X-citing, X-hilirating, X-cellent 

*X-Men (PG-13)
20th Century Fox

When I first heard that the summer's major blockbuster (read: biggest budget) was going to be something called X-Men, I was dumbfounded and disappointed. I imagined Batman in shades of black with more preposterous bad guys, more smoky corners, more sexist smirking and more overt killing.

Boy, was I wrong.

The summer's biggest blockbuster turns out to be a spirited, stylish allegory more along the lines of its mighty predecessor The Matrix. Watching X-Men, miraculously, audience members are swept up almost immediately into a blessed state of suspended disbelief from which we are allowed to dwell on the spectacle before us, not on the probability of the plot.

Director Brian Singer (The Usual Suspects) wisely grounds the story in some of the harshest reality of the 20th century, then cuts loose in the 21st. The opening sequence takes us to Poland in 1944 where a young Jew, Erik, is being brutally separated from his parents before their departure to a Nazi concentration camp. As Brian reaches his arms out toward his mother and father, screaming and writhing in the arms of an SS officer, the iron gate that separates them begins to twist and buckle. Erik, it turns out, is a mutant with the power to create a strong magnetic field around him -- a crucial factor in his development later in life as Magneto (Sir Ian McKellen), leader of a band of angry, disgruntled mutants who perceive all humanity and any mutants who disagree with them as potential oppressors.

Leading another camp of mutants is kindly, telepathic, wheelchair-bound Professor Charles Francis Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who has set up a school and laboratory in upstate New York where young gifted mutants can gather and develop their talents for the advancement of society. Xavier and Magneto are lifelong friends, though they disagree in their views on the redeemability of mankind and the possibility of mutants claiming a respectable, and respected, place in society.

Enter a human of the most predictable ilk -- Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), an ambitious politician who hopes to make his career by pushing through a "Mutant Registration Bill" that would ultimately expose a list of "known mutants" in the U.S., eerily reminiscent of McCarthy and Commies.

The plot to stop Kelly by Magneto and his crew of thugs is energized by a pending summit of the United Nations to be held on Ellis Island where the worldwide "mutant problem" will be the major topic of discussion. Magneto wants to use his powers to turn all the world leaders into mutants he can manipulate; Xavier decides to use his own powers and those of his crew to stop Magneto.

All of this happens incredibly swiftly with sharply defined scenes and cogent dialogue, and the dramatic action is driven by a newly discovered rebel mutant, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who mysteriously possesses a skeleton of steel and sprouts long, steel claws from his knuckles when agitated. Wolverine has hooked up with a young runaway mutant, Rogue (Anna Paquin), who literally sucks the life force from anyone she touches and, thus, isn't having much fun in high school.

Rogue is kidnapped by Magneto's gang in a wild railroad station siege. Wolverine joins Xavier's lieutenant Cyclops (James Marsden); Storm, a white-haired, cloudy-eyed Halle Berry; and Dr. Jean Grey, a physician with telekinetic ablities (Famke Janssen), and together they embark on the Statue of Liberty where they must do battle with Magneto and his legion before the collected world leaders are zapped and infected with altered mutant genes.

A few subplots -- Wolverine hankers for Dr. Grey who is currently Cyclops' main squeeze; Rogue, meanwhile, is smitten with her saviour and hero, Wolverine -- add some needed humor and heart to the mix.

Astonishingly, with the exception of Berry's character who stands around for most of the movie looking cool in her tight outfit, all of these are well-developed characters who we come to know by the movie's end. Any sci-fi movie producer should fork over however many millions of bucks necessary to hire the likes of Stewart and McKellen in leading roles -- their diction and grave humanity lend more to the film than a year's worth of special effects. And Australian newcomer Jackman is fabulous -- a steely, Clint Eastwood look-alike who moves with feral grace and a healthy dose of skepticism throughout the film.

Like The Matrix, X-Men actually strives to say something about the course of modern history and the fateful turns humanity has taken, commenting warily and cleverly on our propensity toward sameness and our fear of the unknown. The adolescents who will make up the majority of its audience will feel right at home in a theater full of freaks and fellow mutants, all of whom want nothing more than to belong.

The film ends somewhat clumsily, blatantly setting the scene for the sequel and setting up nervous expectations -- can a sequel possibly be as good as this one?

Who knows. With the surprise appearance last year of The Matrix, followed by this exquisitely original take on the comic book genre, it feels as if anything can happen.

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