The Calm Before the Storm

I've been racking up some summer blockbusters recently, and one of my longstanding hypotheses is getting truckloads of supporting evidence by the day: When it comes to action movies, the biggest determinant of whether or not it's worth seeing is everything but the action. Anyone can throw some money into CGI monsters or massive explosions. Americans (me included) seem to be reaching a point of Spectacle Fatigue, in which no amount of impressive visual effects is enough to carry the movie on its own. As leveling cities and killer lizards become more and more humdrum, filmmakers might soon realize that it's becoming increasingly important to - gulp! - actually write a decent story.

Want to see this rule in action (so to speak)? Go see Godzilla and X-Men: Days of Future Past in rapid succession, like I did. Both are mega-budget extravaganzas. Both rely heavily on special effects. Both take existing properties and attempt to spin a new story off of them. But only one of them really succeeds, because it takes the time to actually care about what's taking place on screen when giant robots/monsters aren't attacking. I saw Godzilla first. I guess Two Other Monsters But Then Godzilla Drops By For A Few Minutes didn't fit on the posters. This movie gets a few things very right. It can be difficult to represent the scope and scale of just how insignificant puny humans are when gargantuan monsters are roaming through the streets, and Godzilla pulled it off better than any other movie I can think of. You truly get the sense of being no more than an ant when compared to the beast causing casual devastation across the globe. So, big points for that. Bryan Cranston is typically great in everything he appears in, and Godzilla is no exception. His increasing hysteria and frustration in trying to warn people of impending disaster, only to be turned away, is wholly believable. And, since this is a monster movie, I should mention that the monster fights are pretty cool. So it's got that going for it.

What's wrong with Gozilla? Everything else. All of the humans are two-dimensional nothings, and the movie shows zero interest in having their reasoning or reactions approach reality. The main character (the trailers would have you believe that Bryan Cranston is the main character -- he is not) is seemingly the unluckiest man in the world, consistently showing up in the one location that killer monsters are converging upon, and he shows absolutely no interest in that point. He purportedly wants to protect his (boring) wife and (more boring) child, yet casually tells them to hang out in a disaster area and that he'll come fix things, because...reasons. He shows no emotion upon being the sole survivor (and let's face it, the cause of) his compatriots' deaths. Fuck, even Blast Hardcheese at least had actual motivations. Nobody acts like an actual person, and nobody is worth rooting for. And if you think that character is being sacrificed in service of plot... Nope. Plot holes abound. In one scene, we cut away from our "hero" in mortal peril on a demolished airport tram. When we rejoin him, he's fine-and-dandy, and off to another adventure. What happened in between? Good question! Godzilla has had a rough go of it lately, and while this movie wasn't terrible (and I'd watch it a hundred times before I'd revisit a single frame of the 1998 crapfest), it was a decided disappointment.

But then, I went to see X-Men: Days of Future Past, which totally rejuvenated me. This movie had a lot working against it. It involves time travel, and in doing so, must weave together the storylines of the original X-Men trilogy and X-Men: First Class, plus tell a new story of its own. Which it then proceeds to do, almost flawlessly. In the future, mutant-hunting robots known as Sentinels have all but wiped out not only mutants, but humans who have DNA that would prospectively produce mutants. The world has fallen into chaos, and in desperation, a small band of survivors goes for a Hail Mary - they will send Wolverine's consciousness back to the '70s in order to unite Charles Xavier and Magneto (who are enemies as of the end of First Class) so they can stop Mystique from assassinating the head of the Sentinel program. That assassination is what secured the Sentinel funding, so by preventing it, they hope they can alter the timeline.

Note that I haven't mentioned anything about mutant powers, and it's not because they're not on full display. It's because this movie put effort into crafting an actual story with stakes and shifting relationships. It's not just an excuse to watch Wolverine slash at stuff and Magneto levitate some bullets. As a result, it's a fantastic flick, where the verbal fights are as compelling as the super-powered ones. The cast certainly helps. The elder versions of Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) are well-matched by their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence is an emotionally powerful Mystique. Peter Dinklage is a superb antagonist. Each of the secondary characters gets a chance to show off as well, and actually use their powers in concert with each other, demonstrating cooperation that not enough team movies display. And if you're just looking for pure fun, the Quicksilver setpiece in the middle of the movie is one of the most amazing scenes I've seen in a long time.

That's not to say the movie doesn't have a few problems. There are some third-act issues that don't make much sense, but never to the point that they derail the movie. Magneto's motivations (and even the scope of his powers) sometimes shift too suddenly. And this one isn't even a complaint with the movie itself: I've had it with post-credit stingers. Mark it, this was my breaking point. No longer will I sit through fifteen minutes of a hundred visual effects artists, craft services, weapons wranglers, and set painters so that I may be treated to a ten-second scene that doesn't make any sense. We're done. I'm sure the internet will inform me of any cool ones I should look up later. In general, though, Days of Future Past is just about everything I could hope for in a summer action movie, and why? Story. Imagine that.

Godzilla: C+
X-Men: Days of Future Past: A-


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