The latest installment of 20th Century Fox's "X-Men" franchise isn't just made to give you your ticket price's worth of entertainment on the big screen; it's also made, in no small part, to invigorate the series from the ground up, and it mostly succeeds. Gone are Brett Ratner and Matthew Vaughn, replaced by the director who smartly and smoothly launched the franchise, Bryan Singer.
The cast combines fan favorites from the first round of "X-Men" films, brings in the better players from "X-Men: First Class," and includes some new faces. The script, by Simon Kinberg, turns the 1980s classic comics storyline of the same name into a time travel cause-and-effect tale that also clearly allows for future movies in the franchise to continue unfettered by the chains of what has gone before. It's actually surprising that "Days of Future Past" works as a film at all, considering that it's really just Fox spending something like $250 million to shake a comic-book franchise canon's etch-a-sketch.
But as far as summertime comic-book blockbusters go, "Days of Future Past" has a lot going for it. It's cleanly and clearly shot and cut, with wit and humor lightening the bombast and ballast that can weigh these films down. It's also an appeal to our better selves -- a call for tolerance, co-existence and pacifism, an appeal made by characters who can hurl a baseball stadium at you with their minds or pop scary animal claws out of the back of their hands. And it's also a film about, yes, moral choice and its ramifications -- where a character's decisions matter, and matter a lot, for what comes next among the widescreen action set-pieces and fantastic fights.
The film starts in a bad future -- this was one of the most seminal "darkest timelines" from '80s pop culture, so it's not like it's ripping anyone off in 2014 -- where mutants and potential mutants and human sympathizers are rounded up and exterminated by huge, autonomous robots called Sentinels who are close to putting all humanity under their metal heels. A rag-tag group of our mutant heroes survives, but can't possibly defeat the adapting, malleable robots. A last-ditch plan will send the consciousness of long-lived franchise stalwart Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, enjoyable as ever in a character he wears as easily, and tightly, as his own skin by now) back to his own body in 1973, where he can prevent both the murder that made the Sentinel program a priority for the U.S. Government and help stop the stolen scientific breakthrough that made the Sentinels unstoppable conquerors...
So, hurled back to an afro-and-Wranglers-heavy 1973, Jackman tries to guide that era's X-Men like Professor Xavier (James McAvoy, good as a man ruined by fate) and Beast (Nicolas Hoult) as well as enemies like Magneto (Michael Fassbender, imperious and magnificent) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in an effort to re-shape the future by changing the past. The brain behind the Sentinels is Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage, mostly wasted), but the "bad guy" here is less important than the conflict within the group -- which is all part and parcel of the X-Men tradition in the comic books, where world-shattering exterior drama always took a back seat to tortured, expositive internal conflicts.
There's still fun here with all the sturm and drang -- there's a great '70s decor joke, and a better James Brown one. Evan Peters plays a new character, Quicksilver, a super-speedster who's young, dumb and born to run, and his sequence is full of wit and off-kilter charm in both the dialogue and the shooting. Much as the original X-Men comics storyline is changed here, this version of the character is different from the comics version, and thank goodness for that; as the recent, disastrous "Amazing Spider-Man 2" proved, it's hard to find much joy in a 2014 3-D movie that spends hundreds of millions to recreate, beat for beat, a 25-cent 2-D comic book that came out in 1973 or 1986 or 1962.
When "Days of Future Past" isn't swaggering, though, it can and does stumble. One familiar character apparently has a new mutant ability, clearly glued on without rhyme or reason to make the plot move, so lazily and badly you can see the welds; there are unnecessary scenes; and great actors like Dinklage are squandered. Yet even when it seems mercenary and muddled, "X-Men Days of Future Past" is enjoyable and well-made and actually about character, a necessary shot of adrenaline born of both inspiration and desperation for a franchise that desperately needed one.
The great irony is that you could close out the franchise here on a story level, but that's the last thing that's going to happen in a moviegoing business environment where selling audiences the next big sequel you're planning on releasing two years from now is just as (if not more) important as selling them the one released here-and-now. "Days of Future Past" has the storytelling and the spirit to be entertaining and engaging, but that feels more coincidental than anything compared to what the studio's trying to do. It's a brilliant gameplan for a studio: Manipulate time and space so you can finally make your big money-making series infinitely re-bootable, infinitely re-castable and assuredly profitable, until it sounds like, and is, a kind of prayer: Forever and ever, X-Men.
SCORE: 7.2 / 10