Archive for the ‘prequel’ category

Rogue One

April 23, 2017

rogueoneBetween regular “saga” entries of the Star Wars franchise, we can now expect interstitial forays like Rogue One, which tells the story of how the Death Star came to have a weak spot into which Luke Skywalker so triumphantly squeezed laser blasts in the original Star Wars. This sort of “untold story” is symptomatic of the nerdish desire to explain everything, tie everything up neatly. After all, the question of why such a fortified super-weapon should have an Achilles’ heel has plagued the world for some forty years. Now we learn it’s not a bug, it’s a feature, put there by clever scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), who has been pressed into service by the Empire to work on their big new Rebellion-crushing toy.

Rogue One follows Galen’s daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones), a hard-bitten young woman very much in the mold of Daisy Ridley’s Rey from The Force Awakens. Rarely smiling, much less showing affection for anyone other than her long-lost daddy, Jyn is apparently nouveau Star Wars’ idea of the deromanticized heroine, the brave and driven woman with no lovey-dovey distractions. This is fine with me, believe me, but the film’s screenwriters (Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy are credited) forget to humanize Jyn in any other sense. (Her preoccupation with running a mission to realize her father’s plan just defines her in terms of a man anyway.)

The story is simple — Jyn has to get the Death Star plans, which include where the thing’s weakness is, into the hands of Princess Leia — and the movie is much more consistently and consciously a war picture than any other Star Wars film. Things blow up, large objects plummet and fly apart, Stormtroopers and Rebel warriors kill and die by the dozens. After a while, the combat becomes numbing, monotonous, locked into the technology from the original trilogy (the lumbering AT-ATs from The Empire Strikes Back make an appearance). Despite all this, the plot is needlessly convoluted, involving a variety of ragged grayhats who come together in the common cause of defeating the Empire. If there’s a reason the extremist character Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) really needed to be in the movie, I’ve already forgotten it. Rogue One starts wearing out its welcome at about the hour mark, and there’s another 75 minutes to go; the movie, lumbering like those AT-ATs, feels like it stomps along forever.

Some humanity occasionally peeks over the rubble. Everyone enjoyed Alan Tudyk’s vocal performance as the reformed/reprogrammed Imperial droid K-2SO, who tends towards brutal honesty at inopportune times, and I liked him too. The ethnic diversity of the cast is a merit, including the calming Zen presence of Donnie Yen as the blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe, who feels one with the Force even if he’s not an official Jedi. Oddly, the Stormtroopers, reliably inept and fond of doofus small talk about the latest Imperial tech (someone on this production obviously remembered the goofball Stormtrooper exchange about the VT-16 in Star Wars), seem to be the most relatable characters despite being cannon fodder — but then, almost everyone in Rogue One is cannon fodder.

That’s a potentially interesting thing to do in a $200 million movie that’s part of a multibillion-dollar franchise — a nihilistic, die-with-honor war film. Here, though, it comes off as a little cold. Seeing all those Stormtroopers bite it, I was reminded again that at least a few of them could be like Finn in The Force Awakens, sickened by slaughter and in desperate need of flight and redemption. Rogue One couldn’t care less about that, and cares scarcely more about the Rebel Alliance heroes. The people we’re introduced to in Rogue One will never be seen again in the films (I suppose there might be spin-off comics or novels about them), their ultimate sacrifice known by few and remembered by fewer. Empire Strikes Back had its dark and dissonant moments (I still remember a post-torture Han Solo moaning “They didn’t even ask me any questions”), but at least it wasn’t depressing.

Oz the Great and Powerful

March 10, 2013

OZ: THE GREAT AND POWERFULAs the release of Oz the Great and Powerful drew closer, I had the nagging feeling that I should curl up with L. Frank Baum’s original Oz books before catching the film. Instead, it turns out I accidentally re-read another book far more relevant to the movie: Bruce Campbell’s riotous 2002 memoir If Chins Could Kill. Much of Campbell’s book talks about how he, director Sam Raimi, and a few other cash-strapped lunatics moved heaven and earth to make the first Evil Dead — talk about humble beginnings. These days Raimi’s a big shot with three insanely lucrative Spider-Man films under his belt, and Disney has handed him $200 million to make Oz the Great and Powerful, which, as a few commentators have pointed out, has essentially the same structure as Raimi’s third Evil Dead entry Army of Darkness. (Campbell’s in it too, as an arrogant guard at the Emerald City gates.)

The first half hour or so of this new Oz is basically Sam Raimi’s love of movie magic writ large — very large. Like the sainted 1939 Wizard of Oz, it starts out in black and white, in the boxy “Academy ratio” used by most movies until the ’50s. Cheapjack carny magician Oscar Diggs (James Franco) rides a hot-air balloon into a tornado, which whisks him away to the land of Oz, and the screen widens and, like Kool-Aid pouring into a clear glass, everything fills up with dazzling color. Most everything we see from then on, too, was concocted in computers, and for a while the obviousness of the green-screen backdrops works for Raimi’s consciously artificial approach. After a while, though, the visuals become irritating white noise; the movie overdoses on relentless prettiness.

The people of Oz receive Oscar as a savior, the “wizard” they’ve been promised. He meets three witches: Glinda the Good (Michelle Williams) and two sisters, Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz). Soon enough, Oscar pegs Evanora and her easily manipulated sister — who will become the Wicked Witches of the East and West — as the primary threats to Oz, but he knows he isn’t a real wizard — he’s just a flimflam artist, and Glinda knows it too. Far too much time is devoted to Oscar’s self-doubts, and the script hangs a lot of weight on bromides about believing in oneself, in ideals of goodness, and so on. We seem to pass a lot of time watching James Franco and Michelle Williams, sometimes accompanied by a talking monkey, strolling in front of fake backdrops.

As John Waters knows (and has written), the real meat of The Wizard of Oz is the Wicked Witch, who, it turns out, became the fearsome green-skinned villain because she was jealous of Oscar strolling in front of too many fake backdrops with Glinda. This motive is disappointing to say the least, but any scenes Raimi hands over to Kunis and especially Weisz as they spit venom and scheme are terrific fun. If nothing else, pop culture’s current swing towards fantasy and fairy tales gives actresses a chance to doll up in outlandish drag-queen ornamentation and vamp six ways to Sunday. Franco, grinning and smirking his way through his performance, can’t compete with the witches — including Glinda, whom Williams invests with a steely inner strength.

Eventually we’re treated to the spectacle of an Oscar-winning actress and an Oscar-nominated actress throwing balls of energy at each other, while Oscar and his new posse of tinkers, farmers and Munchkins jerry-rig various illusions to hoodwink the Wicked Witches’ evil flying baboons and restore Oz to its people. Oz the Great and Powerful is supposed to be about how Oscar the hokum artist grew into his role as the Wizard, but he just seems like a bystander a lot of the time. So does Sam Raimi. He sneaks in a few time-honored Raimi shots, like the ram-o-cam, but longtime fans of the director may wish they were re-watching Army of Darkness instead. Raimi said all he could, and brilliantly, with the story of a stranger in a strange fantasyland in that film. Movie buffs sometimes like to wonder what their favorite z-budget cult directors could do with some serious money, but on the evidence here, the answer is, not much that anyone else with $200 million of Disney’s money couldn’t do. When you can afford to do anything, you have no restrictions to push against, no sand to produce the pearl of creativity.

Prometheus

June 10, 2012

The elegantly designed Prometheus asks the Big Questions — where do we come from? who, if anyone, made us? — and kinda-sorta answers them. But if the movie is really about anything, it’s atmosphere. Director Ridley Scott, returning to science fiction after having made two of the genre’s classics (Alien and Blade Runner), brings a pleasant big-movie heft to the visuals, an almost cruel burnish only possible with lots of money and teams of well-paid techs. The look is handsomely antiseptic, much like the character David (Michael Fassbender), an android aboard the titular spaceship Prometheus. Passing the time (two years) waiting for the crew to wake up, David becomes enamored of Lawrence of Arabia, coloring his hair to emulate Peter O’Toole. It’s heartening, I guess, that in 2093 we will not only still exist but also remember 20th-century art; another character, the captain (Idris Elba), plays an accordion once owned by Stephen Stills.

These hints of personality and leisure have to last us a while, because most of Prometheus is about delving into — as mission director Vickers (Charlize Theron) puts it — “a godforsaken rock in the middle of space.” Our intrepid crew of scientists seek evidence of “the Engineers,” aliens worshipped by various unconnected ancient cultures. The Engineers, we’re to understand, created us. But why? For that, I think, you’re supposed to come back for Prometheus 2 and 3; this film is reportedly the first of a projected trilogy, though whether it’ll make enough bank to justify sequels is a more urgent question than any the movie asks. The maybe-part-one-if-enough-of-you-see-it aspect may explain why Guy Pearce appears underneath pounds of old-man latex as Peter Weyland, who funds the mission. I’m assuming the grand plan is to have the unlatexed Pearce return in a sequel or prequel as a younger Weyland; otherwise why didn’t they just hire an older actor?

The heart of Prometheus is the believer Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), whose entire career seems to hinge on proof of, well, intelligent design. I’m not quite up on what Richard Dawkins might say about this; whether we were created by a white-bearded Christian god or by strange-looking aliens gargling goo at the dawn of man, the point the film takes for granted is that we were created. Someone in the film snarks about two hundred years of Darwinism being chucked out the nearest air lock, but that’s about all the skepticism we hear among this cadre of scientists. Anyway, the impassioned Noomi Rapace is much the best thing about the movie; as in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, she moves on an angular, headlong trajectory, and Shaw is about the only character visibly capable of horror and awe, sometimes both at once. (Charlize Theron, meanwhile, plays her second ice queen in as many weeks, and seemed to have more fun last week.)

Logic will not avail us here. Forget whether it’s plausible that a species of unpleasant baldies manufactured us for reasons as yet known only to them; what about the scene in which a character takes a series of running leaps when her abdomen was lasered open and then stapled shut only hours before? Not to mention the sequence in which two crew members, deep inside the womb of the godforsaken rock, suddenly decide to head back to the ship, then promptly get lost. They only exist, we gather, as alien fodder. Yes, here be dragons, or at least phallic slimy things and a big beastie worthy of Lovecraft at his most febrile. For weeks now, the marketing for Prometheus couldn’t figure out whether to sell it as a prequel to Alien or as a stand-alone scientists-meet-monsters epic. It is, if you must, a story that takes place in the same reality as Alien, and the final shot, much derided by Alien fans, strengthens the link. If you want to rewatch Alien and not think of the mysterious “space jockey” as what you pray to on Sunday, you might want to steer clear of Prometheus.

The movie wasn’t giving my brain much of a workout, but my eyes got a nice buzz. Prometheus is straight-up gorgeous, especially in 3D; Scott has conceived the shots for the added dimension, employing it with subtlety and for the occasional matter-of-fact spectacle. If the ads have intrigued you visually, go. Just be prepared for a plot that reminds me of various reviewers over the years admitting “I’m not sure whether this movie/book just rips off some Star Trek episode I never saw.” It’s an atmospheric thrill ride, though short on thrills until near the end, and certainly neither as intense nor as tight as Alien. It’s best perceived as an experiment by a director returning to the franchise he created, not by making a direct sequel but by drifting off to tell a related story. On the evidence, though, Scott can’t scare us any more, and his characters recede into the vast canvas of his own intelligent design. We can’t really care about who made us if most of the people onscreen aren’t us.

Paranormal Activity 3

October 23, 2011

There’s something to be said for a horror franchise that finds ways to creep around our defenses using the medium itself. The Paranormal Activity movies — you may as well get used to them, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon — turn us into nervous security guards staring at video footage, staring at the eerily placid and dead frame, staring at each corner of a room, staring, staring AND THEN SOMETHING HAPPENS. As narrative, these films have been lampooned and laughed at, rightly so, I suppose. And the more the movies try to explain everything, the goofier they get. But as pure nerve-ending cinema using stillness and quietude to build dread, this series is hard to beat. A good portion of Paranormal Activity 3 made me feel like a wire cruelly tightened on a winch. The use of a camera attached to a modified oscillating fan recalls, of all things, the devastating conclusion of Francis Coppola’s masterpiece of paranoia The Conversation.

This one, like the previous film, is a prequel. It goes back to 1988, when Katie, the haunted protagonist of the original film, and Kristi, her sister and the lead of the second film, were little girls. They live with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith), who makes a meager living as a wedding-video producer. Dennis has video cameras and home editing equipment — his set-up looks plausibly clunky for the period. (Do not get me started on how a film set in 1988 is already a period film.) Dennis finds a different use for his tools when strange things begin happening around the house. Kristi keeps talking to an “imaginary friend” named Toby, sometimes in the dead of night. There are spooky sounds; there are things caught on video that are just off-kilter enough to be handwaved as VHS artifacting — at first.

Dennis sets up cameras in his and Julie’s bedroom, in the girls’ bedroom, and downstairs in the kitchen; the last camera he later modifies so that it pans slowly back and forth between the living room and the kitchen. A babysitter arrives, and the oscillating camera pans, rests on her, pans back. Something appears, then disappears, then appears again; the technique is memorably creepy. The directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, whose previous film Catfish was a skin-crawler of a documentary (whose authenticity has been heavily questioned), get us to fixate on the reveal/conceal/reveal rhythm of that camera, and in a later shot it leads to such an abrupt shock — to convince a skeptical character that something weird is indeed happening here — it releases our laughter.

Of course, leaving the house doesn’t mean leaving the weirdness behind. The family moves in with Julie’s mother, and Paranormal Activity 3 takes a hard left into literalism that raises more questions than it answers. (Paranormal Activity 4 will no doubt answer some and raise more.) In order to “add to the mythology” and provide some concrete justification for existing, the Paranormal Activity sequels have robbed the original film of its chilling randomness — the sense that anyone, like Katie, can mysteriously attract the amused attentions of a demon. Here we see why Katie and, later, Kristi were so besieged; it has something to do with the dearth of male children in the family, as described in the second film. It’s cheesy, like the revelation in Halloween II that the killer Michael Myers and the heroine Laurie Strode were actually siblings. What should be left vague and universally threatening becomes, with the addition of new material and old secrets, too specific to this one family; their terrors become solely theirs, not ours.

For most of the film, though, we’re scanning those dead frames for evidence of something, and we’re frightened. I enjoy sitting among a rapt audience for films that so intensely demand attention and absorption. Occasionally you hear a ripple effect of shock in the theater, as one person notices something bizarre and gasps, and then it spreads to other viewers. These movies bring subtlety and mystery — of the visual kind, at least — back to the horror genre. A shadow is just barely glimpsed in a doorway, unannounced by any sort of shrieking “sting” on the soundtrack. Things are there and then not there; things are not there and then, inexplicably, there. This series makes a virtue of low budgets and limited technique; Paranormal Activity 3 cost $5 million, still peanuts these days, the added expense owing to a few shots that could only be realized with computer effects. I don’t think much of where the “story” has gone and is apparently going, but in the moments that count, those silent wolf-hour compositions of gathering dread, the franchise has earned a place of pride in horror history.

The Thing (2011)

October 16, 2011

Give credit where it’s due: The Thing is not a remake of John Carpenter’s 1982 classic (or Christian Nyby’s 1951 classic, for that matter, of which Carpenter’s film was a remake). It is, rather, a prequel to the 1982 film, exploring what happened at the doomed Norwegian camp in Antarctica that the Thing escaped from, at the beginning of the ’82 film, en route to the American camp. I myself had been curious about what had gone down among the dead men. As it happens, the events at the Norwegian camp are pretty much the same as the events at the American camp. Aside from a new way to distinguish a real human from a person who’s been absorbed and imitated by the Thing, the new film doesn’t come up with anything fresh. It’s like the Star Wars prequels: Fan-fiction speculation over the years has probably been more inventive than what has now been presented to us as official Thing canon.

The major difference here, of course, is that the various permutations and transformations of the Thing carry the telltale sheen of CGI, whereas Rob Bottin’s revolutionary latex work in the 1982 film always occupied real physical space, giving the actors something to react to and interact with. Reportedly, the new film once sought to follow in Bottin’s footsteps with entirely practical effects, but the dailies apparently disappointed, and the studio ordered up digital enhancements. What’s left of the real-world sculpting of Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. looks appropriately savage and surreal, but the result of the tweaking is that the Thing can now move more quickly and fluidly, and can do things it somehow can’t do later on, in the 1982 film.

Of course an American audience wouldn’t be trusted to maintain interest in a Norwegian-camp prequel composed entirely of Norwegians speaking subtitled Norwegian. So we have four Americans, an Englishman, a French woman, and a bunch of indistinct Norwegians, most of whom obligingly speak fluent English. One of the Americans is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as a paleontologist recruited to have a look at the Thing discovered buried in the ice. Winstead isn’t a bad actress (she was a delight in Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World), and at 26 she could plausibly be a college graduate and practicing scientist herself, but the problem is she doesn’t look it. Like many another actress these days, she looks far younger than her years. She doesn’t get to do much science-y stuff anyway, though she does figure out that the Thing can’t replicate inorganic material, so anyone without fillings in his teeth is suspect. (I’m guessing she means it can’t imitate anything bioinorganic, but the producers may have feared such a word would confuse the same stupes who were assumed to need Americans in a Norwegian story.) So we get several scenes with characters yelling at each other to open their mouths.

Look at the 1982 Thing again and you see a perfect thunderstorm of paranoia and suspense, brewed up by the clash of the cold front of director John Carpenter’s cool-cucumber style (the camera almost never moves, and it stares objectively at the characters much as a Thing would) and the warm front of Rob Bottin’s excitable-boy, sugar-fueled metamorphosis sequences, where chaos reigns. Director Matthijs van Heijningen, a fan of the Carpenter film, gets the externals but can’t duplicate the authentic chill and isolation of the original. (In some scenes, too, the steam wafting out of characters’ mouths in the cold air seems real, while in others it seems digitally pasted in. It’s distracting.) He isn’t free to bring anything of his own, either; he’s got prequel-cuffs around his wrists, locked into the look of the ’82 film, and its beginning, too. We know this film has to end with a Norwegian attempting to kill the Thing before it reaches another camp, and we assume everyone else will die. They don’t, though, and the door is left open for a sequel to this prequel: in addition to the Norwegian and American camps, there’s a Russian camp we hadn’t previously heard about. How many damn countries have guys stationed out there in the snow, and what are they all studying?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

August 6, 2011

The Planet of the Apes movies were never really about apes. They were about the flaws of humanity, shown to us in a funhouse mirror. In the original 1968 film, the arrogant Charlton Heston found out what it was like to be caged, silenced, treated as inferior and stupid. In other words, the white man got a taste of what it was like to be non-white. (It was 1968, and screenwriter Rod Serling never met a heavy-handed metaphor he didn’t like.) This summer’s new iteration, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is different in that it really is about the apes. The simians don’t seem to represent anything other than themselves, the low men on the evolutionary totem pole, who through the misguided magic of science gain intelligence and sunder their chains.

Rise is a top-flight summer entertainment, beautifully photographed (Andrew Lesnie), edited (Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt) and scored (Patrick Doyle). It moves with heedless animal momentum towards the moment when the assorted monkeys, led by super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), suck the air of freedom into their cavernous nostrils and bellow in triumph. It’s a crackerjack fantasy, but it’s also an anti-human one, and that will bother some people. Me, I felt at times that the film’s PG-13 rating hindered it. The apes’ revolution is largely bloodless and, with a couple of exceptions, glossed over. Given what we see them suffer in the movie, and given what we know real primates endure in experimentation labs by the hundreds, I wanted more. I wanted monkey fangs tearing the screaming faces off of soccer moms in their gas-hoarding SUVs; I wanted claws hollowing out the soft bellies of suburban dads plump with the flesh of abused livestock, with their spoiled Wii-addicted children saved for snacks. I wanted intestines coiled on the sidewalks, dangling from the well-manicured trees. But that’s just me. The monkeys are nicer.

Caesar’s smarts come genetically, from his mother, a test subject for an Alzheimer’s cure. The cure’s creator (James Franco) has a personal stake in it: his dad (John Lithgow) is losing his mind to the disease. Adopted by Franco and girlfriend Freida Pinto, Caesar learns a whole lot but misses out on the chest-beating glory of Being Ape. Locked in with his species peers after a protective assault on Franco’s contemptible neighbor, Caesar knows what he has to do. In an earlier, poignant scene, Caesar asked Franco through sign language, “Is Caesar a pet? What is Caesar?” Now he learns what he is, or what his role will be. The scenes in which Caesar carries out his plans, showing more brains than many a human character in summer blockbusters, are gratifying. Every slice of simian pushback aggression towards cruel humans primes us for the uprising.

When it comes, the apes again rely more on strategy than on head-bashing ferocity. Their battle is exultant without being sadistic. In one legitimately great sequence, a towering gorilla faces off against a cop on horseback (I’m not sure, realistically, why there are cops on horseback here, other than a callback to the 1968 film), fells him, looks as if he’s about to rip his helmeted head off, then just roars into his face, spraying spit all over his faceguard. The apes, I take it, have been discouraged by Caesar to kill men unless absolutely necessary; this gorilla, having near-definitively proven who the new boss is, senses that it’s sufficient to leave it at that. I wouldn’t have.

The acting here is functional (though Lithgow brings authentic heartbreak to his Caesar-in-reverse performance), with one dazzling and widely-noted exception: Andy Serkis, performing Caesar through motion capture (as he did with Gollum and King Kong), makes him a complex and emotionally accessible creature without anthropomorphizing him much. As the film goes on, and Caesar sheds some of the softness of his human upbringing and embraces the way of the ape, Serkis suggests that a fusion of homo-sapien ratiocination and powerful apehood would produce a shrewd and not remotely huggable hero. Bouncing around the confines of the colorful indoor playpen Franco has made for him in the attic, Caesar is cute. But he yearns for open air, the imposing redwoods, nature unconquered by man and his steel teeth. Standing tall and noble among his ape minions, Caesar is no longer cute. If he were human, we would say he has become a man. But in this case, that would be a grievous insult to him.

X-Men: First Class

June 4, 2011

There are two major conflicts running through X-Men: First Class. One is interesting, though we’ve seen it before, and one is near-fatal to the film. The first conflict is the ideological loggerheads between two powerful mutants — Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), a telepath, and Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who can manipulate metal with his mind. Charles is aware that normal humans hate and fear mutants, but wants to help humans anyway. Erik is likewise aware, but gradually decides that he would rather not. The second conflict is one of tone. X-Men: First Class, set during the early ’60s leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, breathes heavily about matters of major historical import — Erik as a boy survived Auschwitz — but also wants to be a poppy summer-fun blast in which mutants sprout wings or blue fur and flit around the sky like fireflies at dusk.

The result is a weird and unstable experience, and I wish I could say I gave in to the lightweight escapism. But when you present me with the Final Solution and the spectre of nuclear annihilation — which actually almost happened, with or without mutants — I have a hard time switching gears for the goofball scenes of young mutants in training, roughhousing with their budding powers. I don’t mean to be a killjoy; I just mean to say that historical high seriousness and retro pulp don’t blend well — you can see the seams. The first two X-Men films, directed by Bryan Singer, took themselves seriously — gloomily so, at times — but at least felt consistent. The stakes were high, and Singer, an openly gay director, plumbed the metaphor of mutants as persecuted homosexuals, but when the action beats came they felt rooted in something personal. Here, the historical import seems like a tacky backdrop for tackier action.

Charles and Erik (who will later triumphantly assume the dorky name “Magneto,” snarkily given to him by Jennifer Lawrence’s shape-shifting Mystique) enter into an increasingly uneasy alliance when Erik’s old foe from the Auschwitz days, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), plans to use his own mutant powers and mutant minions to provoke nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. The resulting radiation will kill off all the humans and empower the mutants. So Charles and Erik build their own team, made up mostly of disaffected youngsters with strange powers; perhaps significantly, perhaps not, of the two mutants of color, one dies early on and one turns to evil.

Michael Fassbender emerges as a cool, 007-like presence, the only real adult in the movie; James McAvoy seems to keep himself amused. For the most part, though, the large cast gets lost in the bombast, and January Jones as Shaw’s telepathic right-hand woman Emma Frost gives yet another dead-eyed performance in which she seems to be reading her lines phonetically. The director (and one of four named writers) of X-Men: First Class is credited as Matthew Vaughn, which I find hard to believe. Can this be the same man who gave us last year’s sarcastic, taboo-breaking superhero satire Kick-Ass (not to mention the enchanting comedy Stardust)? This film is a complete regression for Vaughn, who seemed to be forging a career as one of the few iconoclasts working in big Hollywood movies. There’s more outlaw excitement in any of Hit Girl’s scenes from Kick-Ass than in all of X-Men: First Class.

Save for a few hairdos and JFK on the tube, the ’60s milieu isn’t very convincing; the movie itself, meanwhile, feels as though it were made in 1996 or even 1986. A lot of that is due to Henry Jackman’s painfully cheesy score, but part of it is down to Matthew Vaughn’s passionless, visionless direction. Vaughn was supposed to direct 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand but dropped out two weeks before filming started; did he take this movie on to prove he could’ve done better with the earlier film, or did he forget in the intervening five years why he’d wanted to make an X-Men film in the first place? X-Men: First Class has been getting something of a free ride from the fanboy press, who respect Vaughn for his past films and are grateful that someone tried to make a better movie than The Last Stand and the oafish Wolverine. But loyalty to a director and relief that a film doesn’t stink on ice aren’t enough reason to excuse mediocrity.