Saving the world can be harrowing.
Director Bryan Singer, reclaiming the X-Men film franchise he launched in 2000, means to establish from the first reel that X-Men: Days of Future Past is not messing around. Via voiceover, Professor X (Patrick Stewart) explains the catastrophic present, in which killing machines called Sentinels have wiped out most of the world's mutant population and many of their human defenders. The accompanying visuals are unsettling. Pop-culture films are as worthy a place as any to say something meaningful about atrocity, but if you're going to use 3D technology to show a dead body rolling down a mountain of corpses, toward an audience snacking on Milk Duds, you'd better be sure your movie is spectacular.
That said, Days of Future Past's special effects are pretty impressive. There's a sequence set in the Pentagon that inspired applause at an advance screening, and rightly so: It compounds digital technology, character motivation and wit. But magical moments are few and far between. With dual timelines set in the future and past, this film is constructed to pull in actors from both the original trilogy and the origin-story reboot, 2011's First Class. It boasts a terrific cast, including new additions Peter Dinklage and Evan Peters. But the material doesn't push anyone to greatness, not even Jennifer Lawrence.
The script, written by Simon Kinberg, positions the series' constant character, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), as a potential savior of a future terrorized by Sentinels. He's sent back in time to dissuade the blue-skinned shape-shifter Mystique, nÃ©e Raven (Lawrence), from an assassination that will have a ruinous ripple effect, leading to war in the future. Awaking in 1973, Wolverine swiftly rallies a gang: young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), driven to drink after Raven, his surrogate sister, abandoned him in First Class; the nerdy Beast (Nicholas Hoult), who still nurses a crush on Raven; and Magneto (Michael Fassbender), the revolutionist godhead to her disciple.
Days of Future Past has its moments, though nothing here comes close to some of the franchise's most iconic events: the emotional sock in the jaw of Jean Grey's self-sacrifice, the bullet to Xavier's spine, or the way mutants' few options -- live a closeted life or risk being hunted down for being different -- resonated with gay viewers. Comic-book movies can be so much more than two air-conditioned hours of snazzy special effects. This film capitalizes on the audience's familiarity with the many characters and their complex backstories, but unfortunately, it adds no new thoughts or dilemmas to the franchise.