Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. It has enabled us to evolve from a single-celled organism into the dominant species on the planet. This process is slow, normally taking thousands and thousands of years. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.
Protecting a world that fears and hates them is Director Bryan Singer's film version of the best selling comic book in the known universe, X-Men. The brainchild of creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby comes to life on the big screen in impressive fashion. One of the biggest hits of the year, Fox has rushed out the DVD in time for the holidays. In what is sure to be a best seller, Fox has given the movie a beautiful transfer and great sound. The only caveat, and it's a big one, is the feeling that the disc is not nearly what it could have been in the extra features department.
Facts of the Case
In the not too distant future, mankind is witness to the next stage of their development. Called mutants, they are beings with special and extraordinary powers that terrify those too shortsighted to understand or embrace these people. This puts mutants into conflict with the rest of society. Battle lines are drawn, with the militant wing of the mutants being lead by the Master of Magnetism, Magneto (Ian McKellen), and his Brotherhood of Mutants. Having seen his parents taken and killed by the Nazis during World War II, Magneto sees history repeating itself with the call to have mutants registered. Mutant registration is being lead by Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison), and Magneto will stop at nothing to see that he does not succeed. On the other side of the fight is Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his team. The team is known as X-Men, and they operate out of Xavier's school for gifted children.
The battle heats up with the emergence of two new mutants, the feral Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the confused Rogue (Anna Paquin). Wolverine is a mutant with incredible healing powers, a skeleton of unbreakable metal, wicked claws that emerge from his hands, and no knowledge of his past. Rogue has the painful ability to absorb another person's life force incorporating into her own body. It seems Magneto is aware of both these powerful beings and has need for one of them to complete his plan to convert the entire human race into mutants. With the lives of these two people at risk, not to mention those of millions more, Xavier sends his team into action With that comes the battle to defend the human race between those who would forcibly change them and those seeking to live in harmony while protecting the same people who are terrified of them.
Everyone stand up and cheer for Bryan Singer's (The Usual Suspects, Apt Pupil), X-Men. After all those lame attempts at bringing the characters from The House Of Ideas to life, we finally have a movie based on a Marvel comic book that is really good, not to mention fun for almost the entire family.
The difference between Singer's version of cinematic super heroes and most others is that in X-Men, the people are rooted in everyday life. Singer has truly captured the essence of the greatest of creations in the Marvel Universe. These people are not only painfully real, but they face and have to deal with the problems most of us do on a daily basis, the only difference between these real people and us is that they shoot concussive blasts of light out of their eyes or can control the weather.
If the creators of the best "X-Men" stories understood anything, it's that being different can be a wondrous and amazing thing, but it can also be painful, difficult and dangerous. It is this sense of alienation that courses throughout X-Men, but it is a pain that is tempered by the security of family and a feeling that things and people can always change, offering hope instead of hatred and fear.
If Tim Burton gave Batman the conflicted nature that defines the character, he did so in a Gotham City that is more expressionistic funhouse than a true "anywhere" America, which to me is one of the reasons I think X-Men is a better try at taking comic book super heroes and making them relevant screen heroes. With Batman, the audience is always aware, sometimes painfully, that these things were going on in a world of dark imagination rather than our own "real" world. Singer has taken the rules that govern our own lives and dropped people who are very different into it. It's a gambit that works. The people in this movie speak like us, react like us, cry and laugh like us. Case in point is Ian McKellen's (The Lord Of The Rings, Gods and Monsters) Magneto. The man known also as Erik Lehnsherr is not a garish freak like Jack Nicholson or Danny DeVito's characters in Burton's Batman and Batman Returns, but rather a man who has lived through the worst horror mankind has ever put before us and is unwilling to let it happen again. The way the movie parallels Magneto as Malcolm X and his "by any means necessary" philosophy with the peaceful coexistence offered by the Martin Luther King stand-in of Patrick Stewart (Star Trek: First Contact, Conspiracy Theory), as the leader of our heroes. Professor Charles Xavier is a wrinkle of the movie that rings with great resonance. It also gives the film another layer of reality that not only makes a great deal of dramatic sense but sets up future conflict for further installments in the franchise.
If you have not guessed, up until a very short time ago I was a big comic book guy. My collection of "X-Men" comics goes back to the earliest glory days of Chris Claremont, Dave Cockrum and John Byrne, with a healthy spattering going back even farther to include the classic issues drawn by Neal Adams. I know, understand, and have great affection for the subject matter. Yet, after enduring such horrible movie versions of various Marvel comics such as The Fantastic Four, Captain America and the recent Nick Fury television movie, I approached X-Men with incredible trepidation. So imagine my surprise, if not my joy to find that as a film X-Men is very respectful of its four-color origins but also stakes out its own claim as something different and unique.
Director Bryan Singer, working with such talented people as cinematographer Newton Thomas Siegel, costume designer Louise Mingenbach and production designer John Myhre have put together a film that is equal parts exiting, moody, wondrous and brooding. Siegel's cinematography in particular gives X-Men a cool sheen that matches perfectly with Singer's interesting and fluid camera placement. Also on the visual side, production designer Myhre never misses an opportunity to work the letter X into the scenes, giving the movie many witty and unexpected flourishes.
This is not to say the movie is perfect. For a movie this size X-Men was produced with a modest budget of $75 million, and those financial restraints do sometimes rear their head, especially in some of the movie's many special effects sequences. Specifically, I am referring to the optic blasts of Cyclops. In investigating further I discovered that some very popular "X-Men" characters had to be dropped from the film because of lack of funds. To take complication and pile difficulty upon it, Fox also moved the movie's release date up from a holiday 2000 release to the more lucrative summer season. The movie does sometime feel a bit rushed, with some characters getting short shrift. Still, Singer and company do an excellent job of setting up the people and rules of his superhero tale.
At the center of X-Men is Hugh Jackman's (Swordfish, Animal Husbandry) star-making turn as Logan, also known as Wolverine, or to be seen later, Mutant X. Jackman acts as the guide for the audience, navigating his way through the strange and dangerous world of the X-Men. Jackman takes the role and makes it is own. Simply put, X-Men works because of him. He may a bit taller in height than the Wolverine of the comics, but he has the character down cold. Cranky, loyal, feral, athletic, funny and sexy, Jackman makes Wolverine the very best at what he does.
The other newcomer to the world of Charles Xavier is Anna Paquin (Almost Famous, The Piano) as Rogue. Rogue is a young girl who has the gift to absorb other people's life force, assimilating it for her own. It is an ability that is more curse than gift, and Rogue feels she is sentenced to life without physical contact. It is in a small Canadian town that she meets Logan, who in turn becomes both her friend and her protector. Paquin does a marvelous job of expressing the emotions of a young girl forever cursed to be truly alone. It is the strength of my favorite television show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," that Rogue most represents—the feeling of being an outsider among your peers, of feeling strange and different, being a freak. Paquin shows the fear and the horror of what she is capable of in harrowing detail. It is also a performance that possesses its fair share of sexuality and humor. If Anna Paquin is the next generation of screen performers, we are all in good shape.
As the two spiritual and philosophical leaders of the film, Singer looked to the world class acting talents of Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Rather than falling into the trap of stunt castings, the two actors give X-Men a feeling of weight and respectability the movie needed. Old friends who have been driven from each other by serious differences of opinion, McKellen and Stewart provide the base from which X-Men and the franchise to come, is built upon.
Also quite good is Famke Janssen (GoldenEye, Love and Sex) as the telekinetic Jean Grey. For me the biggest acting surprise of the film, Janssen is a wonder to behold in her scenes. Sexy and smart, it gives me great hope that Singer does what he has already talked about and makes the third film about the Dark Phoenix saga of the comics. In a movie that was all too brief, I really wanted to see more of Janssen.
Another transplant from the comics that helps X-Men is the presence of the love triangle that exists between Logan, Jean Grey and the team leader of the X-Men, Scott Summers AKA Cyclops. It gives the movie another little spark and a definite underlying sexual tension that livens up what sometimes came off as a sterile environment. As Scott Summers the film offers up James Marsden (Disturbing Behavior). Marsden looks the part, but suffers from having a woefully underwritten role. The movie never gives us the chance to see what makes him a great leader and why Grey would prefer him to the exciting Logan. He has his moments, but again it feels like a great deal of his character was left on the cutting room floor.
Another underwritten role is that of the team's co-leader Storm. One of the strengths of the "X-Men" comics are the strong female characters. In the print medium, few of the X-Universe's people are as well drawn out as Storm. Looking somewhat out of place is Halle Berry (Bulworth, Jungle Fever). Berry is a talented performer but barely makes her presence known in X-Men. It is a difficult thing to flesh out so many characters, but Berry does not even have her first line of dialogue until the film is almost at its halfway mark. Certainly not an ideal situation for any actor and hopefully with future films all these complaints will be addressed.
Of the bad guys, it goes without saying that McKellen is marvelous. Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is sexy and deadly as the shape-changing Mystique. Her Matrix-like fight with Wolverine is one of the highlights of the movie, and the film gets one of its signature visuals with the change from Wolverine into Mystique while in midair. It's a cool shot and the first time I saw it as part of the television advertisements, I started to get a little excited about the movie. If there is anything X-Men really deserves credit for it's taking the character of Toad and turning him into a cool and dangerous player. In the comics, Toad is as lame a villain as they come. In the hands of the athletic Ray Park he is someone to really be afraid of. Having the wickedest tongue in film, Toad proves to be a worthy foe for our heroes and is probably very popular with the ladies.
On the disc end Fox certainly offers up a beautiful picture. Framed at 2.35:1 and given an anamorphic transfer, the video for X-Men sparkles. The source material was in perfect shape and the image shows no visible signs of distortions such as nicks or scratches. Colors are natural and perfectly saturated while flesh tones possess great warmth. No matter how difficult Newton Thomas Siegel's cinematography makes the job, Fox comes shining through. Brightness and contrast are also on the money with the film's black levels having tremendous detail and clarity. To top it all off I could detect little to no edge enhancement and no shimmer or pixel breakup was visible either.
To go with their outstanding work on the picture Fox gives the disc a soundtrack that is equally impressive, if in a different way. Like the film itself, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is never over-the-top but instead understated and very effective. Dialogue is clearly recorded with everything heard having great warmth and being well integrated. Bass is certainly present but never over powering, with the directional panning effects and rear surround usage creating a great listening experience. It may not be the flashiest mix in the world, but it faithfully recreates the sound of the movie and I cannot ask for anything more. Like the video, the audio source material is of the highest quality and there is no drop off and no background hiss audible.
Now for the problematic part of this review, the extra features. First up there is the promotional special that aired on the Fox television network called "Mutant Watch." For what it is, it's not too bad. It ties into the film nicely, but in the end it's fairly lightweight. The disc offers Hugh Jackman's screen test with Anna Paquin and it is rare thing to see. It is obvious from this feature that Jackman had a pretty clear lock on the character in his head from the beginning. Considering he was cast so late in the game, it was probably a good thing for the film. Among the features that are offered on this disc, this is probably my favorite. The disc offers deleted and extended scenes through a "extended branching" version. Basically the viewer has the option of seeing these scenes during the course of the movie in the place where they would have been. The scenes are of varying quality and the way they are presented is rather clumsy. More on this feature in the next section. These scenes are also available on their own, separate from the movie and I think that is the way to go. Of the scenes themselves, well, let me just say I wish they had remained in the movie. It gives some much valuable screen time to Halle Berry as Storm and Famke Janssen as Jean Grey. There are two CGI animatic demonstrations on the DVD, and they are pretty cool. If only that were the starting point for the disc I would be truly happy. I was really hoping for an extensive feature on the movie's special effects. What is offered is but a whiff from the kitchen leaving me to wonder, where is the meal itself? There is also a pretty extensive artwork gallery of character and production designs and again if this had tied into a more in-depth production documentary I would have been much happier. The disc also has snippets from "The Charlie Rose Show" with director Bryan Singer. Again, nice but far from complete. The movie's theatrical and television spots are included as are a pair of Easter eggs with the disc also having the THX Optimode test signals to ensure you are looking and listening to the best possible of home theater experiences.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose it is a pretty small complaint when the biggest fault that I found with X-Men was its running length. At 104 minutes, the movie really is too short. There are so many characters to introduce, so much background to be offered up, that it is almost as if the action sequences were shoehorned in. How many movies can you think of that are like that? Even with the added scenes the film still feels like it is hiding something. Chalk it up to the fine job done by director Singer and company, but this is one movie that leaves you wanting more.
As a comic book fan, I felt the movie was incredibly faithful to the spirit of the source material, with the only real deviation that bothered me being Taylor Mane's portrayal of Sabretooth. In the comics, he is a ruthless murderer who may or may not be Wolverine's father. As presented in X-Men, he is little more than a Jaws-style stand-in from the Bond movies. Sabretooth should be many things, but dumb is not one of them. While we are discussing Sabretooth, what were these guys thinking with giving him a lion's growl? Dumb, stupid and just totally wrong. I suppose it should be considered a tradeoff. Ray Park's (Star Wars: Episode One) Toad comes off as so totally cool a villain that I suppose something had to suffer.
One final shot at the movie itself. Michael Kamen's score left much to be desired. Barely rising above the level of white noise, Kamen's work should have been the final ingredient that pushed X-Men over the top. Instead, we are left with music that does absolutely nothing to add tension, warmth or excitement to the film. I sat there the first time just wishing for a score by Goldsmith, Williams or even Elfman, and upon repeated viewing of the movie that wish became even stronger.
I knew I was in trouble when I first popped the disc in. I was greeted by menus that are among the clumsiest and difficult to navigate that I have yet seen from Fox. Definitely not a good start. Second is the absence of either a commentary track or an in-depth making of documentary. What a major loss. Bryan Singer proved he is a master of the commentary form with his thoughts for The Usual Suspects standing as entertaining and informative proof. Also as a comic fan I would have loved to have heard the thoughts of the X-Men's co-creator Stan "the Man" Lee, not to mention someone like Chris Claremont or the co-creators of Wolverine, Len Wein and Dave Cockrum. I was sitting there thinking a retrospective piece on Jack "King" Kirby would have also been a nice touch. Pity.
On top of all that, I was left wishing there were more to the disc's deleted scenes. The added footage account for about an extra six or seven minutes of screen time, a far cry from the supposed 45 minutes that Bryan Singer has been said to have cut from the film. Plus the way the deleted scenes are inserted into the movie proper makes for a clunky viewing experience. While I appreciate knowing how the scenes fit it, this feature certainly could have been done better. Also it should be noted that the deleted scenes are presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, so there could be problems with people watching on 16x9 televisions.
I suppose the thing I'm getting at here is I have this horrible feeling that somewhere down the road Fox is going to release some sort of super-duper two disc set of X-Men including all the stuff I was hoping for this first time around. I mean, Fight Club gets a two disc set with four (!!!) commentary tracks, and that movie bombed at the box office! Don't get me wrong, I thought Fight Club was one of the most important films of the previous decade, but X-Men was a monster worldwide hit for Fox and probably stands as the beginning of a major film franchise. I would certainly think the movie would get some more respect for its DVD debut. Perhaps, like the film itself the DVD of X-Men was rushed out before it was really ready.
As much as I enjoyed the film X-Men, I have mixed feelings of its worth on DVD. It does indeed have great picture and sound and for those reasons alone many will pick it up. It is on the extra features front that the disc is a major letdown. The lack of either commentary or documentary causes this release to lose major points. Factor into that the way the special features are offered and we are talking major aggravation.
Fox should have made a choice: either offer the deleted scenes full throttle as part of a seamless branch, or simply go with a deleted scenes section. While they were at it, if they were going to take the time and get the rights to the Bryan Singer interview with Charlie Rose, why not present the whole thing? As it is set up now, the interview is divided up into little sections, one that lasts all of about 15 seconds, with the viewer having to press play for every little snippet of interview footage.
To close, if you are a comic book fan or a sci-fi/action film lover you must own this DVD. Just be aware it is not the best of all possible worlds and save your pennies for the eventual version 2. X-Men is not a bad disc, it's just not what it could have, or should have, been. After all, it's not like you aren't already saving up for the day when Paramount goes back to all of the Star Trek movies and gives them the special editions they deserve. Now you just need to save a little more.
Director Bryan Singer is acquitted for making the best super hero movie…ever. This courtroom looks forward to his take on other classic X-characters such as Hank McCoy AKA The Beast and great X-Men storylines such as the Dark Phoenix saga. Fox is asked to take the time and release their discs when they are ready. I know I speak for quite a few DVD fans, we are more than willing to wait for our favorite films if they are done right the first time. That is all I have. This court now stands in recess.
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