X-Men: The Last Stand Review
After three X-Men movies, I'm convinced the cinema isn't the right medium to do justice to the material. The films have been enjoyable enough and the latest, X-Men: The Last Stand is a very respectable entry in the series but isn't there more to Marvel's superhero saga than what we're getting here? Much more? Even a X-philistine like myself who's never picked up one of the comics in his life can tell these films are barely scratching the surface of a vast fictional world filled with characters the films don't develop and ideas and allegories they gloss over.
This one begins with a topical concept: scientists have developed a cure for the mutant gene. This development has split the growing mutant population into those who see it as a godsend, a chance at a normal life and those who see it as an insult, a threat, the prelude to their eradication. While moderate mutants like Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) fret over the implications, the radicals commanded by Magneto (Ian McKellen) prepare for war.
The cure opens up a thought-provoking issue that X-Men: The Last Stand frustratingly fails to explore. What are we to make of advances in genetic science that allow us to weed out human defects like diseases and disabilities, along with other traits some view as defects such as homosexuality? It's an enormously complicated subject. This film raises it, toys with it and ultimately uses it as a plot device to set up a big battle between rival groups of mutants.
I can imagine this plotline inspiring a whole 24-episode TV series, which could go into the rights and wrongs of the cure in far greater depth and still find time for plenty of mutant smackdowns. Maybe episodic TV is the best place for the X-Men (someone call JJ Abrams). The Last Stand runs an hour and forty-five minutes, precious little of which can be devoted to ideas.
Vying for screentime is another major storyline, involving Famke Janssen's character, Dr Jean Grey, who was supposedly killed in the previous film, X2. As the last shot of that movie suggested, Dr Grey isn't quite dead after all. This comes as a shock to her two suitors - Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and Cyclops (James Marsden) - though bigger shocks are in store for them. If Jean isn't quite dead, she isn't quite herself either.
Along with these two plot threads, there are subplots involving other characters. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is tempted to have herself cured so she can touch her boyfriend without harming him and so his eyes will stop wandering - I guess this is a metaphor for teenage girls who aren't happy with their bodies. Magneto's ally Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) has been captured by the government. The developer of the cure is having trouble with his own mutant son, Angel (Ben Foster). Oh and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Pyro (Aaron Stanford) are still pissed off at each other.
There are a lot of these subplots, some involving new faces, some involving familiar ones. There are at least two dozen characters and all must have something to do, even if it's just a running joke. A few characters face... let's just say very dramatic developments, some of which are affecting and some of which seem gratuitous. The movie is a little self-conscious in the way it tries to shake things up. It also chickens out in certain cases.
Then there is the action. There must be plenty of it and it must be spectacular - X-Men: The Last Stand is a summer blockbuster after all and the X-Men fans who have come to see social allegory and character-based drama are outnumbered by the Saturday night moviegoers who have come to see people in cool costumes doing battle with one another. As spectacle, The Last Stand certainly delivers. The action scenes are excitingly done and they're well-rationed, the best stuff being saved for the climax - a colossal mutant bust-up on Alcatraz Island. One of the nice things about the X-Men films is that they're not just one noisy set-piece after another.
Another nice thing is the quality of the cast. Although no one is exactly stretched, casting the likes of Ian McKellen adds something tangible. McKellen as always has the choice role, the villainous but not entirely irredeemable Magneto. Patrick Stewart brings his trademark gravity and decency to Professor Xavier. However, once again the film is Hugh Jackman's show, which is fair enough since of the younger actors he's far and away the most charismatic and he seems to be having the most fun. Famke Janssen is memorable too but the rest of the regulars either overact embarassingly (Halle Berry) or don't get enough screen time to really register (everyone else).
Of the new boys and girls, Kelsey Grammer makes the strongest impression as Hank McCoy, aka Beast, the mutant appointed to the President's Cabinet. I'd like to have seen much more of his character. I also enjoyed Vinnie Jones' performance as Juggernaut - wisely, he's been allowed to play the part for laughs.
Director Brett Ratner, who upset a lot of fans when he signed on to the project, has done a perfectly good job. He doesn't bring much of an artistic vision but then nor did Bryan Singer. Who could? Directing these films is an exercise in logistics - there isn't room for artistic vision. Ratner keeps the pace fast and the story comprehensible and he delivers effective action scenes. There's not much more that could be asked of him. The film's weaknesses are the inevitable consequences of trying to cram an epic story into a relatively short feature film. It's not fair to blame scriptwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, who've made a creditable attempt to do just that.
This review probably comes across as more negative than the film deserves. Don't get me wrong - this isn't Fantastic Four. It's not an insult to the subject matter or to your intelligence. If it isn't all it could be, it's still good fun to watch and it's not without brains. An underdeveloped idea is more than you can expect from most summer blockbusters.