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X-Men
Director: Bryan Singer
Screenplay: David Hayter (story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer)
Stars: Patrick Stewart (Professor Charles Francis Xavier), Hugh Jackman (Wolverine), Ian McKellen (Magneto), Anna Paquin (Rogue), Halle Berry (Storm), Famke Janssen (Dr. Jean Grey), James Marsden (Cyclops), Bruce Davison (Senator Robert Jefferson Kelly), Tyler Mane (Sabretooth), Rebecca Romijn-Stamos (Mystique), Ray Park (Toad)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2000
Country: USA
X-Men Poster

The problem with Bryan Singer's film version of the popular Marvel comic "X-Men" is that it has no discernible tone. Most comic-books-turned-movies live by their atmosphere; it's what sets them apart. "X-Men," however, just sits on the screen with no particular vibe. It doesn't have the old-fashioned cheer of Richard Donner's "Superman" (1978), the Gothic brooding of Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989), or the bizarre nihilist-romantic combination of Alex Proyas' "The Crow" (1993).

Legions of "X-Men" fans, young and old alike (it has been published since 1963), have anxiously awaited the release of this film. Singer, who made it big in 1995 with the Oscar-winning "The Usual Suspects," but fell on critical and commercial hard times with the ill-fated Stephen King adaptation "Apt Pupil" in 1998, has a great deal to prove here, both to the salivating "X-Men" fans who demand a product that lives up to their expectations and to the larger film community who, since his last film, has been left with the question, Is he a wunderkind or a one-hit-wonder?

Unfortunately, it's hard to tell from "X-Men." There are a few moments of genuine inspiration scattered throughout. The casting alone is a feat of genius, mixing hardened Shakespearean actors like Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen with fresh faces like the unknown Australian actor Hugh Jackman. Yet, the movie itself is somewhat shapeless. It is the obvious result of endless script rewrites from a parade of big-shot Hollywood writers who were never in sync with each other. The production was pushed up six months, forcing Singer to rush the editing and special effects, and rumor has it some 45 minutes had to be cut out in order to quicken the pace and bring the running time down to a lean 104 minutes.

Yet, not much seems to have been accomplished because "X-Men" never takes off. Of course, Singer is saddled with introducing a large cast of characters, all of whom have unique superhuman powers and complex psychological dimensions. Most films are kept busy with two or three such characters; "X-Men" has at least ten.

The film takes place in the not-so-distant future, as a new wave of human evolution is giving rise to mutants, human with an X-factor gene that gives them special powers. While a McCarthyesque Senator named Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison) spreads panic about the mutants in order to push his Mutant Registration Act, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick), a telepath mutant, runs the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters where he teaches runaway mutants how to harness and control their powers. Xavier's X-Men, who are determined to help mutants and humans live together peacefully, include Storm (Halle Berry), a woman who can control weather; Cyclops (James Marsden), who can shoot lasers from his eyes; and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), who is telekinetic and also a bit telepathic.

At the same time, Xavier's former best friend, a telekinetic mutant named Magneto (Ian McKellen) whose experiences in Auschwitz during World War II have convinced him that the government wants to exterminate all mutants, prepares a war between homo sapiens and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Magento's cronies include Mystique (model Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a shape-shifting blue-skinned woman; Sabretooth (wrestler Tyler Mane), a hulking man-beast with fangs and claws; and Toad (Ray Park, who played Darth Maul in "The Phantom Menace"), a green-faced character with the ability to climb walls and shoot out a 12-foot projectile tongue.

The plot in "X-Men" hinges on the discovery of two other mutants, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Rogue (Anna Paquin), who have not committed to either camp. Wolverine has always been the fan favorite, and it is little wonder why. With his indestructible skeleton made of a special metal called adamantium, nine-inch retractable claws, and ability to heal from almost any mortal wound, he is a powerhouse of a superheo who, like Batman, carries a great deal of emotional baggage. He is rounded out by the fact that he has no memory of his past, which gives him an edge of tragedy that helps explain his gruff demeanor. Rogue, though, is by far the most tragic of the characters. Played as a burgeoning 17-year-old (in the comic she is a curvaceous woman), Rogue cannot touch anyone with her skin because she absorbs that person's lifeforce and risks killing him.

The characters are established quickly, and it is to Singer's credit that he gives each of them a clear identity. Yet, they never gain anything more than that. They never truly come alive on-screen in a way that would explain how legions of fans have kept the comic alive for more than 37 years. Always described as a psychologically complex comic book that also works as a trenchant allegory about racial intolerance and oppression, the film bears only faint traces of such thematic depth.

As a thriller, "X-Men" is a special-effects heavy extravaganza that never really thrills. The movie's $75-million budget is on ample display, with plenty of gee-whiz light displays and loud explosions, yet it makes much of an impact. The battle scenes are mostly perfunctory, with little originality or sense of danger. It is, in the end, a movie into which a great deal of effort was expended for disappointingly tepid results.

X-Men DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
LanguagesEnglish (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
Supplements 10 minutes of never-before-seen footage
Fox Special: "Mutant Watch"
Interview with director Bryan Singer
Hugh Jackman's screen test
Art gallery
Animatics (animated storyboards)
Two theatrical trailers
Three TV spots
Music promotional spot
THX OptiMode test signals
Distributor20th Century Fox
SRP$29.98

VIDEO
The THX-certified anamorphic transfer in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is excellent. The film has a generally dark look, but it never appears murky or lacking in detail. Rather, colors are kept strong and well-saturated, while black levels maintain admirable shadow detail. The film has a number of different styles, ranging from the desaturated opening sequence in the Nazi concentration camp, to the dark, cavernous interiors of Magneto's lair, to the shiny, metallic walls of Professor X's underground labs. The transfer handles all of these styles very well without any hint of artifacting, shimmering, or obtrusive edge enhancement.

AUDIO
The soundtrack is available in either a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or a 2.0 surround mix. The 5.1 surround mix is solid all around, with a rumbling low end and plenty of spaciousness in the imaging. Michael Kamen's score sounds excellent, as do the various sound effects. The surround speakers are used often and creatively, especially when Professor X's voice is inside someone's head, seeming to come from the back and front simultaneously.

SUPPLEMENTS
Unfortunately, it turns out that the most highly anticipated supplement on the "X-Men" DVD, the inclusion of additional footage not seen in theaters, is also the most disappointing. When the film was released theatrically, there were rumors of director Bryan Singer having edited out up to 40 minutes of footage in order to streamline the film. The DVD includes six new scenes (roughly 10 minutes) not seen in theaters, which are supposed to be viewable within the context of the film via seamless branching if you want to see the extended cut. However, unlike other seamless branching discs (notably Fox's "The Abyss"), the branching here is not seamless. Rather, when the movie comes to a point where a new scene should be inserted, there is a pause of a few seconds during which time the screen goes blank. Then, when the inserted scene comes up, it is in nonanamorphic widescreen and of considerably lesser visual quality (much, much darker) than the rest of the film! Rather than these scenes being smoothly integrated into the narrative (some of them are actually slightly different versions of scenes already in the film, so there is redundancy), they are clumsily inserted, drawing attention to themselves and breaking up the movie's flow.

On a more positive note, the disc does include some nice behind-the scenes information. In lieu of an audio commentary, the disc offers excerpts from director Bryan Singer's appearance on "The Charlie Rose Show." The interview is conveniently divided into five chapters according to subject matter: Why me made "X-Men," the challenge of bringing a comic book to life on the screen, directing actors, learning from actors, and the challenges of making a studio film. Another nice addition is a brief excerpt from Hugh Jackman's screen test for the part of Wolverine. Even performing in a studio sans costume, it is readily apparent why the producers saw he was so perfect for the part.

The art gallery is divided into two sections, "Character Design" and "Production Design," which combined contain 170 conceptual sketches and paintings, documenting the process by which the look of the film was created (the Character Design section also includes a few photos of props, such as Cyclops' glasses and Wolverine's prosthetic arm).

Another interesting inclusion are two animatics, or rough, computer-animated storyboards, of the train fight sequence and the Statue of Liberty fight sequence. These animatics are detailed renderings of exactly how the scenes will look before they are filmed, including camera movements, making them far and beyond superior to traditional hand-drawn storyboards.

"Mutant Watch," a 22-minue pseudo-news program featuring Bruce Davison's Senator Kelly, which was originally broadcast on HBO, is an interesting, if somewhat goofy, diversion. Even though it is obviously little more than a program designed to help market the film (it includes minimal new footage of Kelly in Senate hearings and lots of clips from the movie, some behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with key personnel), it is enjoyable in its own right. (On a side note, it plays on some amusing political stereotypes by making the intolerant Senator Kelly a Republican from Kansas, whose chief opponents at the hearing are socially liberal Democrats who implore that mutants should be accepted into society.)

The disc also includes two theatrical trailers (in nonanamphic 1.85:1 widescreen and stereo sound), as well as three TV spots and a music promotional spot.

Overall Rating: (2)




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