It is funny how having seen X-Men: Apocalypse, I couldn’t really explain to anyone how James Mcavoy's Charles Xavier lost his hair. When it happens, it is interesting but any form of reasoning behind it will be hard to find. This sentiment could be true of majority of a film that is essentially an empty barrel. Our director here, Brian Singer, has paid his dues to the superhero genre. We have seen him reach undoubted heights with this very franchise but here, he is at best labouring in neutral on a journey rampant with some of the most pointlessly punishing CGI.
Warning: the CGI on show here may deliver physical pain to some people. Of course we see some cool snippets of CGI use and unsurprisingly, these are in the more grounded, toned down moments of the film. But then there a moments of insane city level destruction and excruciating earth bending that are simply mind boggling. I’m tempted to think Singer had more money that he needed because a lot of the turned-up-to-11 CGI use is as much ponderous as it is borderline criminal. I know there is an attempt at story but God, does the criminally lazy CGI all but negate the few positive strides this film makes.
Scratch that last point, there is no real attempt at a story here. The script is also a bit of tonal mess and Singer fails to really control the pace of this film, hitting different beats that exist well enough but, they never come together in any way that remotely resembles cohesive. It makes you appreciate what a Joss Whedon did with a film like the Avengers and how that balance is actually quite difficult to strike. Watching proceedings, it is quite clear there is a lot of reel under somebody’s bed and much like a door without hinges, it’s really easy knock down the doors Singer thinks he may have so carefully crafted.
The question then becomes; do I really want to knock some of these doors down? Not necessarily. Comic book movies make a lot of money because they hit that soft spot. A few of the doors without hinges, we carefully open to keep things in place - in our heads at least. Most of them we just rush through with abandon like there's a spider on the frame. In this case, the spider is the CGI. The first few doors we run through lead to the most mundane of origin stories which is bizarre given Singer kick started this franchise. Maybe he tried to hammer home ideas that toyed with cycles especially given the presence of the eponymous Apocalypse (Oscar Issac) who has watched human nature play out in cycles but, Apocalypse just wants to rule the world – that’s the story we have here.
It should be noted that the X-Men have not really had an origin story onscreen so you could argue Singer’s approach is a novelty for this franchise but the chunks of this film that settle for quasi origin status look like substitutes for lack of screenplay ideas. The first act looks to introduce us to icons in Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Angel (Ben Hardy), via Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) who has a pastime rescuing mutants just because. We also meet a young Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) and Jean Grey (Sophie ‘Sansa’ Turner) and to the film’s credit, there may be something going on here.
Summers and Jean interestingly mirror each other in that they are both struggling to cope with their powers whilst also trying to live up to expectations of those around them and indeed, the audience. We know the attraction will come but will it be earned? Will the characters have the requisite agency to do justice to a potentially compelling dynamic and God willing, love triangle? Only time will tell because the signs we get for the duo aren’t pointing towards disaster because Sheridan and Turner are undoubtedly strong performers but we aren’t leaving this film talking about Scott Summers and Jean Grey like we were T’Challa a few weeks ago.
On an individual level, Turner hits the beats we expect as she portrays a Jean Grey still trying to come to terms with her abilities as the shadow of the Dark Phoenix creeps ever closer. Summers is a bit of a delinquent and a far cry from the straight arrow we know he will become. Problem is Singer tells us this with a few gratuitous scenes; Jean having nightmare that scares the students and Summers breaking bounds to give Nightcrawler a taste of American culture via the Empire Strikes Back. These moments (sandwiched between more asinine CGI fare) just aren’t enough to flesh out these two important characters to the franchise going forward.
This film also answers an important question I have had on my mind for over a year; how did a man like Oscar Isaac manage to handle projects like A Most Violent Year, Star Wars VI, Ex Machina and Show Me a Hero? The answer lies in the bland character he tries to embody in Apocalypse. He was actually on vacation for this film. You remember the Wolverine and the X-Men animated series; an infinitely better portrayal of Apocalypse than we see here from Isaac. Apocalypse is supposed to be an Old Testament god, an apocalyptic force, the imposing audacious Alpha and Omega of mutants. Why then does this script want for menace and stakes?
For the record, Apocalypse wants mutants to take over the world, and with him as the leader. Not much more to it. Where was is subtext Mr. Singer? You directed X2! Let me play nice a little: there is a sense Apocalypse is seeking some sort of Godlike status – trying to build his own tower of Babel by seeking Godly attributes like omniscience whilst acting like humans are now too preoccupied by false gods. That is as stimulating as it gets I’m afraid. The bland nature of this primary antagonist is pestilence to this film and speaking of which, it translates to his iconic four horsemen who look interesting for a minute but just fizzle out.
We have (Arch)Angel, Psylocke (Olivia Munn) and a "retro" Storm (Alexandra Shipp), who is refreshing step up from Halle Berry’s portrayal. Shipp also benefits from a slightly more layered character than Angel and Psylocke who look good but are as two dimensional as it gets. Then there’s Michael Fassbender’s Mageneto who has been one of the most compelling comic character translations onto the big screen and we see snippets of why. Hoverer, Magneto just morphs into the poster boy for overplayed angst and pathos as Singer makes light work of some monumental moments just for some CGI laden pay off.
Is this film all doom and gloom? Maybe but there are some moments of respite – one including the visually stimulating moment involving the fun Quicksilver (Evan Peters) and The Eurythmics' “Sweet Dreams”. Then there was the drool-inducing berserker moment that is purest thing that this film has to offer and almost worth the price of admission alone – almost. This film is ultimately disappointingly empty and that’s without me griping about the listless action sequences. The CGI just put me off and if only we had been given some more of those character moments that are lying under Singer's bed.