movie version of it, rife with wide lapels, shoulder-length hair, discotheques, mirror-balls, Vietnam Wars and crooked-looking US presidents), he goes off to enlist the help of the James-MacAvoy-version Xavier and Michael-Fassbender-version Magneto.  This isn’t easy, since (1) Xavier / MacAvoy has become a disillusioned junkie and (2) Magneto / Fassbender has been captured and imprisoned in a concrete cell many floors below the Pentagon.  To spring Magneto from his Pentagon cell, Wolverine assembles a mutant team consisting of the reluctant Xavier, the hairy but brainy Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Quicksilver (Evan Peters), a nonchalant teenager in a Pink Floyd T-shirt with the power to move faster than lightning.  And it’s here that the movie enjoys its best stretch.

 

The scenes where the superfast Quicksilver sprints through the Pentagon while bodies, bullets, flying knives and tumbling furniture drift through the air around him in eerie slow-motion are stunning.  Though if everything else is moving so slowly, I can’t figure out why his personal stereo (surely an anachronism in 1973 anyway) continues to play Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle at normal speed.

 

With Magneto free, Quicksilver disappears from the movie (alas) and the other characters jet off to Paris, where a Vietnam peace summit is about to begin and where the crucial event that’ll lead to the future war is about to happen.  Mystique, the saucy blue-skinned shape-shifting mutant played by Rebecca Romijin in the original trilogy and by Jennifer Lawrence in the prequels, is due to gun down a scientist / business mogul called Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), who’s designed the blueprints for the Sentinels.  Horrified by Trask’s murder, which it interprets as an act of mutant terrorism, the US government will go ahead with Trask’s plans and start manufacturing the Sentinels.

 

Well, Wolverine and co. manage to stop Mystique from doing the deed but – surprise! – back in the future, nothing changes.  Those pesky Sentinels are still there, besieging the fortress where the pension-age Xavier and Magneto are holed up.  The Beast helpfully explains that although you can go back in time and change one event, the overall flow of time may continue in the same direction.  To emphasise the Beast’s theory, the filmmakers show a famous episode of Star Trek based on the same idea, The City on the Edge of Forever, playing on a TV in the background while he’s speaking.  (Curiously, that episode was written by Harlan Ellison too.)

 

What follows, with the government and the still-alive Trask going ahead with the Sentinels’ production, Xavier and Wolverine trying to stop them and the Fassbender-version Magneto deciding, as usual, to jump ship and do his own nefarious thing, is a tad mechanical.  However, the likeability of both the characters and the actors manage to hold one’s interest.  There’s even a moment where, thanks to some mind-transfer jiggery-pokery, the young and old Xaviers are able to communicate across time.  Actually, it’s the young and old Magnetos who really need to hold a conference – so that McKellen can tell Fassbender to stop being a dick, get mucked in and help the others.

 

There’s fun in seeing the retro-looking but unfeasible Sentinels – far beyond the capability of 2014’s technology, let alone 1973’s – being unveiled on the lawn of Richard Nixon’s White House.  If you’ve seen the other X-Men movies, though, it’s best not to think about them too much because there’s a morass of continuity problems.  For instance, I can’t figure out how Patrick Stewart’s Xavier is still alive during the future war, since we saw him vaporised in the third movie, X-Men: Last Stand.  (It was suggested at that movie’s end that he’d transferred his soul into another man’s body, but surely his new body wouldn’t look like Patrick Stewart.)

 

Future Past also has a moment where an X-shaped beam of white light, with blue edges, is projected onto James McAvoy’s face.  The light resembles a Scottish Saltire and the actor had expressed concern about how stills of this might be used before the Scottish independence referendum.  “There’s an image of me…” he groused, “with basically a Saltire on my face, and I’m like, ‘Oh please, don’t use that for the f**king Yes campaign.”  Well, just for you, James, here’s that image with the Saltire on your fizzog.  Vote yes!  (Next time.)

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

In 2010, Gareth Edwards directed the low-budget British science-fiction movie Monsters, which was one of the most unexpected cinematic pleasures of recent years.  It’s a ruminative piece wherein two people are forced to traverse an abandoned central-American wilderness that a returning space-probe has inadvertently contaminated with alien life-forms.  In the process, they learn as much about themselves as they do about the weird creatures shimmering through the jungles around them.

 

I had mixed feelings when I heard that Edwards had departed for Hollywood to helm a big-budget remake of Godzilla, the 1954 Japanese movie that made its titular character, a giant, scaly city-demolishing monster, an icon of popular culture.  I thought it a shame that Edwards couldn’t continue to work in the UK, making small, personal and no doubt interesting movies.  On the other hand, if someone had to make a new version of Godzilla, it might as well be him.

 

The 1954 movie, directed by Ishiro Honda, was a gloomy parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb – nine years before Godzilla flattened Tokyo, the Japanese had seen that bomb flatten two more of their cities.  But subsequent Godzilla movies lightened up.  Godzilla became Japan’s unofficial champion, battling against other, nastier monsters like Rodan, Mothra and King Ghidorah whilst wrecking more Japanese cities in the process.  Edwards’ remake tries to have it both ways.  It wants to replicate the sombre tone of the original, but also to have some monstrous adversaries for Godzilla to fight against and more cities – Honolulu, Las Vegas and San Francisco – to level.

 

The film starts with two giant parasitic creatures called MUTOs being found, in larval form, in the fossilised remains of a vast creature that clearly belongs to the same species as Godzilla.  Years later, the MUTOs emerge from their chrysalises, one of which has ended up in Japan and the other has been transported to the USA, and start destroying everything in their paths.  They aim to meet up, breed and unleash hordes of new MUTOs on humanity.  Then, however, Godzilla emerges from the depths of the Pacific.  He’s a last survivor of an age when such gargantuan creatures overran the earth and, occupying the top of the food-chain, he’s programmed to hunt down, fight and destroy those MUTOs.

 

The movie’s best scenes are those where Edwards’ talents are most on display.  An early sequence set in a Japanese city that’s been long abandoned, Chernobyl-like, due to a supposed accident at a nearby nuclear power station – the disaster was actually caused by the arrival of one of the MUTOs, which feed on nuclear energy – evokes the strange, crumbling wilderness of Monsters.  There are memorable images later too, such as one involving a burning train and one where a group of marines jump out of a plane and skydive, trailing coloured streams of smoke, into a giant grey cloud of ash and dust below – the cloud marks the spot where Godzilla is slugging it out with the two MUTOs in the middle of San Francisco.

 

Unfortunately, the film is undone by its disjointed plot.  We have to rely on David Strathairn’s American admiral, whose warships are monitoring the Pacific, to find out what’s going on.  He shouts stuff like, “A MUTO has been spotted here!” and “Godzilla has been sighted heading there!”  And it doesn’t help that the film’s most interesting characters, played by Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche, disappear early on, leaving the less engaging Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the main focus.  Taylor-Johnson’s character displays an unlikely knack for surviving deadly situations.  I counted four seriously life-threatening predicaments that he manages to escape from during the film.  In two of them, he’s the only survivor while everyone else dies.

 

Fascinatingly, one of the movie’s supporting characters, a scientist (who again exists mainly to shout bits of plot exposition), is played by the English actress Sally Hawkins.  She’s best-known for playing the lead character in Mike Leigh’s 2008 comedy-drama movie Happy-Go-Lucky.  Maybe she could persuade Mike Leigh to direct the sequel to Godzilla.  I’d like to see how Leigh’s celebrated improvisational techniques would work with performers like Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and the Big G. himself.

 

Anyway, to sum up.  X-Men: Days of Future Past — 7.5 out of 10.  Godzilla — 6 out of 10.

 

(c) Warner Brothers / Toho

 

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