The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Days of Future Past

Written by James Taylor.

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The time travel plot mechanic in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) is facilitated through Kitty Pryde’s (Ellen Page) ability to project the consciousness of another person back through time. This is an evolution of her power in comic books to move through solid matter by manipulating the particles from which she is composed. Kitty’s ability to shift through spatial obstacles therefore extends to one that usurps temporal linearity, although she can only send back a consciousness other than her own. As such, this embodies the film’s key obsessions; the malleability of space and time, and the power of people unifying to affect this.

In the opening narration Dr. Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart) posits that together people can change the future for the better when he questions (over images of an apocalyptic tomorrow) “are we destined on this path? Destined to destroy ourselves like so many species before us? Or can we evolve fast enough to change ourselves? Change our fate?” The problem in achieving this change lies in the twofold challenge of unifying mutants as a species and forging a harmony between them and humans.

Battles between mutants with conflicting philosophies have provided constant fuel for X-Men comic books. While 1960s comic books pitted the righteous X-Men against Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, in recent years the divisions haven’t been so black and white, with James “Logan” Howlett/Wolverine (now deceased, inasmuch as comic book superheroes only temporarily die) and Scott Summers/Cyclops leading separate teams of X-Men with different agendas, the former pursuing Xavier’s dream of peaceful cohabitation with humans and the latter determining that mutant persecution will not end, and as such focusing on the survival of the mutant species. The fact that mutants shift across these lines, which themselves are fluid, provides hope for Xavier’s dream; if individual minds can be changed, collective consciousness can surely be steered from prejudice.

Shifting alliances have also been central to the X-Men film franchise, with X-Men 2 (2003) offering the closest to a unified body of mutants as the X-Men team up with Magneto (Ian McKellen) against a common human enemy. This unity, which stems from fear and desperation, is the kind that is evident in Days of Future Past. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) seeks to unite a world divided by Vietnam through a common fear of mutants, while the X-Men of the future have been brought together as a reaction to hate, becoming a close-knit team through their necessity to survive. In each case, the unity of one group is formed through and widens their segregation from another.

In depicting fear in the wake of the Vietnam War paving a descent into dystopia, Days of Future Past presents the case that it’s not just earth-shattering events such as wars, but the ways we react to them, that shape the future. The trauma left by such horrific events must be soothed through hope, rather than fear. A young Xavier (James McAvoy) provides a potential beacon for this, with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) having to convince him to end his seclusion and reach out to others once again. However, Xavier and Wolverine’s attempts to create a unified front are problematised by the film’s treatment of Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver (Evan Peters).

Director Bryan Singer’s previous two X-Men films excel in their exploration of teenage anxieties, but Quicksilver embodies a kind of adolescent estrangement not previously featured in the franchise. Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) is central to the first film, and her mutation, whereby she saps the life force out of whoever she touches, reflects the way that biological changes of puberty can induce alienation from others as well as from one’s own body and newfound sexual desires. Conversely, in X-Men 2 Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) is much more comfortable with the changes he’s gone through, but has to face the fact that his family isn’t, with their consideration of his power as an aberrant choice rather than a natural phenomenon - “have you tried not being a mutant?” - providing a potent metaphor for prejudice that many homosexual teens encounter in their own homes. While Rogue and Bobby struggle with feeling like outcasts, Quicksilver revels in his disconnection from society.

Quicksilver’s detachment from the wider world is encapsulated in the realisation of his powers, analysis of which also provides a means to appreciate the distinct ways that comic books and films manipulate space and time, and strategies through which adaptation from one to the other can occur at this formal level. In his cornerstone of comics studies, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that film is primarily a temporal medium, replacing one frame with another twenty four times a second on a shared screen to enable characters and objects to move through space at the same rate we experience reality. Conversely, comics are a spatial medium, and represent temporal flow through the way that they arrange figures within panels and panels on a page, with diegetic time generally unfolding as panels progress from left to right, causing McCloud to assert that ‘space does for comics what time does for film’. While the essentialism of this division can be challenged in many ways, from films that use split screen framing, either in the representation of simultaneous or successive events, to digital comics that feature animated elements in fixed temporal loops, its usefulness is evident when considering the representation of Quicksilver’s powers.

When Quicksilver first appeared in comic books, in X-Men #4 (1963), his super speed was depicted by motion lines tracing his trajectory through space, while his body was silhouetted and devoid of features, denoting how he’s too fast to be properly seen by the human eye. Spatial and iconic devices are therefore used to represent not only his movement through space, but also the immense speed of this, thus conveying his unique temporality. The fact that the time it takes Quicksilver to race across a panel is perceivable visually as continuous motion lines also reflects the nature of the spatial management of time in comics, whereby different moments are suspended alongside one another on the space of the page. In distinguishing Quicksilver visually from other characters the individuality of his powers and experience of the world is certified. However, in these comics his abilities are repeatedly used to ensure the wellbeing of his sister, Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, revealing that a familial bond to his sibling provides an anchor to the world.

Upon first meeting Quicksilver in Days of Future Past we see him as Xavier, Wolverine and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicohlas Hoult) do. The initial demonstration of his speed uses comparable devices to those in early comic books, with his motion visually blurred as he plays table tennis with himself by zipping from one side of the table to the other, comfortably arriving before the ball each time. However, unlike in comics, the motion lines rapidly fade with the progression of frames, evidencing how film typically propels forward, rather than suspending, time. Fulfilling the role of both sides in a two player game immediately signifies Quicksilver’s status as something of a loner. His movements then become almost completely imperceptible as he whizzes around his visitors, darting from one activity to the next and pinching Xavier’s wallet in-between breaths. Through this he compounds space, as we don’t see him travelling between locations, instead suddenly appearing in new places moment by moment, causing Beast to question whether his power is teleportation. The film’s ability to present movement that is not traceable through space reveals how, like Quicksilver, cinema is not tied to the laws of space that bind humans, but can usurp these through its distinct temporal properties. The seamless flow of movement in a shot, produced by the succession of twenty four frames a second, can be disrupted on a filmmaker’s whim if frames two to twenty three are removed, causing a fast moving object to teleport across the screen.

Films can also slow down the flow of images to disrupt, or draw attention to, spatial relations between characters and objects. This is utilised later in Days of Future Past, when Xavier, Wolverine and Quicksilver are breaking a young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) out of his imprisonment in the Pentagon. When they find themselves surrounded by armed guards the desperate situation is quelled as filmic temporality is altered so that we experience the diegetic world from Quicksilver’s relaxed subjectivity. Everything besides Quicksilver is slowed to a near-frozen creep as he jaunts around, prodding bullets to adjust their trajectories as they inch through the air, repositioning guards’ fists to set them on course with their own faces and even stealing one of their hats (because why not?). All of which plays out to Jim Croce’s ‘Time in a Bottle’, the serene tempo reflecting the ease of Quicksilver’s actions, but the lyrics, about spending eternity with a loved one, stand counter to his lack of companionship. In aligning us with Quicksilver we see that for him, like many teenagers, the surrounding world offers nothing but tedium. He effectively lives in an adolescent pocket of bottled time but lacks somebody with whom to savour this so opts instead to make the world his playground.

Whether unable to keep up with Quicksilver rushing by or simulating his experience of time dragging along, the film’s temporal manipulations reveal how Quicksilver’s lot separates him from other people. It should be noted that slow motion is used elsewhere in Days of Future Past to outline the subjectivities of individual mutants and denote their mastery of space, such as when Magneto guides a bullet into Raven Darkhölme/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), or Xavier freezes time upon inhabiting people’s minds and conversing with them telepathically. However, Magneto’s separation from others is caused by his actions - inflicting pain on another mutant - while Xavier telepathically contacts people in an effort to unite them. Quicksilver is the only one whose subjectivity as speedster and teenager is presented as fundamentally detached. Whereas upon his introduction in comic books his bond with his sister gave him a point of connection with the world, this is absent in Days of Future Past, with Wanda, much younger then him, only present as they watch TV together in the film’s climactic moments.

It’s only when witnessing the live broadcast of Magneto’s mutant call to arms that Quicksilver realises the implications and repercussions of his actions. This is not just the fault of his circumstance and mind-set. Xavier, Wolverine and Beast apparently don’t trust or respect Quicksilver enough to tell him why they want to break Magneto out of the Pentagon, instead using and discarding the oblivious teenager. In this regard the film’s misstep in benching its most interesting and entertaining new character after he’s only been in play for around ten minutes is exacerbated by the fact that this also undermines its projected themes. While unity is offered as the solution to prejudice, no real efforts are made to welcome Quicksilver into the team. As they wave goodbye Quicksilver asks Xavier and Beast why they’re going to France, only for them to keep their lips sealed, denying this rare shred of real interest the teenager’s shown in things that don’t just concern himself. Xavier’s arc in Days of Future Past, where he dedicates himself once again to bringing people together, is therefore contradicted by his perpetuation of Quicksilver’s status as outsider.

The film’s climactic battle is more successful at using filmic strategies for managing timeflow to complement themes of averting pain through unifying people. As Magneto turns Trask’s sentinels on the crowd at a press conference where President Nixon (Mark Camacho) is unveiling the killer robots the film starts cutting between this battle and one in the future where the X-Men are struggling to hold back a sentinel attack. Cross cutting is most commonly used in narrative film to cut between two spaces in which interconnected events are occurring simultaneously, but here cuts between events separated by roughly fifty years of diegetic time. Cinema’s ability to jump across time as well as space from shot to shot means that when we see sentinels attacking in 1973 followed mere moments later by the X-Men of the future defending themselves, the two battles are presented not simply as occurring in parallel, but as the same battle. Past and future are therefore compounded through editing, stressing that Magneto’s act of hatred in response to Trask and Nixon’s fear and prejudice only nourishes more negativity. This is exemplified during Magneto’s speech rallying mutants together in a fight against humans, the grim reality of the “new tomorrow” he proposes exposed through his words being intercut with the massacre of the future X-Men climaxing, as Colossus (Daniel Cudmore), Warpath (Booboo Stewart), Sunspot (Adan Canto) and Blink (Bingbing Fan) are all torn, burned and stabbed by sentinels. This clear demonstration of how segregation into warring factions leads to more suffering is certified when the opposite is also shown to be true, as Mystique’s act of compassion in sparing Trask is proceeded by a shot in which the surviving future X-Men disappear just as they’re about to be slaughtered, signalling that the future is being rewritten.

It can be argued that the sadistic delight the film takes in brutally massacring the future X-Men not just once but twice, at both the beginning and end, detracts from its promotion of non-violent solutions. However, this can be seen more favourably as the successful deployment of a convention of serialised science-fiction whereby alternate timelines and parallel dimensions allow writers to obliterate their darlings. The pleasures offered to fans and creators in simulating the deaths of entire casts of characters whose actual deaths are forbidden by the imperatives of serialisation are encapsulated on the cover of the second issue in the Days of Future Past comic book story (Uncanny X-Men #142 [1981]), which gleefully promises ‘this issue: everybody dies!’.

The thematic integrity of Days of Future Past is therefore not without its slippages, with the abandonment of Quicksilver in particular undermining its messages, while the irresistibility of certain genre conventions can also be faulted. Stylistically though, the film uses a range of techniques that amplify and enrich the diegetic exploration of ways that space and time can be seen as malleable, one such way that is implicitly evident being the powers of temporal manipulation possessed by cinema itself. This keen use of cinematic form is central to Days of Future Past’s largely successful adaptation of themes integral to X-Men comics, and offers what we could term an aesthetics of time travel.

This Alternate Take was published on December 09, 2014.

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