X-Men: First Class
This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 5th June 2011
Hollywood is often criticised lately, not least by reviewers, for rolling out remakes and sequels in lieu of original stories. Occasionally, however, it throws us a prequel that is actually worth its squillion dollar budget and the inevitable marketing hype. Christopher Nolan took the Batman franchise to new heights with Batman Begins, and J.J. Abrams honoured the Star Trek legacy – giving us the crucial backstory to explain a character’s subsequent emotional make-up, and the early, often hilarious, attempts at costuming and weaponry.
The first X-Men movie leapt from the pages of a comic book onto cinema screens in 2000, special effects blazing as it dramatised the story of genetic mutants fighting to be accepted by humankind. It laid out the core dilemmas (to fight or acquiesce; to use powers for good or evil) and set up the enmity between Professor Xavier and Magneto. Following a few sequels and a trip down memory lane for key cast member Wolverine, the film-making powers that be finally fill in the gaps leading up to the earlier story, allowing Layer Cake’s Matthew Vaughn to take the helm .
Taking snippets from the original opening scene set in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944, X-Men: First Class wisely carries on from that moment, following young Erik Lensherr (the Ian McKellen role here played principally by an intense Michael Fassbender) on his trajectory to embittered, avenging action hero. Fast forward to 1960s Oxford, and a beer-sculling Charles Xavier (James McAvoy a boyishly arrogant Patrick Stewart prototype) is using nerdy chat-up lines on young women at university. The CIA gets involved, other mutants are conscripted, and off we go.
But wait – we need a baddie for our X-Kids to fight. Suffice it to say, Kevin Bacon’s deceitful little face (so charming, but with such underlying evil) is rather suited to his role as the German/Russian/American-speaking Sebastian Shaw. Like a wannabe Bourne movie, the film tries to be as clever as its protagonists by having actors speak several (non-native) languages and relying on subtitles for a significant portion. The locations are plentiful and the jet-setting James Bond-like in its execution, helped no doubt by the 1960s outfits and appropriately lo-fi technology (the prototype for Cerebro is amusingly unsophisticated).
For the most part this prequel is fun, and it satisfies our curiosity about how things came to be, eking out the revelations right until the end. The story perhaps strives a little too hard to be clever by using the Cuban missile crisis as a backdrop for dastardly actions, and it lags towards the end of an overlong running time. Rumour has it this is to be the first of a new trilogy, so after a promising start we must simply hope it doesn’t going the way of the later Star Wars…