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X-Men: Dark Phoenix

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When the first X-Men movie came out back in the ancient year of 2000, it made a decent case for its own existence and, by extension, the existence of big budget superhero movies in general (which were outliers at the time). It was followed up by a superior sequel three years later, X-Men 2, and we officially had an X-Men franchise! There have been ups and downs along the way – with X-Men: First Class (2011) representing a peak, and X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) very much a trough – but overall the series has been solid.

Not quite at the level of Marvel Studios’ output, mind you, but respectable nonetheless. But with 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past (a decent entry), the whole box and dice was reset due to some time travel shenanigans, and the series really hasn’t known where to go next. 2016’s X-Men: Apocalypse did very little to steer the franchise in a fresh new direction, and now we have X-Men: Dark Phoenix to act as a sort of end point for the entire series. So, does it work? Yeah, nah, hey. Yeah, nah.

The Dark Phoenix saga is one of the most revered comic book runs in X-Men’s printed history. It involves an alien force, epic battles and personal sacrifice that spans many issues and remains an iconic story arc. It was first attempted in X-Men: The Last Stand to frankly woeful results, but since Days Of Future Past essentially rebooted the continuity, first-time director (but longtime X-Men franchise producer and screenwriter) Simon Kinberg decided that he’d have another bash. The best thing that can be said about Dark Phoenix is that it’s absolutely better than The Last Stand. That, however, is a very low bar to clear.

Dark Phoenix tells a very truncated version of the saga, that has Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) absorbing what appears to be a solar flare during a rescue mission in space. It soon becomes clear that something has changed Jean, and she manifests power at levels that cause Professor X (James McAvoy), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Beast (Nicholas Hoult) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan) to become increasingly concerned. Add to this a weird alien conspiracy led by one-note villain Vuk (Jessica Chastain), and you’ve got 114 minutes of, well… adequate entertainment.

The problem with Dark Phoenix isn’t that it’s bad, although it is at times, it’s just terribly uninvolving. The reason that audiences were so moved during Avengers: Endgame was because they’d earned the big emotional moments, the pay-offs that felt like logical conclusions to the films that had come before. Dark Phoenix feels like it comes out of nowhere and exists solely to give everyone involved a chance to do the saga one more time, and consequently it’s all weightless.

Sophie Turner did lovely work on Game Of Thrones, but continues to be miscast as Jean Grey. James McAvoy tries admirably but is hamstrung by a truly wonky script, and Jennifer Lawrence and Michael Fassbender are quite simply wasted.

Ultimately, X-Men: Dark Phoenix just isn’t very good. Flat direction, a weak script and uninvolved performances are livened occasionally by decent action in the third act, but it’s nothing that you haven’t seen done better elsewhere. If this is indeed the final X-Men film, the series has gone out with a whimper, and it’s hard to imagine even wanting this particular phoenix to rise from these drab, listless ashes.

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Trailer: Ad Astra

It's Brad Pitt in space directed by James Gray! Looks like Apocalypse Now meets Arrival, or something like that.
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Review, Theatrical, This Week Leave a Comment

“I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and weary enough to detect its presence.”

With these words from the legendary storyteller J.R.R. Tolkien, the existence of this particular biopic feels… off. It fits in with the standard modern depiction of creative minds, winding imagination and history together to depict an artist on the brink of something that they have to create, if only to settle their own demons. Biography that treats art as allegory for the artist. Knowing that the Tolkien estate has disavowed this film, this feels like it’s already on an uphill trudge to justify itself as an art work. Even without having seen the film for themselves, the estate might have a point in not approving this.

But while the approval of the man himself will never be known, it helps that this film does a certain degree of justice to his legacy and his work. Embodied with idealistic fervour by Nicholas Hoult, his performance combined with the scripting convey a lot of what makes Tolkien such a beloved writer: His willingness to bond rather than break off from others, his intuition when it came to the power of art, and of course, his masterful understanding of language that would form a crucial foundation in his literary universe.

This is somewhat to the film’s detriment, since the story spends an almost overindulgent amount of time discussing linguistics and the written word, overshadowing a lot of the other aspects, including Tolkien’s connection to his faith. Of course, it’s difficult to get too annoyed about that, since the scenes that dive head-long into the mechanics of language make for quite enthralling dialogue. Crafting artificial languages is one of the trickier aspects of narrative worldbuilding, something that Tolkien remains one of the few true masters of, so highlighting one of the key elements that made him truly extraordinary feels apt.

As for the visuals, director Dome Karukoski (Tom of Finland) and frequent collaborator Lasse Frank as cinematographer leave traces of the works we all know throughout the film, almost as if they’re dreams being filtered through the camera lens.

This results in a fair bit of direct visual reference to Peter Jackson’s adaptations (as well as retroactive ribbing of the length of said adaptations), but for the most part, it manages to maintain its own aesthetic identity without leaning too hard on the audience’s nostalgia. From the dusky haze of fire on the front line in France to the regal opulence of a tea room, it does just enough to not be completely overshadowed by the deliciously quippy dialogue.

The depiction we get of Tolkien is that of a warrior poet, one who had to work his way through everyone else’s preconceptions about him and the potential of his art. It may serve as the latest biopic in a trend, but for those who appreciate his work, the creative process, or even just the nature of language, it gets the job done.