Review: X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is a Bloated Disappointment with a Few Flashes of Brilliance
X-Men: Days of Future Past was my favorite of the X-Men movies, so I'm disappointed to report that Apocalypse is one of the weakest entries in the franchise so far.
The film begins in ancient Egypt, with an elderly, all-powerful mutant (Oscar Isaac) attempting to transfer his consciousness into a strapping young body in order to continue his streak of immortality. An uprising occurs during the ceremony; he makes the jump to the new body, but he's buried under the rubble of a collapsed pyramid and placed in some sort of magical sleep stasis to survive. Millennia later, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) ends up accidentally unleashing him, and across the world in Charles Xavier's (James McAvoy) X-Mansion, Apocalypse's presence causes a young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) to have nightmarish visions about the end of the world. As Apocalypse recruits his new sidekicks (known as the Four Horsemen), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) does some recruiting of her own, and eventually they all throw down in a battle for the fate of the planet.
Before I get into why I was disappointed with the movie, I want to praise the aspects of it I enjoyed. Let's break it down into bullet points:
- After Mystique saved the President from Magneto at the end of the last movie, she's become an inspiring figure to the younger class of mutants. Even Storm (Alexandra Shipp), a Cairo thief who becomes one of the Horsemen, has a poster of Mystique on her wall and looks up to her as a freedom fighter. Despite Jennifer Lawrence being an Oscar-winning actress, her take on Mystique has never really done much for me in these movies, but giving her this added layer and seeing how she deals with that attention goes a long way in making her a more interesting character.
- Just like in Days of Future Past, there's a slow-motion scene involving Quicksilver (Evan Peters) that's the highlight of the film for me. This one tops his previous appearance in nearly every way — it's longer, funnier, and there are much bigger stakes involved. It's a brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed sequence.
- Despite some occasionally cheesy moments, the new kids — Turner as Jean Grey, Tye Sheridan as Cyclops, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Nightcrawler — are all great in their roles, and I'm extremely excited to watch them come into their own in future movies.
On to the disappointment.
I understand Bryan Singer's desire to have an actor as talented as Oscar Isaac play the villain in his movie, but the character of Apocalypse is a colossal waste of Isaac's skills. He wanders around under so much make-up that most audiences will have no idea this character is played by the same guy who played Poe Dameron in The Force Awakens, and he rarely actually does anything aside from talking about the need to build a better world. (There's an admittedly-cool moment involving Cerebro, but that's about it.)
The Four Horsemen are essentially non-factors, with Olivia Munn, Ben Hardy, and Alexandra Shipp having probably a combined 10 lines in the film and very little impact on the story at large. Writer Simon Kinberg gives Michael Fassbender's Magneto more tragedy to deal with (I'm trying to be vague so I don't spoil anything), but his entire subplot in this film just didn't land for me. It felt too "written," too obvious, too forced. Fassbender's always done a good job playing up the conflict within that character, and he does a good job with what he's given, but it's starting to feel like too much of a retread of storylines that have already been explored. I suspect the same is true in the comics; I haven't read an X-Men comic in years, but I imagine if I picked up an issue in the current run, there would be thematic and maybe even plot similarities to stuff that was going on the last time I actually did read that series. I realize the X-Men franchise has lasted for sixteen years now, but maybe it's time to get rid of Magneto altogether in these films. There are only so many times you can cover the same ground on film before it starts to feel redundant.
The visual effects, which are normally a highlight in this movie series for me, were surprisingly cheap-looking here. A lot of the movie takes place in and around Cairo, and the set design and execution of many those late-movie sequences looked so bad that it took me out of the movie. There's a scene in which Apocalypse and the Horseman have one of the X-Men on a mountain overlooking the city, and it's shocking how much it looks like they're all just standing around on a sound stage surrounded by green screens. It doesn't help that the film devolves into a massive CGI crapfest of floating debris and global landmarks being demolished for no good reason. I'm sure it was very expensive, and those are the kinds of Transformers-esque images that international audiences still gobble up, but haven't we moved beyond scenes like that at this point? That kind of thing might have been cool or novel fifteen years ago, but when Magneto just floats there with metal spinning around him and it A) doesn't do anything to further illuminate the characters, or B) is something we've seen countless times before, I just feel like the filmmakers missed an opportunity to do something special and interesting. I counted ten different VFX vendors in the film's end credits, so maybe that had something to do with it.
One of the biggest sins an action movie can commit is being boring, and unfortunately I found the fight scenes to be unusually dull, especially in the wake of the airport scene in Captain America: Civil War. That scene has so much energy and creativity in depicting how the characters use their powers against each other, but here, even though the action is filmed in wide enough angles that you can clearly see everything, there's not really much to see. A climactic battle between Psylocke and Beast, for example, might be one of the most boring superhero fights ever committed to film. And it's not like Singer is incapable of filming solid X-Men action beats: the "future" section of Days of Future Past included exactly the type of creatively and visually interesting fights this movie lacks.
There's more I could get into, like the inelegant Wolverine cameo and his subsequent "moment" with Jean Grey (which comes off as very strange, since Sophie Turner is young enough to be Hugh Jackman's daughter), or how the dialogue bounces all over the place (Xavier has an embarrassing amount of cringe-worthy lines when he's dealing with his feelings about Moira that would feel right at home in an Adam Sandler comedy), but I'll just say that a bungled villain and cheap-looking VFX were large enough issues by themselves to really put a damper on my enjoyment of this film. It's not a terrible movie, but it's certainly not one of the better entries of this series. I'm looking forward to seeing what this franchise looks like moving forward with a new director in Josh Boone, and I wonder if it also wouldn't benefit from some fresh writing as well. This film is well-cast, and I like the idea of seeing these characters interact in upcoming movies, but after spending a distended two and a half hours with them, I'm ready to take some time away from the X-universe. That Quicksilver scene, though...that one scene alone is so awesome that it makes this whole movie worth watching.