Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is barely in control of her abilities. Following a mission that takes the X-men into space, she is imbued with the power of a celestial being (providing powers very similar to the ones she already had). As she finds herself ever more volatile, bringing herself into conflict with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Raven Darkholme (Jennifer Lawrence), she finds herself seduced by the mysterious Vuk (Jessica Chastain) who has her own designs on the Phoenix.
I’ve always enjoyed the fairly messy continuity of the X-men films, both behind and in front of the camera. There is no one auteur you could point to as the author of the franchise, and it’s often served as a testing ground for some truly ambitious storytelling. After all, any misstep can be quickly revised by a future film or half-reboot. This film is attempting to end a cycle started by First Class, and invokes a great deal of that film’s dialogue and character moments. However, there’s little of that film’s dramatic and stylistic energy here.
Another quality of the X-men films has always been over-ambition. They attempt to tell far too many stories at once, and sometimes the overall result is still satisfying, such was the case with First Class and Days of Future Past. However, very much like Apocalypse, this film feels like a lot of missed opportunities. Attempting to tell the story of Jean Grey and her godlike powers, an alien invasion (of a world that has not experienced aliens before), a new young team of x-men, the disillusionment of professor X and beast, the mutant nation of Genosha, and one character’s death. Film’s failing to take their time to tell contained stories is becoming a frustratingly common trend.
Consequently, a lot of seemingly important moments go unremarked. Character’s change motivation on a whim and story-lines are introduced and abandoned very abruptly. The script features much cliched dialogue, such as “I am protecting them…from YOU!” and “A better question is, who are YOU?” There’s little that feels natural or inventive. There’s very little subtext as character’s tend to speak aloud their inner struggles and conclusions. A little nuance or trust in the actors may have made this a little easier to invest in. It’s very much a screenwriter’s film.
I do believe the film is an improvement on the previous attempt to adapt the Dark Phoenix saga, The Last Stand. This film correctly focuses on Jean and her struggle to control her past, and the struggle for her heart and mind becomes the focus of the film. I enjoy the concept of Professor X and his need to protect everyone as being the villain. But his turning point is unearned, though not as unearned as his BFF Magneto who mocks Charles for his habit of making lengthy speeches just at the right moment, before succumbing to one.
The action is patchy. Some moments recall just how special it can feel to see these mutants in action. The opening car crash and shuttle disaster (borrowing heavily from the aesthetics of Gravity) are very striking. Elsewhere things are shot too close to make out. In particular Nightcrawler’s teleportation effect often takes up the entire screen, blotting out vast amounts of the frame. Quicksilver is, as always, under utilised and the uniquely wonderful aesthetic of his slow motion world are limited to just two sequences. The final train sequence has some flare, but far too much of the action is just tight close ups on screaming faces and CGI nonsense.
Performances are mixed. Sophie Turner is very affecting in the lead role and manages rage and frustration as well as sorrow and loss very well, even if her accent does slip a little now and then. James McAvoy is attempting to bridge the gap between his foppish young Charles and Sir Patrick Stewart, but is far more affecting in the flash back sequences in which he speaks naturally and seems like the father figure he tries so desperately to be. Jessica Chastain plays the cold alien being with an aloof detachment that more or less works. Other performers are given very little to do, though Nicholas Hoult is afforded an affecting argument scene.
It does have to be said though that Hans Zimmer’s score is fantastic. It may be a little too reminiscent of parts of Dunkirk, but there’s a palpable sense of menace and scale. He may well be scoring the climactic final chapter that this film promised to be. It’s nice to see Zimmer return to the genre that made him huge, but once again he is relied upon a little too much to do the heavy lifting in terms of emotional investment.
X-Men Dark Phoenix is not a satisfying end to a nearly decade long cycle of X-men films, and certainly not to a franchise that has been generating some of the stranger and occasionally more daring superhero movies for the past two decades. It’s a familiar story told with only occasional flourish.