Saturday, May 27, 2006

Reel To Reel: X-Men (III): The Last Stand

How It Rates: **1/2
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Halle Berry
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense Action Violence, Mild Language, One Gropey Sex Scene

I walked out of the latest X-Men movie more fascinated by its societal quandaries than by its slick CGI action. Perhaps I've reached the tipping point where no F/X sequence is going to amaze me anymore -- been there, seen that.

The X-Men series has always set itself apart from other comic book movies because its superheroes and villains are an entire race of people, "mutants" as they are known, who possess both amazing power and deep vulnerablity. They are persecuted and relegated to freak status. And yet, even as you feel sympathy towards them, you must also consider some of them want to conquer the world, start fires or disrupt the Earth's magnetic field. I don't know if Halle Berry's character can kick up a storm to match Katrina, but we can wonder at the sheer power.

The stigma is so deep seated, it overrides any religious implication. A father discovers his son has sprouted huge white wings. Has God sent an angel? Nah, he has to be one of those crummy mutants.

That father provides the plot hook for The Last Stand: a cure for the mutant gene. It comes in an injection fast and powerful enough to qualify as a biological weapon. I imagine scores of soldiers roaming the streets, spraying mutant enclaves with waves of vaccine darts. I envision a three-way mutant civil war among those seeking a cure, those seeking power, and those who simply want acceptance for who they are without harm to others. I picture a movement paralleling civil rights struggles and a response paralleling the war on terror. Is peaceful coexistance even possible with a race of humans who have the potential to destroy civilization? Sadly, the film doesn't have much time for insightful social commentary.

Besides the cure, the film's other centerpiece is Jean, the member of the X-team with devastating psychokinetic powers. Drew Barrymore's Firestarter character looks like a Bic lighter by comparison. We thought Jean died in X2. But it turns out she's actually been in hibernation, protected by some sort of psychic cocoon, if you believe the explanation of X-team leader Charles Xavier (Stewart). That explanation, rushed and obtuse, registered a big fat "uh-huh" on the chart. Once she awakens, she is co-opted by Magneto (McKellan), the archvillian who's back on the streets with heavy metal thunder, seeking to destroy the cure.

The film presents us with new mutants and new mutant abilities. One man will force medical dictionaries to rewrite the definition of multiple personality disorder. Another is a human porcupine. I wonder what mutant frat parties are like. "Look at me! I'm a giant sticker bush!" The creativity and rule-bending of mutant fight scenes is what makes The Last Stand watchable. You're always wondering what's next in the arsenal of abilities. Does Storm whip up a tornado or use lightning? Does Magneto bend up a bridge or tear apart a car? Does Iceman freeze the bad guys or pellet them with baseball size hail? Excuse me, that's Storm's area.

For all its potential, The Last Stand fails to develop beyond a summer action blockbuster. That's fine for most of us. But I am reminded of M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, a film where the real story got lost in a silly premise. I wish for a film called The Mutants, where the societal issues can develop without the distraction of a superhero force. Spider-Man 2 and Batman Begins both proved comic-book films can connect with emotions in ways beyond the good versus evil motif. I find it disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand didn't take the hint.

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