“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

 

“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

I feel sorry for the old X-MEN Movie Universe. Well . . . almost. For a franchise that began on a high note, it certainly ended with a whimper. At least from a financial point-of-view. And that whimper proved to be the 2019 movie, “DARK PHOENIX”.

Actually, “DARK PHOENIX” is not the final film of this franchise. The last film is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2020. As for “DARK PHOENIX”, it is the twelfth film associated with the franchise that was associated with the old 20th Century Fox Studios. It is also the second movie in the franchise, after 2005’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”, to adapt Marvel Comics’ 1976-1980 comic book series of the same title.

The movie begins in 1975 when nine year-old Jean Grey and her parents get involved in a car accident that leaves her as the sole survivor. Jean’s situation eventually attracts the attention of Professor Charles Xavier, who enrolls her as one of his students at the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The story jumps to 1992, nine years after the events of “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. Some of Xavier’s former students have become the next generation of the X-Men, with Mystique aka Raven as the team’s leader in the field and the Professor receiving their glory from the public and media. The U.S. President summons the team to assist NASA into rescuing the space shuttle Endeavour, which is critically damaged by a solar flare-like energy during its mission. While the X-Men save all of the astronauts, Jean is stranded and is struck by the energy, which she absorbs into her body to save the X-Men’s aircraft from destruction. Jean survives the event and her psychic powers are greatly amplified by the energy. Her powers become uncontrollable and she later accidentally unleashes her power on the mutants celebrating the success of their mission at Xavier’s school. Even worse, Jean’s enhanced powers attract the attention of a group of alien shape shifters called the D’Bari, whose home planet had been destroyed by the energy force. They want to use the energy (or Jean) to wipe out Earth’s inhabitants and re-shape the planet to resemble their own.

Eventually, Jean and the other X-Men learn that Xavier had placed mental walls in Jean’s mind as a little girl to protect her psychic mind from experiencing trauma from her childhood accident. Jean’s enhanced power destroys the mental walls and the trauma slowly returns, filling her with desire, rage, and pain. Jean then travels to her childhood hometown after finding out that her father is still alive and learned that he abandoned her. Jean recovers her complete memory of the car accident and remembers that her post-traumatic stress disorder had originated with the childhood car accident in which she had inadvertently caused by rendering her mother unconscious at the wheel with her telepathy. When the X-Men arrive to take Jean home but she injures Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver and accidentally kills Raven aka Mystique before disappearing. And her actions led to the U.S. Army searching for her and willing to imprison other mutants at the government’s order.

Many X-Men fans and critics had really dumped on this movie when it first hit the theaters. I am not going to examine why this film was so unpopular. I can only discuss how I felt about it. One, it was not an original film. In many ways, “DARK PHOENIX” almost struck me as a remake of the 2006 movie, “THE X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. Or perhaps I should say . . . a remake of the Dark Phoenix story arc, but with slightly different details. I suspect that Kinsberg and the X-Men producers wanted to use the changed timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to re-write the Dark Phoenix story arc from 2006. Personally, I feel it would have been more original of them to completely leave that story arc alone and utilize another narrative for the film.

I also found the enhancement of Jean’s powers via some alien energy wave not only unoriginal, but unnecessary. Why did Simon Kinberg even thought it was necessary to enhance Jean’s powers? She had displayed an uber level of power when she killed En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. I can only assume the solar flare energy situation was created by Kinsberg to introduce the D’Bari.  Speaking of the latter, I noticed that their goal to destroy humanity and settle on Earth as its new home bore a strong resemblance to General Zod’s plan in 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”. Look, I do not mind that Kinsberg had used aliens as the movie’s Big Bad for this film. But did he have to recycle a plot from a D.C. Comics movie? Or worse, create this energetic force to enhance Jean Grey’s powers, when they really did not require to be enhanced in the first place?

Despite the film’s lack of originality, I must admit that I actually managed to enjoy “DARK PHOENIX”. I noticed that Kinsberg’s screenplay featured a more in-depth exploration of how Jean’s enhanced powers had made an impact on her life and on those in her life. I also enjoyed how the actions of certain characters in regard to Jean had resulted in major consequences for many characters. I found it interesting how Jean found herself isolated by her fellow mutants and a lot of the blame could be tossed at Charles Xavier’s feet. He did not use his telepathy to contain her power – especially since he had encouraged her to use it to defeat En Sabah Nur in the 2016 film. Instead, he had used his telepathy to suppress her memories of her parents’ death and her emotional reaction to it . . . instead of simply helping her deal with a tragic loss. Xavier had used a short cut. And when the alien energy removed his mental blocks on Jean’s mind, tragic consequences followed. Xavier did not pay the consequences of his actions with death, but he did pay a heavy price.

Ironically, Erik Lensherr aka Magneto had no interest in exploiting Jean’s new powers, as he had done in the 2006 movie. He was more concerned in protecting Genosha, the refugee island for mutants he had founded and demanded that she leave after the U.S. Army appeared. Unfortunately, Magneto’s desire to protect those mutants under his leadership transformed into vengeance when he learned about Mystique’s death from a grieving Hank McCoy aka Beast. I found it interesting that Hank had never bothered to inform Erik that Mystique’s death had been an accident on Jean’s part. He was angry at Charles for the latter’s handling of Jean and decided to use the latter as a moral scapegoat. And unfortunately, the vengeful actions of both men ended up exacerbating an already dangerous situation. By the time the movie shifted to Manhattan, three forces (including the U.S. Army) were trying to contain, exploit or destroy Jean. Only a fourth group seemed concerned with Jean – namely the X-Men. And for once, Xavier WAS NOT the catalyst for the team’s attempt to rescue Jean. Her fellow team members – led by Scott Summers aka Cyclops and Ororo Munroe aka Storm – led this endeavor.

If I must be honest, most of the film’s visual effects did not blow my mind. At best, I found them serviceable. I could also say the same about Mauro Fiore’s cinematography. However, there was one particular scene in which the film’s visuals and Fiore’s photography really blew my mind. It involved the major clash that eventually evolved between the X-Men, the mutants under Erik Lensherr and Hank McCoy, the U.S. Army and the D’Bari. I have become increasingly weary of final action sequences shot at night over the past decade, thanks to the second “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I must say that I was more impressed by Fiore and the visual team’s work in this particular sequence, which began on the streets of Manhattan and ended on a train headed out of the city. And their work was more than ably supported by excellent editing from Lee Smith.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in “DARK PHOENIX”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Evan Peters, Kodi Smit Mc-Phee, Ato Essandoh and Brian D’Arcy James. Another solid performance came from Michael Fassbender, whose portrayal of Erik Lensherr struck me as skillful, but not particularly memorable. I do not think Kinsberg’s screenplay gave the actor something new or unusual to work with. At first, it seemed as if Alexandra Shipp was doomed to endure another movie in which her character, Ororo Munroe aka Storm, nearly became a background character. Thankfully, the movie’s second half gave Shipp an opportunity to convey Storm’s resilient nature with more dialogue and action scenes. I especially enjoyed that moment when Storm and Cyclops made it clear to Xavier their determination to help Jean.

Vuk proved to be the second time I have ever seen Jessica Chastain portray a villain. And I thought she gave an interesting and slightly . . . bizarre performance as the D’Bari’s manipulative leader, who seemed focused on seducing Jean for the latter’s powers. Nicholas Hoult surprised me by his skillful portrayal of the uglier side of Hank McCoy’s nature. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected McCoy’s desire to avenge Mystique’s death. Speaking of the latter, Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance barely spanned half of the movie. I thought she gave a solid performance. But there was one scene in which she truly impressed me. It featured Mystique’s sardonic rant against Xavier for using the X-Men as his personal publicity campaign. I was more impressed by Tye Sheridan’s portrayal of Scott Summers aka Cyclops in this film than I was in the 2016 movie. Sheridan’s Cyclops became a more mature and determined personality. That maturity was expressed in Scott’s continuing love for Jean and his determination to help her as much as possible.

I think “DARK PHOENIX” marked the first time I can truly recall Charles Xavier being portrayed in a negative light . . . and I enjoyed it. This has nothing to do with any dislike of Xavier. But I cannot deny that I found James McAvoy’s portrayal of his character very interesting . . . and new. What I really found interesting is that Xavier’s uglier side was not briefly manifested in the revelation of the telepathic blocks he had placed in Jean’s head. That revelation only deepened Xavier’s arrogance and blindness. But audiences first saw signs of these traits, thanks to his argument with Mystique over his exploitation of the X-Men team for personal glory. Some of the franchise’s fans felt that Sophie Turner was not up to portraying the “Dark Phoenix” aspect of Jean Grey’s character. I suppose they were expecting a re-play of Famke Janssen’s portrayal. Even if they were not, I still managed to enjoy Turner’s performance. The main reason why I did was because Turner did not try to repeat the older actress’ performance. Thanks to Kinsberg’s script, Turner was able to put a different spin of Jean’s evolution into the Dark Phoenix . . . one that did not paint her as villainous. I also felt that Turner did an excellent job of conveying how Xavier’s mental blocks had led Jean to experience post traumatic stress (PST) and loss of control of her powers.

I cannot explain why “DARK PHOENIX” proved to be a box office failure. And if I must be honest, I am not interested in expressing my opinion on this topic. The movie was not perfect. And frankly, I wonder if it was a good idea to use the shifted timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to create a new version of the Dark Phoenix story arc. But I cannot deny that I enjoyed the movie. I thought Kinsberg had created a solid piece of cinematic entertainment with a screenplay that did not become a convoluted mess and first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner.

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