*** Stars
(US 2000)
Rated PG-13

Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Famke Janssen

Directed by Bryan Singer

Writing Credits:Tom DeSanto, Bryan Singer

20th Century Fox * 104 minutes

Screened at: Loew's Palisades Center

Chalk up the world of comic book superheroes as another genre, along with science fiction, the charms of which usually elude me. My spouse (who looks nothing like the Comic Book Guy on THE SIMPSONS), on the other hand, has been an X-MEN devote for years. So of course I had to grab at this rare opportunity for us to see a film together. Imagine my surprise when, instead of the arcane, goofy, moronic endurance test I'd expected, what unfolded before me was a surprisingly cerebral, compellingly allegorical story, with a great score, special effects fully in the service of the story, and interesting well-portrayed characters as a bonus.

The premise of X-MEN is that sometimes human evolution is speeded up just a bit, and the resultant creatures are mutants, with a variety of superhuman powers. What makes the concept appealing to teens in particular is the idea that these powers, which make the mutants different, also make them shunned and hated by "normal" humans. The story opens in 1944, as a young Jewish boy, Erik Lansherr, is being herded, along with his parents, into one of Hitler's death camps. Separated from his father, the boy, using sheer force of will, manages to tear down a heavy fence without touching it, thus freaking out the Nazi guards holding him.

Fast-forward about fifty years, and there are now two mutant factions. One is led by Professor Charles Xavier, a.k.a. "Professor X" (Patrick Stewart), the world's most powerful telepath, who envisions a world in which humans and mutants can live in harmony. the other is led by Magneto (Ian McKellen), who is the adult version of the boy in the Warsaw ghetto we saw at the beginning of the film. Magneto's early experiences with people being brutalized because of who they are showed him that there can be no peace, and that the only way for mutants to no longer be brutalized is to rule over their human oppressors. This conflict of ideology takes place against a backdrop of growing anti-mutant sentiment, in which politicians ask, "Do we want our children to attend school with mutants? To be taught by mutants?"

Substitute the word "gays" for mutants, and you can see where we're going here. For that matter, substitute "Jews," "blacks," "Hilary Rodham Clinton," or any other group that is usually met with fear and loathing for being different, and you can see that X-MEN is not just another adaptation of a comic book rife with ripped he-men and Amazonian women with huge pneumatic hooters (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos' lithe shapeshifter Mystique notwithstanding).

The plot, such as it is, and which is largely a setup for the inevitable prequels and sequels to follow, deals with Magneto's minions fighting Professor X's minions for control of mutant destiny. Magneto's guys are essentially conventional Bad Guys, such as Tyler Mane's Sabertooth, who looks like the bastard child of John Travolta's Psychlo villian in BATTLEFIELD EARTH; and Ray Park (last seen as Darth Maul in THE PHANTOM MENACE) as Toad, a mutant version of Tom Waits' Renfield in Francis Ford Coppola's BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA, with a tongue that, well, don't let the porn directors see it.

It's Professor X's followers, the eponymous X-Men, who are the interesting group, and the ones who have made the comic books compelling for identity crisis-ed teens and adults for years. At the forefront of these is Logan, a.k.a. "Wolverine," portrayed with a ferocious physicality by Australian newcomer and Clint Eastwood lookalike Hugh Jackman. A hirsute man who has Eastwood's trademark sneer down pat, Jackman seems more like Nastassia Kinski's OTHER brother from CAT PEOPLE than a human, or even wolflike, mutant. Logan has a huge chip on his shoulder, which is understandable when you've been kidnapped by the Canadian government and had indestructable metal implanted in your bones which makes huge, razor-sharp metal talons pop out of your fingers at inopportune moments. His inevitable male rival is Cyclops (James Marsden), a wisecracking kid, wearing Geordie LaForge's old eyewear from STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION, who can shoot laser beams out of his eyes. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is a sweet girl from Mississippi whose special power is that she absorbs people's energy if she touches their skin, thus making it extremely difficult to establish a long-term relationship with anyone. Storm (Halle Berry) can change the weather, and Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen, looking very much like Gates McFadden as, again, STAR TREK's Dr. Beverly Crusher), is telekinetic and can read minds.

What's fascinating about X-MEN is the way the screenwriters turn these comic book characters into fleshed-out individuals, struggling to harness the powers and deal with the limitations that their special traits give them. Particularly compelling is the growing relationship between Logan and Rogue, one that isn't quite sexual, but isn't quite parental or otherwise familial either.

Another interesting note is the fear of women inherent in the female characters. Rogue is clearly a succubus, albeit a sad one, who for some strange reason, adopts Susan Sontag as a role model at the end of the film. Storm, like most women in the eyes of comic-book geeks, seems completely normal, but is capable of making her eyes turn white and generating lightning out of her snow-white wig at a moment's notice, presumably at That Time of the Month. Jean Grey's mindreading capabilities are inherently threatening, and well, Mystique's changeability, housed in a native blue skin that covers a truly astonishing body, is emblematic of the unpredictability men so often see in women. It's an interesting look at comic book culture.

I did find it problematic that Magneto, as the film's villain (albeit an understandable, complex one), is essentially an Evil Jew. Don't let this right-out-of-THE-SOPRANOS last name fool you, Your Humble Critic is a Member of the Tribe, and while the Holocaust scene that opens the film is as powerfully depicted as anything in SCHINDLER'S LIST, I fear it does not have sufficient emotional impact for the viewer to get past this fact later on. While it is Magneto's mutantness that makes him different, it is his experiences as a Jew that makes him bitter. If Professor X is representative of the German Jews who felt that they were Germans first, and that the Nazi's wouldn't do this to them, Magneto is Meir Kahane.

Director Bryan Singer also brought us THE USUAL SUSPECTS, so getting rich characterizations out of his performers is not unprecedented. Of course, managing the casting coup of arguably the two finest British actors alive today doesn't hurt either. Singer sets these complex characters against Tom Sigel's dazzling cinematography, which evokes not just Sigel's own THREE KINGS, but also predecessors as diverse as THE MATRIX and Terry Gilliam's eye-popping BRAZIL.Add a powerful score by Michael Kamen that sets off the film without overpowering it, and you have a surprisingly well-crafted summer movie, and the beginning of a franchise to boot.

The best science fiction movies contain elements of social commentary. The best film adaptations of comic books (the most notable other example being Tim Burton's BATMAN) focus on complex, brooding characters that are nuanced, human heroes. Films of both genres are most successful when they can expand beyond their devoted fan base. On all three fronts, Bryan Singer's X-MEN hits a grand slam.






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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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