X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Sophie Turner, Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp, Jessica Chastain

Director: Simon Kinberg

Writer: Simon Kinberg


Dark Phoenix marks the end of a two-decade journey for one of the franchises that helped launch the superhero phenomenon that has overtaken the world. As the genre has involved so has the series, going from a modestly-budgeted action flick with a mostly serious tone and black, leather costumes to a more campy sci-fi/fantasy style with larger effects-driven set-pieces and more inventive varieties of outfits and powers. Since then the franchise has also branched out to deliver a cartoonishly crude lampoon satirising the customs we’ve come to associate with the genre and an elegiac, western-inspired drama that explored and reflected on those conventions in complex and profound ways. The eleven films that came before have led the series to soaring heights and dreadful lows and, while the Disney-Fox deals guarantees that this is nowhere near the last we’ll see of the mutants, Dark Phoenix marks the end of an era all the same. That the film opted to once again draw from the ‘Phoenix Saga’ in the comics, the go-to character-killing storyline for the franchise when the actors are ready to be released from their contracts, should indicate this if nothing else. If ever there was a time for the series to pull out the big guns, be bold and daring, and make a loud, definitive statement for all to hear, this was it. Instead Dark Phoenix has turned out to be their weakest, most uninspired film yet (which is saying something).

The movie isn’t as terrible as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, it may not even be as bad as The Last Stand, but what both of those movies had that Dark Phoenix does not is personality and purpose. Wolverine was abysmal on almost every conceivable level, but it at least had the courtesy to be so laughably bad that it offers some entertainment value for those who enjoy hate-watching movies. The Last Stand, the last movie to adapt the ‘Dark Phoenix’ saga, was similarly condemned by audiences, but I’m still prepared to defend it insofar as it took actual chances with its story and characters, something that too few blockbusters are willing to do today. Dark Phoenix meanwhile is so dull and unimaginative in its approach and so pointless in its very existence that I can hardly believe it is technically considered a movie. Not only does it utterly fail to deliver its own compelling standalone story or to advance the overarching narrative of the franchise in any meaningful way, it hardly seems to care enough to so much as try. Not even the talented cast at its disposal could overcome the dismal script they were made to work with nor the failings of the first-time director the studio saw fit to entrust with their coda to the series. When Fox appointed longtime X-Men screenwriter Simon Kinberg to captain this conclusive title, what they doubtless expected was something safe, standard, and uncontroversial and that is exactly what they got in all the worst ways.

After opening with a brief flashback featuring Jean Grey’s (Sophie Turner) tragic backstory, the movie picks things up in 1992, precisely eight years before James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (once again reprising their roles as Professor X and Magneto) are due to morph into Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. Since the events of X-Men: Apocalypse human-mutant relations have improved and the X-Men have been embraced as heroes and saviours (the Oval Office even has an X-shaped phone for the President’s use when their services are needed). Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters has also flourished into a haven for mutants in need of community and guidance and there Jean has grown to become one of the Professor’s brightest and most capable students. Xavier acknowledges that this harmony they’ve attained is more the result of necessity than it is of acceptance and that mutantkind is only one bad day away from returning to square one, but the contemporary connotations of such a concept are quickly brushed aside so that the X-Men series (as created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee as a metaphor for racism in the 1960s) may remain blissfully apolitical. Jean joins the team, as led by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) and Beast (Nicholas Hoult), on a risky space mission that ends up going badly as she gets struck by some solar-flare-like force of energy. Jean inexplicably survives the blast and emerges not only unharmed but feeling stronger than ever. Her powers soon grow out of control however and it isn’t long before she finds herself heading down a destructive path.

Jean, having served as little more than a minor role in the last film, is the protagonist this time around and so much of why Dark Phoenix doesn’t work has to do with how much the movie takes our investment in her character for granted. The film for example assumes that we’re already on board with the romance between her and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) despite their relationship barely amounting to a sub-plot in Apocalypse because the leg-work for these characters was already done back when they were played by Famke Janssen and James Marsden. Turner, as demonstrated in her tenure on Game of Thrones, is a talented enough actress that she ought to have been able to make the character her own and find some meat in the role of a conflicted woman with a fractured mind furiously at odds with herself and her loved ones. She never gets that far however because the movie has little interest in exploring her psyche and, more crucially, her feelings about the man responsible for perpetuating her rage and trauma. The shock from the cosmic explosion reawakens a lost memory that Xavier chose to repress in his first meeting with Jean, that of the tragic car crash that she inadvertently caused with her powers as a young girl and the harms it inflicted on her parents.

That the good Professor elected to suppress a little girl’s emotional development in a sorely misguided attempt to protect her is a questionable act worthy of interrogation, but that would mean confronting issues of underlying misogyny that the movie would prefer to leave unacknowledged. The film wants us to be critical of Xavier, but not so critical that he ceases to be sympathetic. Instead the film simply chastises him for his actions insofar as they enraged an increasingly powerful and unstable mutant and triggered a lethal rampage and tries to score what cheap feminist points it can through empty gestures and lip-service. With Mystique’s eyeroll-inducing declaration that the X-Men ought to consider calling themselves the X-Women, the film appears to be operating under the assumption that female empowerment amounts to meaningless ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ statements, caring not whether the substance even supports the statement being made. When Jean reaches the conclusion that it’s her emotions that make her strong, the words ring hollow coming from a character who is defined far more by her abilities and her connection to her previous incarnation than she is by her own personal feelings. It’s all there to provide token gestures towards a vague notion of progressivism without pressing any buttons in a world where people’s intolerance for the sexist exercise of patriarchal power and control over women is gradually increasing.

Ethical objections aside, Dark Phoenix ranks lowest in my estimation of the X-Men canon because of what a continual slog it is to sit through. Compared to First Class where each performer, most notably McAvoy, Fassbender, and above all Lawrence, brought so much spirit and enthusiasm to their roles, here they put in all the effort of mildly acquainted co-workers taking part in a mandatory team-building exercise. McAvoy and Fassbender do at least act like they somewhat care about what’s happening in the film if only because both men are physically incapable of phoning in a performance, but Lawrence, who in Apocalypse could barely disguise how bored she was of starring in these films, is so wooden and uninterested that they might as well have employed a CGI duplicate. Chastain however comes the worst out of the whole deal as a villain whose personality and motivations are so ill-defined that I’m honestly struggling to remember a single substantial thing about her character. She’s a shape-shifting alien with some kind of connection to the space energy consumed by Jean and manipulates her into performing hurtful acts towards her loved ones for… reasons. What she essentially amounts to is as an unambiguously villainous diversion (so that Jean’s dark turn need not be blamed solely on the objectionable mind games of Xavier) and an eventual antagonist for the whole team to combat in the film’s serviceable third act.

There isn’t much to talk about in terms of how the movie is shot and constructed. The style is so bland and nondescript that I can hardly remember a single image that had any kind of memorable effect on me in the whole movie. The climatic train battle does at least offer some basic thrills, particularly in the way it uses Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), but even that scene boils down to nothing more than each mutant dutifully performing their single trick in turn. So little happens in this film that I am honestly confounded as to why it was made in the first place. There’s no sense of momentum or direction to any of it; everything just more or less unfolds along the parameters of the plot points they decided to include and the movie doesn’t care enough to try and understand how or why. This movie was specially designed to be as broad, harmless and generic as is cinematically possible and the result of that endeavour is a movie so unbearably bland and meaningless that the reason for its very existence escapes me. If this is to be the final statement on Fox’s X-Men legacy and its place in the superhero movie canon, then this is the weakest, feeblest note on which they could possibly have ended especially compared to the poignant swan song of Logan. Talk about ending with a whimper.

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Ready Player One

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance

Director: Steven Spielberg

Writers: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline


When it comes down to it, Spielberg is the only director who could possibly have made this movie, warts and all, and it’s not just because of the monumental role he played in creating the pop culture that the Ernest Cline novel pays tribute to. There is no other director out there who so perfectly personifies the paradoxical ideology at the heart of this film. The central conflict in Ready Player One is that between the ideological artists and fans, united by the passion and regard they share for the cultural icons and artworks of the past, and the soulless, corporate capitalists who seek to exploit those same products and reap the profits. Mr. Spielberg is a champion for both sides. He is a paragon of artistry, a visionary celebrated for his works of sentimentality and imagination that have inspired so much of the nostalgia we feel for 80s and 90s pop culture, but he is also a shrewd businessman, widely credited for inventing the blockbuster and, in turn, the modern, commercial Hollywood machine that systematically recycles familiar, demographically-targeted brands and properties to produce profitable titles. Spielberg’s attempt to reconcile this dualism has resulted in his most fascinatingly imperfect film since A.I.

Technically speaking the movie is set in Columbus, Ohio, in the year 2045, where poor, orphaned kid Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the stacks’, a district of makeshift towers made up of trailer homes and vans. He spends every waking hour of his day plugged into his VR kit which transports him to the film’s actual setting, the virtual gaming world of OASIS. This is a realm of infinite possibilities where people can be and do whatever they want. You can ski the pyramids, hang out in a casino the size of a planet, or climb Mount Everest with Batman. OASIS is the creation of the late tech genius and pop culture obsessive James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Following his death, it was revealed that Halliday left behind a three-part quest to find the Easter Eggs hidden within the virtual world. The first person to find these three keys will inherit full ownership and control of OASIS. Wade, as his avatar Parzival, is one of the hundreds of gamers who have set out to solve Halliday’s puzzle, as are fellow ‘gunters’ Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech (Lena Waithe), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki). Another party in the race to find the keys is IOI, an avaricious company led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) that wants to gain control of OASIS to exploit its profitability.

Perhaps the single biggest draw this film has is the innumerable crossovers and references brought over from movies, TV shows and video games of the 80s and 90s. The movie is almost like if Wreck-It Ralph were directed by Spinal Tap. It turns everything up to eleven and incorporates so many recognisable characters, items, and sounds that it is impossible to catch them all on the first viewing, never mind to list them. The movie features extended tributes to such films as The Shining and Saturday Night Fever, while other popular titles like The Breakfast Club and Goldeneye (the N64 game) are simply name-dropped. We see such vehicles as the DeLorean and the motorcycle from Akira get used in a virtual race where obstacles include King Kong and the T-Rex from Jurassic Park, we see the chestburster from Alien and Chucky from Child’s Play get used as weapons, and we get to see more characters than we can count combat each other in battle royales including the Iron Giant, Freddy Krueger, Stormtroopers, the Spartans from Halo and Mecha-Godzilla. These references are all made so abundantly and are featured so prominently, fleetingly, and blink-and-you-missed-it-ly that any viewer who goes simply to enjoy this pop culture edition of Where’s Wally will find no shortage of phenomena to search for.

Therein lies a question though: does the nostalgic amusement park ride through 80s and 90s pop culture ultimately work for the film or against it? Even if we excuse the film for depicting a sanitised, mainstream version of the late 20th century that appeals mainly to the nostalgia of white, American, male ‘nerds’, what do the Easter Eggs actually bring to the film? On one hand, the references are made so indiscriminately and with such little connection to the story that it seems the vast majority are only there for the audience members to point at and say, “I understood that reference”. Even when some properties are given a greater level of focus, little attempt is made to actively explore what it is that fans enjoy about them, which can make its very inclusion feel quite hollow. The counterargument to this however is that the film’s use of pop culture must necessarily be secondary to the story and characters. It’s the narrative itself that we should be paying attention to and the familiar sights that pop up along the way are simply window dressing for fans to enjoy as we get there. Thus when Serenity from Firefly makes its appearance, the film opts not to dwell on it and explain its origin or significance. Instead it trusts that those who recognise it will enjoy it as it is, and those who don’t will simply have seen a cool spaceship. I think both sides are valid, which is partly why Ready Player One is such a mixed bag. While I wish I felt more of an emotional connection to this virtual world, the pleasure of spotting a reference from something you love is undeniable (I could barely stifle my laughter at the appearance of the Holy Hand Grenade).

Another way to look at it is this: does the movie work even if you don’t get 99% of the references featured? Does Ready Player One work on its own terms? Well, it depends on what you want from the film. For those looking for action and spectacle, the movie delivers. If there is one word to describe Ready Player One, it is ‘overwhelming’. Across its two-hour runtime the action is almost non-stop and often mindblowing. There is a thrilling race sequence, a surreal game of cat and mouse through the Overlook Hotel, and an epic, climatic battle that Spielberg masterfully cross-cuts with a chase in the real world. This is one of those cases where the lavish use of CGI is not only excusable, but welcome, since a virtual world such as OASIS is expected to look artificial and the action (at least when it occurs within the game) should be allowed to defy the laws of physics. Spielberg is allowed to push the boundaries of what he can get away with more than with any other film he’s ever made and the scope of his vision (along with trademark cinematographer Janusz Kamiński) is immense. However non-stop action, even when it is exceptionally well done, can only take you so far if there is nothing to engage you on an emotional level (even the two-hour car chase that was Mad Max: Fury Road had to make room for character development and compelling themes). This is where Ready Player One struggles.

As our protagonist the movie gives us Wade Wilson/Parzival, a victim of Harry Potter Syndrome (the movies, not the books) in that he is the least interesting character in his own story. He’s a blandly good-looking, brave and athletic ‘nerd’ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop culture and of Halliday’s life, which he employs in his quest for the hidden keys. Aiding him is Art3mis, Parzival’s equal in both knowledge and skill who, to the film’s credit, has more of a personality than just that of the love interest even if it still isn’t enough to be worthy of Cooke. With what little she’s given, Cooke proves herself capable of being both badass and sensitive and deserved a much larger role than being the object of a love story that can pretty much be reduced to male nerd wish fulfilment (a beautiful girl with low self esteem who plays video games and falls for the hero). Waithe also does well with her swaggering performance in what could have been a much more compelling role had more time been allowed for her. As an African-American woman playing an ethnically ambiguous virtual man, her character could have provided some genuinely fascinating insights about what it really means to create your own online persona. Halliday, in a strong, (intentionally) awkward and heartfelt performance by Rylance, might be the film’s only fully-realised and fleshed-out character. A subject of reverence and worship in both life and death, the film gradually shows him to be a more tragic and human character in an exploration of his past directly reminiscent of Citizen Kane.

As far as themes go, it’s clear that Ready Player One is not meant to be regarded simply as an entertaining and harmless trip down pop culture memory lane; Spielberg and Cline are trying to say something about the world as it is today and as it might be in a couple of decades. There is a message here about the internet’s capacity to bring us together but also the disconnect it can create between us and the outside world with all its problems. This is conveyed very well in one scene where we see Wade climbing his way down the trailer tower he lives in past all his neighbours whom, as we can see through their windows, are living their own virtual fantasies oblivious to everything that’s going on outside. Still, despite concluding that it is healthy and important for us to spend more time outside in the real world, the film nevertheless seems reluctant to explore the deeper flaws of the OASIS – the darker possibilities of unfiltered content and fantasies, issues with privacy and security, the toxic side of the fanboy culture that this movie so enthusiastically celebrates. The whole idea of this gamer revolution against corporate greed and authoritarianism also feels rather unconvincing coming from a multi-million dollar studio blockbuster, but might have worked had the movie been more willing to explore its own hypocrisies and contradictions.

I really did enjoy this film, all things considered. It is a fascinating film to watch, critique and discuss with others and it’s also an intriguingly relevant film for both the right and the wrong reasons. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s interesting to consider how and why it doesn’t work. Some viewers will love it for its epic expression of adoration for nerdy pop culture while others will hate it for its hollow use of 80s and 90s references to score nostalgia points. Some viewers meanwhile will enjoy Ready Player One for the thrilling blockbuster that it us while others will deride it for the empty CGI spectacle that it also is. The movie isn’t any one thing and that is both its strength and its weakness. When it comes down to it, I think Ready Player One can be looked at as an experiment in nostalgia and storytelling. Having seen the result, I think it’s a failed experiment, but an experiment that had to be made and a fascinating one all the same.

★★★