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Oh my stars and garters!

The 5pm showing of X-Men: The Last Stand at the Sony Center CineStar was almost deserted; they showed at most 15 minutes of ads. In the evening I finally read the reviews that I had been avoiding until I could watch the movie myself. Summary: entertaining, but severely lacking. Spoilers inside.

This was the worst of the X-Men films, yet the one most true to its source material. “Oh my stars and garters,” the fast-ball special, the danger room, Morlocks, the Dark Phoenix, the Brotherhood, resurrected characters, the depowering and potential repowering of Magneto, Moira, more Claremontisms (especially between Hank and Logan), Rogue’s self-loathing, and more.

High points:

A “cure” for mutants/mutation is found by Worthington Industries, and is based on the mutant ability of Leech, a character from the comics who is much more pleasing to the eye in the movie. Magneto, who is on the loose since the end of the last movie, begins to collect his new Brotherhood, and plans a pre-emptive strike against a government and society on the verge, he fears, of declaring war on mutants (and forcing the “cure” upon them). In the meantime Jean Grey, killed in the last movie, returns as the (Dark) Phoenix, joins Magneto, and a final battle between the X-Men and Magneto's forces commences. Characters die, and the status quo is more or less reestablished.

The movie works as a typical Hollywood action flick, with plenty of action sequences, piss-poor dialogue, and a formulaic plot/narrative imposed from above.

This latter point is what distinguishes Ratner’s X-Men from Singer’s X-Men. In formula films the audience “knows” plot and structure ahead of time. Certain conflicts will be encountered and overcome; certain relationships established, strained, and reestablished; and even twists and turns, the unexpected, are done according to plan. What this allows for is sloppy writing and directing ... the form(ula) fills in the gaps, which is to say, there need not be much (or any!) narrative logic between scenes or actions. Scenes do not necessarily lead into one another, or even contrast or conflict in a meaningful way. There are merely a series of “meanwhiles,” no inner form, only outer.

I like to think that Ratner gets this from the Michael Bay School of Directing, and in a way, there are similarities to Bad Boys, which opens with a tightly structured sequence on the “history”—that is, the time-space relationship between the components, manufacturing, and market(ing)—of some drugs (if I am thinking of the right movie). Similarly, the title sequence here (like that in Singer's first X-Men movie), takes us on a “tour,” if one will, of blood and cells, of the body—here the cure is injected, and this contrasts with the DNA/genetic emphasis of the 1st film. None of the coherence found in the opening scenes and opening credits is to be found in the rest of the movie.

The movie is “flat.” Ratner is dealing with too large a cast of characters, as has been indicated by other reviewers, and this creates a “rushed” feel in a sense and reduces the possibility of characterization, since nobody gets enough screen or script time. Singer solved this problem in the first two films in a way that Ratner completely ignores: layers.

In Singer’s films, there are things going on in the background, at a lower perceptual layer, one might say. Characters like Hank McCoy show up in passing on a TV screen; lists of mutants flicker by on a computer terminal. Tertiary characters are hinted at, and this provides the illusion of depth, or, if you will, the illusion of a fractal structure (in miniature, or in the background, the world is much like the one in which the main action is occurring). In contrast in the third X-Men movie everyone is on stage, every television show of interview is tuned into—everything has the same level of importance, and thus, no importance.

As others have remarked, it might not all be Ratner’s fault; after all, he only directed, and the heinous script was provided by Simon Kinberg (xXx: State of the Union) and Zak Penn (Inspector Gadget, Elektra ... though, also, X2). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the producers or studio got involved in editing (read: chopping) and moving up the release date, and we should blame them for the purely commercial feel to the material.

Others (see the salon.com letters on this movie) have indicated that the movie is entertaining, and we should not expect “art”—it is only elitists, humanities students/scholars, and the like (that is, those of us who are clearly out-of-touch with reality) who are carping on such a dead issue. We should just shut up and let the people who matter enjoy their entertainment.

As is, the movie is entertaining in a limited degree. Much of that entertainment, on my end at least, came from the movie’s connection with the previous two movies—on its own it is extremely weak (poor characterization, less-than-awe-inspiring action sequences, a swiss-cheese-plot ...). We should compare it with similar summer action films. There is, however, almost nothing aesthetic about it, and by this I do not mean the limited sense of the word as “beautiful.”

X-Men: The Last Stand could have been a rather good movie, even given the same material, and it could have had an aesthetic/aisthetic element, an element in which we find and build structures by way of perception, and find these structures interesting or pleasing ... be they beautiful or grotesque ... or even sublime. There are a handful of sets (Whitehouse, X-Mansion, Alcatraz, the Grey’s home, forest/mountains, and the Canadian lake from the last movie). They are hardly exploited or developed. Only Alcatraz provides a large-scale set that is both new and used for more than a few shots of “here we are.” In Jean Grey’s childhood home the only interesting shot involving the scene/set is of Jean in a chair near the corner, and a raised/shaking bookcase. The neighborhood signifies suburbia, but has no existence outside of this fleeting semiotic moment. Contrast this with X2: Bobby finds his grandmother’s clothes for Rogue; Wolverine invades the kitchen and finds a beer (to be contrasted with his earlier beer-hunt in the kitchen of the X-Mansion); characters move and act around each other in the living room, on the stairs, and from bedrooms; and Wolverine uses a glass patio door for observing the approaching police. In X2 Nightcrawler ran the Whitehouse like a maze to the pulsing of Verdi, tension was produced, doors were opened, closed, and bypassed ... and scenes later a calm meeting (Stryker, the President, and Senator Kelly) takes place, with a knife mark still in the desk ... and at the end of the movie the tables are turned, so to speak, as the President (behind the desk) is confronted not with a television camera, but with a gathering of X-Men in the dark, and instead of speaking to the masses, he must interact and enter a dialogue. In X-Men: The Last Stand, sets are merely places where action takes places, special effects are displayed, and lines of dialogue of pronounced.

Transitions can supply rhythm and syntax, but not here. Several “transitions” are reused, such as approaches to Magneto’s mountain encampment. It is always the same, reused, content-less shot; all it does is say “meanwhile, in Magneto’s camp.” We know he is in his camp, so just go to his camp ... do not waste precious seconds upon seconds (they build up over the course of the movie) unless you wish to actually thematize the transition (not done here) ... contrast this with the operatic transition shots in Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings movies; they gave those movies a sense of epic scope, and they always tied distant actions together; here they just mean “meanwhile.” Consider the possibility of thematizing being on the road, being on the run. Scott/Cyclops takes off, Wolverine is known for doing so, and Magneto intercepts a convoy ... there is no sense of “place” to the road here (compared to the first X-Men movie), though roads are transitions and outside normal public and private discourse (contrasted, potentially, with inner spaces as well as outer, public spaces), and thus such shots come across as arbitrary ... and arbitrariness in fiction, when not thematized, should mean cut, cut ... cut!

The only apparent and in some way useful structure to the film is its similarity to the first movie—similarity in that it resembles the first X-Men film in much the same way as Return of the Jedi resembles Star Wars. In the Star Wars universe, episodes IV and VI both “begin” on Tatooine, both revolve around the/a Death Star, and both conclude with a celebration. Other similarities abound, but suffice it to say, Return of the Jedi comes across to a great extent like a direct response to Star Wars. X-Men: The Last Stand is similar, for like the first X-Men movie, we have Magneto and a Brotherhood of Mutants, a device or chemical to transform humans to mutants or mutants to humans, a major U.S. landmark and an island (Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty vs. Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge), opening sequences dealing with years before, Rogue running away, Bobby using his ice powers to impress a teenage girl, Magneto taking advantage of Wolverine’s metal skeleton, one of the X-Men’s own aiding (willingly or not) Magneto (Rogue vs. Jean/Phoenix), a long drawn-out climax sequence in which Wolverine saves the day, and Magneto’s defeat (plastic prison, in which, later, he can play chess, vs. a depowered Magneto at a chess board in a park ... minus Xavier [and a reference to his chess metaphor when invading Alcatraz]). That is to say: there is rhetorical, inter-textual, and meta-level structure, but little at the poetic, intra-textual level; plenty for reflection, little for experience.

This is a shame. Sure, watching X-Men: The Last Stand on the big screen provides an initial rush during the first viewing. Repeat viewings will, I suspect, provide moments of levity whenever Wolverine or the Beast trade quips or textual references to the comics are made, and I am sure that “I’m the Juggernaut, bitch” will always provoke a chuckle ... but the joy of watching and experiencing (not reflecting after the fact) will be diminished. I know the twists in The Usual Suspects, The Sixth Sense, and Memento ... but I can still watch them again and again because much of the pleasure is not in the knowing but in the experiencing ... and all those movies are rich enough in skill and artistry that the joy I feel in rewatching them has not yet been exhausted. The same is true with Blade Runner, the first several Star Wars movies, and the first two X-Men films. I am not certain about this mutant movie.

—June 8 2006