Much as I enjoyed X-Men: First Class Fox’s exuberant prequel/reboot (preboot?) of the fabled Marvel Comics series I was a bit disoriented by its opening sequence in which a Mengele-esque Nazi scientist played by Kevin Bacon attempts to coax a terrified young Erik Lensherr a death camp inmate into demonstrating his newly discovered mutant powers. As the interaction transpires the camera does something odd: It remains static holding its gaze on the characters’ faces affording us the rare treat of being able to scrutinize their expressions without the distraction of rapid-fire cuts or circling dollies or palsy-cams or any of the other myriad tools preferred by Hollywood’s increasingly ADD-addled action directors.
Restraint? In a comic book film? Strange but true. Even stranger is that it comes courtesy of director Matthew Vaughn whose previous comic book adaptation Kick-Ass was so over-adrenalized it should have come with a complimentary shot of insulin. Here Vaughn shows greater confidence in his material his actors and most admirably his audience letting the story hold sway unhindered by gimmicky enhancements. First Class is hardly a throwback mind you – it features all of CGI accoutrements one expects from a proper summer blockbuster – but it has a stylish retro sensibility to it that is as refreshing as it is unexpected.
In fact were it not for all of its superhuman characters one might not be able to tell that it’s based on a comic book. Whilst devising an approach suitable for his film’s early ‘60s Cold War setting Vaughn a Brit clearly found inspiration in his country’s most enduring film franchise. First Class bears far more in common with The Spy Who Loved Me than with any of the previous X-Men installments or any other comic book flicks for that matter and is all the better because of it.
Playing Vaughn’s Stromberg is Bacon whose character has graduated from death camp atrocitier to swaggering supervillain in the intervening years since the war’s end. Ensconced in his underwater lair aboard a well-appointed submarine Sebastian Shaw as he has re-christened himself (only in the comic book world does a fugitive Nazi war criminal choose an alias with the initials “S.S.”) is secretly conspiring to ignite a fatal MAD-provoking nuclear conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union.
No Bond-inspired film would be complete without a dose of benign sexism embodied ably by Mad Men’s January Jones in the role of Shaw’s right-hand woman Emma Frost. A mutant who can read minds and manifest diamond-plated armor Emma’s greatest gift the filmmakers make abundantly clear is her superhuman rack which when activated turns her into a walking honey trap no soldier or government official can resist. (It’s also the movie's most potent marketing weapon.)
Even our hero Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has got a bit of 007’s DNA in him. Cheeky rakish given to funneling beers and hitting on Oxford co-eds McAvoy’s Xavier is a far cry from Patrick Stewart’s stuffy avuncular version of the character. Though his mutant telepathic abilities are highly developed his human intuition isn’t as he scarcely notices the insecurity metastasizing in his adopted sister Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) a blue-skinned shape-shifter in desperate need of validation.
She eventually finds that validation in Lensherr (played as an adult by Michael Fassbender) whose cynical view of humanity bred by prolonged exposure to its more sinister aspects places him at odds with Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between mutants and their unenhanced counterparts. Nevertheless Xavier and Lensherr become fast friends and they agree to collaborate in the recruitment and training of a clandestine force of superhumans capable of stopping Shaw. Shortly thereafter the first-ever mutant all-star team is born.
Anyone vaguely familiar with the comic book knows how this relationship turns out. But Vaughn’s fresh approach to the characters and their underlying motivations helps ameliorate some of the predictability of film’s plot and its inevitable resolution. Like Batman Begins First Class is bound to pursue a pre-determined outcome but it makes brief detours here and there that refresh the franchise without jeopardizing its sacred canon. Vaughn takes great care to appease the film's fanboy base without alienating the broader audience. Though I couldn’t care a whit about Torso-Beam Boy Winged Stripper Girl or a handful of other extraneous characters devotees of the comics will no doubt rejoice in the screen time allotted to their respective backstories.
There are a handful of moments when Vaughn’s ambitions exceed his effects budget but for the most part he proves a dexterous purveyor of popcorn theatrics. Some of the best bits including a spectacular sequence in which an anchor tears through the deck of a luxury yacht have been spoiled by the film’s trailers but they still impress when writ large on the big screen. And there are a few surprises in First Class that remain thankfully unspoiled. Better see it quick before the next ad campaign debuts.
February 14, 2011 12:33pm EST
Brad Anderson’s new film The Vanishing on 7th St. asks you to fear the haunting abyss that is the darkness but the more terrifying void is its story. Or lack thereof. Seeing as how it’s billed as a mystery horror-thriller and this from the director of neo-noir classics like The Machinist and Transsiberian I expected at least a few minor scares; I should’ve known they’d come only from Hayden Christensen’s performance.
The film is set in Detroit and follows a handful of survivors (including John Leguizamo Thandie Newton Jacob Latimore and Christensen) of an inexplicable power outage that seems to have consumed the entire city’s population. They must put the pieces of this puzzling event together to understand what’s happening and figure out how they can stay alive with looming shadows closing in on them.
With a less competent director at the helm this movie would’ve been a total disaster. The script is terrible focusing on one-dimensional characters their back-stories and a bunch of crackpot theories that hint at explanations but never follow through (in its defense the film is meant to be inconclusive but that doesn’t make up for bad dialogue plot holes etc.) Luckily Anderson is in his element with ambiguous narratives and creates a startling atmosphere that is interesting to examine. It has an unpolished gritty texture that brings to mind similar low-budget horror flicks but is enhanced by startling sound effects and an unnerving score from relative newcomer Lucas Vidal. Still all style and no substance only goes so far and The Vanishing on 7th St. never hits the throttle.
Essentially a creature feature without the creature the film is best looked at as an apocalyptic survival tale. The problem is that there’s nothing adventurous or enthralling about it. The characters’ encounters with the shadows are repetitive and the effect gets old quickly. Furthermore half of the cast (I’ll let you guess who) is incapable of conveying fear and if they aren’t afraid then how are you the audience supposed to be? I tried analyzing the film from an existential standpoint as a few of the characters question the reason for this human extermination but I couldn’t find any genuine moments of meditation.
Without question the star player here is Anderson who proves that he can do his job even when other members of the creative team don’t. The fact that he was able to develop such a striking tone from a sub-par screenplay is a testament of his ability as a storyteller.