X-Men

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
AudioDolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround
LanguagesEnglish (5.1, 2.0), French(2.0)
SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
Supplements10 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 CenturyFox
SRP$29.98

VIDEO
The THX-certified anamorphictransfer in the film's original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is excellent. Thefilm has a generally dark look, but it never appears murky orlacking in detail. Rather, colors are kept strong andwell-saturated, while black levels maintain admirable shadowdetail. The film has a number of different styles, ranging fromthe desaturated opening sequence in the Nazi concentrationcamp, to the dark, cavernous interiors of Magneto's lair, to theshiny, metallic walls of Professor X's underground labs. Thetransfer handles all of these styles very well without any hint ofartifacting, shimmering, or obtrusive edgeenhancement.

AUDIO
The soundtrack is available ineither a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround or a 2.0 surround mix. The5.1 surround mix is solid all around, with a rumbling low endand plenty of spaciousness in the imaging. Michael Kamen'sscore sounds excellent, as do the various sound effects. Thesurround speakers are used often and creatively, especiallywhen Professor X's voice is inside someone's head, seeming tocome from the back and front simultaneously.

SUPPLEMENTS
Unfortunately, it turns out that the most highly anticipatedsupplement on the "X-Men" DVD, the inclusion of additionalfootage not seen in theaters, is also the most disappointing.When the film was released theatrically, there were rumors ofdirector Bryan Singer having edited out up to 40 minutes offootage in order to streamline the film. The DVD includes sixnew scenes (roughly 10 minutes) not seen in theaters, which aresupposed to be viewable within the context of the film viaseamless 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 sceneshould be inserted, there is a pause of a few seconds duringwhich time the screen goes blank. Then, when the inserted scenecomes up, it is in nonanamorphic widescreen and ofconsiderably lesser visual quality (much, much darker) than therest of the film! Rather than these scenes being smoothlyintegrated into the narrative (some of them are actually slightlydifferent versions of scenes already in the film, so there isredundancy), they are clumsily inserted, drawing attention tothemselves and breaking up the movie's flow.

On a more positive note, the disc does include some nicebehind-the scenes information. In lieu of an audio commentary,the disc offers excerpts from director Bryan Singer's appearanceon "The Charlie Rose Show." The interview is convenientlydivided into five chapters according to subject matter: Why memade "X-Men," the challenge of bringing a comic book to life onthe screen, directing actors, learning from actors, and thechallenges of making a studio film. Another nice addition is abrief excerpt from Hugh Jackman's screen test for the part ofWolverine. Even performing in a studio sans costume, it isreadily apparent why the producers saw he was so perfect forthe part.

The art gallery is divided into two sections, "Character Design"and "Production Design," which combined contain 170conceptual sketches and paintings, documenting the process bywhich the look of the film was created (the Character Designsection 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 andthe Statue of Liberty fight sequence. These animatics aredetailed renderings of exactly how the scenes will look beforethey are filmed, including camera movements, making them farand beyond superior to traditional hand-drawn storyboards.

"Mutant Watch," a 22-minue pseudo-news program featuringBruce Davison's Senator Kelly, which was originally broadcaston HBO, is an interesting, if somewhat goofy, diversion. Eventhough it is obviously little more than a program designed tohelp market the film (it includes minimal new footage of Kellyin Senate hearings and lots of clips from the movie, somebehind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with key personnel),it is enjoyable in its own right. (On a side note, it plays on someamusing political stereotypes by making the intolerant SenatorKelly a Republican from Kansas, whose chief opponents at thehearing are socially liberal Democrats who implore that mutantsshould be accepted into society.)

The disc also includes two theatrical trailers (in nonanamphic1.85:1 widescreen and stereo sound), as well as three TV spotsand a music promotional spot.

©2000 James Kendrick


Overall Rating: (2)



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