Thursday, 22 September 2011

Thor (2011)

Kenneth Branagh’s reassertion of his claim to a place in the movie mainstream after some notable failures to make good on his very great talent, Thor seems at once peculiar and perfect fare for one of British cinema’s most energetic yet frustrating directors. Peculiar, in that it’s a white bread comic-book adaptation, quite different to Branagh’s earlier multiplex tilt, the messy and frantically revisionist Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), but also perfect in that its essential themes and imagery carry with them a mythical weight and strength of conflict entirely apt for Branagh’s interests and talents. The result doesn’t quite pack Shakespearean force, as, like several of the recent Marvel Studios products, it tries to sustain at least one extra plot thread too many, causing the storyline to remain a bit diffuse. And yet Branagh manages to make the material coalesce into a visually grandiose and surprisingly compact fantasy adventure, quite superior in storytelling and investment of character to just about all of the recent superhero franchise entries. The difference is especially apparent in the scenes relating to Greg Coulson’s Agent Clark and the SHIELD digressions in comparison to the dreadful shoehorning of those aspects in Iron Man 2; here Clark is faintly menacing and distinctly no-nonsense. Scenes depicting Thor’s rampaging through SHIELD operatives whilst being sized up by Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) take on, rather than the air of overloaded franchise service, aspects of a broadening world that the characters barely yet understand, even if it all still only serves essentially to soak up screen time that could be better spent deepening the angst of its suddenly mortal and bereft hero, and giving the villain’s aims and motives clearer attention. Nonetheless, whilst Branagh doesn’t make much of the mostly by-rote action set-pieces, surprisingly for the guy who did the still startling Agincourt battle of Henry V (1989), having a director with a genuinely developed sense of dramatic nuance permeates the film in finite ways to make it look, feel, sound more solid and, consequentially and contradictorily, thus more fantastic. 

Here the gods of Asgard are almost explicitly characterised as aliens with such sophisticated resources that the difference between magic and science is not worth arguing for them. Aging king Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is about to hand over his power to his eldest son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) when an old conflict rears its head again. Odin’s long-ago war against the Frost Giants of another world within Odin’s domain has resulted in still-bubbling enmity, with a raiding party of the blue-skinned enemies trying to snatch back a totemic power source Odin confiscated from them; and that was not the only keepsake of the war he kept hold of. Thor, eager for a bit of thud and blunder, adopts an aggressive policy and attacks the Frost Giants’ world of Jodenheim. He confronts their king Laufey (Colm Fiore) but almost gets himself and his fraternal warrior-lords Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Sif (Jaimie Alexander) killed in being massively outnumbered by blue hulks and pet beasties. Odin has to extract them hurriedly, and, furious at Thor, believing him a foolish warmonger, exiles him to Earth and disables his ability to use his walloping warhammer Mjolnir. Thor crash lands on Earth and is immediately almost run over by research scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her paternal partner in geekery Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård). Thor stumbles humorously through this world, in which he’s still strong and able and yet completely clueless and far from omnipotent. Jane and Erik, who were on the trail of a mysterious rupture of Einsteinian physics, actually the manifestation of the Asgard transportation wormhole, the Bifrost or “rainbow bridge”, when she ran into Thor, slowly begin to comprehend his otherworldly origins, as SHIELD turns up and confiscates their research material. 

Meanwhile, back on Asgard, the real source of the troubles besetting Odin’s realm is revealed: his other son, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is conspiring to usurp the throne. He’s engaged in such villainy even before he discovers he’s actually a Frost Giant prince, saved from the battlefield and raised as Odin’s own. Rather than bring Asgard down, however, he plans the genocide of the Frost Giants to prove himself a worthy king and when Odin falls into a regenerative coma, Loki sets himself up as the new heir apparent, attempting to bully the other Asgardians into obedience, and sets up Laufey in a double-cross. Branagh makes a distinctive mark on the genre: his modern theatrical colour blindness and interest in multicultural cross-pollinating suggested in earlier works results in an appealingly heterogeneous version of Asgard. A touch of Arthurian myth is tossed in for flavour in the efforts of hicks and spooks alike to extract Thor’s hammer from the rock it gets lodged in, none worthy of the prize. There is a distinct similarity in Hiddleston’s performance as Loki to Adrian Lester’s in As You Like It (2006) in playing resentful black sheep, and it’s clear that Branagh feels confident with this stuff. He makes, after a fashion, Thor into his equivalent of King Lear, with Odin as Lear, Thor as a transgendered, beefcakey Cordelia, and Loki as Edmund and the other sisters rolled into one. Hopkins is in full emeritus mode, but effectively so, evoking the ferocity of the Aryan paternal figure always implicit in the mythology whilst also straining to encompass intelligence and affection for his wayward kin. Odin’s appearance on a rearing horse from a bolt of cosmic rays recalls Branagh’s own moment in the breach in Henry V.

The confluence of Branagh’s refreshed pictorial confidence and his touch with actors helps to keep Thor rocking along yet never descending into plasticity or pummelling raucousness: whilst staking turf in the same realm as Michael Bay, Branagh shows precisely how much he is not Michael Bay. The sweeping vistas of CGI that portray Asgard are suitably awesome, with retro-futurist castles and bastions balanced above seas contained by gravity fields in the midst of deep space, and the Bifrost is excellently depicted as a hyper-fluorescent stream of energy within a great glass catwalk. Branagh uses these environs to deliver a genuinely spectacular and well-visualised finale, when the boundaries of the acausal pocket about Asgard are broken and the protagonists literally hang on the edge of nothingness, the fragments of super-science and waters of myth each plunging into a cosmic maelstrom, and the peculiar nihilism of its villain taking on a sado-masochistic intensity in his twisted, incoherent ambitions. As As You Like It ably suggested, Branagh’s filmmaking is newly fluent and confident: the stunt-laden excessive camerawork and editing that marred his ‘90s work, as if he was so anxious to prove himself no theatre maven out of his element, are restrained as he emphasises character interaction. Yet there’s still a confident sense of movement and spectacle, blended with his vigour of rhythm and coherence of framing and staging. 

If the three or four action scenes that punctuate the body of the film seem a bit boilerplate, with the likeable team of Asgard heroes not getting much time to strut their stuff even when the film sets us up for that in the finale, it feels like an acceptable lack nonetheless, because Thor retains dramatic cohesion. Branagh manages to invest it with emotional immediacy. The pain of Loki, the confusion and regret of Thor, the anger of Odin, and the earthly emotions of Jane all make an impression, and give impact to the familiar but still enjoyable moments when Thor’s fellows come to his earthly aid, and his self-sacrifice results in his power being restored, perhaps the most rousing moment I’ve seen in a superhero flick since the resurgence at the end of Superman II (1981). Hemsworth, whose sole claim to fame prior to this was in playing Kirk’s ill-fated father in Star Trek (2009), is very good as our hero, moving from pumped-up blowhard to haphazard comic foil to newly contrite and wise warrior, with surprising dexterity. Portman, who knows her way around a blockbuster by now without always escaping them unscathed, gives another of her more relaxed and bodied recent performances, and there is a tangible frisson to her attraction to the totally ripped surfer dude from outer space. Especially enjoyable is Hemsworth’s interaction with Skarsgård, and the film has Renner and Kat Dennings and Rene Russo hovering in the background because, well, clearly it thinks it’s better to have them there than not have them there, and I agree. Idris Elba is formidable-looking as Heimdall, the guardian of the Bifrost, and interestingly he seems to best invoke something implacable and fearsomely warlike about the Norse gods. The result is not quite a fantasy masterpiece, but it has been distinctly underrated, being far from being the franchise dot-joiner it might have been, and brings a genuine flourish of the fantastic to increasingly mechanical and often top-heavy genre.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

The Man from Planet X (1951)

I have extolled here plenty of times the beauties of the “theatre of the mind” aspect of cheap old sci-fi, and Edgar Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X is a near-perfect example of that idea. Shot on an incredibly low budget, it is nonetheless a bodied, intelligent, and richly stylised little mood piece, if you give yourself over to its dreamy evocations of perpetually misted Scottish moors where civilisations collide and gnomic bauhaus aliens stalk with ambiguous intent. Ulmer’s first encounter with the cinefantastique since his marvellously sepulchral The Black Cat (1935) has a similarly glutinous atmosphere of life on the edge of voids, as journalist John Lawrence (Robert Clarke) writes an account in a remote research station in an old Scottish castle, from which his friends and companions have disappeared, and he’s counting out the last hours before a fateful encounter. The nature of his predicament is then described in flashback: with a strange rogue planet entering the solar system and multiple UFO sightings seeming to congregate over northern Britain, a scientist, Professor Elliot (Raymond Bond), his daughter Enid (Margaret Field), and his assistant Dr Mears (William Schallert) have set up shop in that aforementioned castle, believing that when the planet comes closer to Earth that area will be the closest natural bridging point, and that’s the reason for the UFO influx. Elliot invites Lawrence to report on his investigations, and soon Elliot’s suspicions are confirmed when Lawrence and Enid discover first an alien atmospheric probe and then a proper landed space craft.

From out of the craft emerges the titular being, a diminutive, gravitationally distorted humanoid with a huge head, a bulbous helmet, and a vulnerable breathing system to survive on the new planet. After an initial encounter with the spacecraft’s mind-control ray, Elliot and Lawrence manage to make contact with its controller. Although he defensively waves a ray gun at them, Lawrence inspires his trust by saving his life when he can’t adjust his breathing control. The alien soon comes a-knocking at the castle, and Mears hits upon an idea of communicating with the alien through mathematics. Lawrence doesn’t trust Mears, however, with some good reason, as Mears has undefined criminal past that Lawrence believes he should have gotten twenty years in prison for. Mears hasn’t changed, either: he makes contact with the alien, but when nobody’s looking he manhandles him and toys with his air supply to dominate him, hoping to extract for purely personal benefit the alien’s scientific know-how. The alien flees and, angered, starts kidnapping and brainwashing locals, starting with the Elliots, Mears, and then taking men from the nearby town. Lawrence is left alone and alerts the local constable (Roy Engel). As it becomes clear that the alien’s project is designed to coincide with the planet’s passing and that he’s preparing a bridgehead for a mass influx, the army is called in, and Lawrence begs them for a chance to try and extract the prisoners before the alien’s craft is blown to bits.

This is a low-key film essayed in Ulmer’s usual intimate, peculiarly dreamy style. Like Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, from the following year, The Man From Planet X is styled as if attempting to keep alive the spirit of the Expressionist cinema each director had been schooled in. This was their reflexive response to dealing with a low budget, by giving it that whiff of such stylisation, but it was certainly an ingrained aesthetic for both, and the effect in each film gives it a different sort of charge to their contemporary genre brethren, a permeable psychological and semi-mythic element. In Ulmer’s movie, his sustained atmosphere contrasts the generally more technocratic and hysterical mood of the ‘50s science fiction genre. Ulmer successfully builds a sense of the unknown and the oneiric in a sequence in which Enid, her car breaking down on the moor and, attracted by the mysterious flashing lights of the landed craft, first approaches it and catches sight of its misshapen occupant: here the distance between sci-fi, horror, and folk-myth seems to converge for a moment. The alien’s spaceship, a glowing orb, has an aspect of a fairy-tale witch’s abode as designed by a ‘30s modernist to it, situated in the midst of gnarled twisted trees and fog-smothered rocks, and pasteboard Scots settings, as if the alien landed by mistake in Welles’ Macbeth (1948). The creature itself looks like an animated Picasso with his huge cranium, exaggerated African mask eyes, and tiny slit mouth, inexpressive and yet polymorphous in his stylised humanity. The screenplay, by Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen, is literate, a touch too literate, with the generally smart but stiff dialogue punctuated by some more serious lapses by having Enid, a scientist’s daughter and helpmate, speak a line like, “I’ve heard that one may tell how distant a storm is by the number of seconds between the lightning and the thunder, true?” But the film handles the humans’ first encounters with the alien with a believable sense of tentative, nervous curiosity and a reasonable, if not entirely liberal, solemnity and empathy. 

The no-name cast is headed by some competent if unexciting actors, with the exception of the on-target, quietly malevolent Schallert, and with some excruciating Scots accents in the lower-billed filling the set-bound Caledonian climes depicted throughout. But it’s Ulmer’s sense of how to do much with little that sustains the film. One of the earliest alien invader movies, coming also in the same year as The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World, The Man from Planet X stands between the two, neither portraying the alien as an avuncular bully or a savage beast, but instead allowing him to retain his actual alienness. He does not speak, his only forms of communication are gestural, and his motives are not entirely clarified. He seems amenable to friendship and reason, but it only takes a minimal act of violence to turn him off any kind of outreach. He still retains an empathic quality even as he haunts the moors like a futuristic hobgoblin and begins to disappear all and sundry, balling his fist in understandable rage when he escapes Mears’ grasp and decides to forego Close Encounter pleasantries and get on with his job. His job, it is revealed, anticipates Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) in his desperation to save his dying, slowly freezing planet. That body comes sweeping in at the end like the herald of When Worlds Collide (1951), Ulmer offering vivid close-ups of his human faces turned towards heavenly apocalyptic lights, imbuing the film with a strong dose of that fin-de-siecle nervousness that gave the era’s sci-fi films their special quality. Meanwhile the theme of yokels disappearing and being subsumed into the alien project clearly looks forward to the likes of It Came From Outer Space (1953) and others. If the film’s limited action and final lack of truly driving drama in a more prosaic finale do dampen its impact and make it more an interesting rather than exciting artefact, it’s still an engaging and fascinating example of Ulmer’s capacity to make bricks without straw, and of the capacity of B-movie sci-fi to defy its often tacky and exploitative aura.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Attack the Block (2011)

A more timely film in late 2011 is hard than this enthusiastic paean to the untapped potential of miscreant British youth. Joe Cornish steps up for auteur props in writing and directing this alien invasion flick that sports a bunch of snotty young punks in a London council tower, forced to trade a budding life of crime for Sigourney Weaver status. Attack the Block commences with said youths mugging comely young nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker), unaware that she lives in the same council tower block named, in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it in-joke, Wyndham Tower. Just as the lads are fleecing the unfortunate miss, a meteorite plunges from the sky, totals a car, and out from it springs forth a creature that looks part rodent, part feral fish, and all nasty. The leader of the gang, Moses (Joe Boyega), determines to kill the creature after it takes a swipe at him, and he and his mates chase it into a shed where they beat it to death. After deciding that their catch must certainly be extra-terrestrial in origin, they stash it in the safest place they know: in the flat of Ron (Nick Frost), specifically the room he has fortified to grow his hydroponic weed in, under the aegis of local gangster overlord Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter). The brats’ initial triumph over the small grey monster unfortunately proves a mere overture to a hail of meteorites which divulge larger, blacker, hairier creatures with phosphorescent teeth and decidedly non-vegetarian tastes. When Moses is arrested by the “Feds” Sam has called, the creatures attack and kill two of the cops and force Moses, Sam, and the rest to flee in the cop van, only to crash into Hi-Hatz’ car, which adds another deadly foe to the already sizeable roster pursuing them. The gang barge their way into Sam’s flat to take shelter there, but no matter where they flee, the monsters seem to specifically hunt for them.

Attack the Block is nothing if not a self-conscious wannabe cult hit, channelling some of Luc Besson’s pop-cultural savvy in recognising the rougher parts of town as a great place to set action films, as well as being filled with the most loyal audience for them. The milieu offers urgency and grit, simmering class and race tensions, as Cornish describes a locale beset with young wannabe toughs who want to triumph on the only level they can see open to them, that of validated machismo and strength. But it’s all imbued here with a more distinctly tongue-in-cheek bent derived from Frost’s collaborations with Edgar Wright (who executive produced) and Simon Pegg, full of stoner humour and casual acceptance of absurdity by the young antiheroes. Amongst the kids, the most effectively drawn is the smart-mouthed, pot-hungry wigger Pest (Alex Esmail), who at one point offers a deadly rejoinder to Sam’s assurances that she has a boyfriend who’s working with children in Ghana: “Why isn’t he helping kids in Brixton? Not exotic enough, can’t get a nice suntan?” Cornish maintains a lightning pace, at the expense of expanding on character and locale minutiae, however, taking it mostly as a given that the kids are really just brats with hearts of gold and justifiable anger at the cops, and that there’s supposed to be something innately noble about their determination to go it alone. Without getting too David Cameron about it, I did start to wonder if my charity was being presumed upon.

Attack the Block’s charms are the kind that can easily be dispelled if over-estimated, as some of its reception has unfortunately managed. The problem is that the film is energetic and occasionally very funny, yet also too proud of its own stunts and lacking much formal control. Excising a first act and rushing the third, Cornish’s writing offers a constant stream of pseudo-hip jive blending the referential with glutinous street argot falling from the characters’ mouths, laying out Cornish’s self-ordained credentials as a witty modern wordsmith. Nonetheless it’s virtually impossible to tell most of the characters apart for over half the movie. Whilst finally some characterisation does creep in, it’s so scant as to feel mostly like a placeholder until someone redrafts the script. Attack the Block just doesn’t work with the same degree of sophistication as some earlier, better examples of the jokey monster movie, like Tremors (1990) or Dog Soldiers (2001), in sustaining dramatic credence alongside the self-mocking humour, although it’s arguable the film really owes more to The Goonies (1985): take away the swear words and the film would fit the bill very nicely as a family outing. The film can’t decide whether it wants to undercut satirically or validate generically the macho posturing of Moses and his little jerk mates, or do one then the other with any real sense of integrity. Cornish takes so little care in his set-up, and offers such absurd alien monsters and limply staged violence, and the kids’ urban argot and swagger is initially so totalised and tiresome, that Attack the Block feels for much of its first half like Ali G vs the Aliens.

Attack the Block does finally settle down and begin to form a semblance of narrative cohesion and actual human communication in the first real pause for respite in Sam’s flat, as the try-hard youths let their guards down and their basic characters start to reveal themselves: Moses is beset by a desperate need to prove his manhood; Jerome (Leeon Jones) is an essentially level-headed and friendly tagalong, and Pest just wants to get high. He meets his toffy equivalent in Ron’s client, the uni-educated, grass-peddling, stay-at-home Brewis (Luke Treadaway), whose initial attempts to get down with the kids are laughingly rejected, but who, with his finally useful knowledge of biology and readiness to share cigarette papers, proves a decent bloke. As far as philosophies of national healing go, “one nation under the leaf” isn’t such a bad one. When Sam has to make a desperate dash through enemy territory as part of the final plan to trap the monsters, Brewis assures he that he would go in her place if “I wasn’t so profoundly stoned.” One of the best gags sees Moses trying to strike down a beastie with the samurai sword one of his mates conveniently brings to the battle, only to get the blade stuck in the notoriously porous material from which the tower block flats' walls are made, a joke that neatly dovetails situational satire, character comedy, and plain suspense. Cornish does offer one good sequence of stalk and chomp as short-sighted Jerome gets lost in the smoke created by the heroes’ firework artillery, at the mercy of lurking beasts, and there’s a dash of real style as Moses makes his final do-or-die dash through the thronging monsters, leaping in newly heroic slow motion as fireworks burst about him. But the finale, in which Sam and Moses manage to recreate the monster kiss-off from Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (1997), offers the image of Moses hanging from a fortuitously dangling Union Jack on the exterior of the tower. Here, and elsewhere, the film occasionally reeks of the same jokey-but-not parochialism and tiresomely frantic mockbuster attitude exhibited in Russell Davies’ Doctor Who reboot. Still, Attack the Block is fun if in an undemanding mood. Performances help a great deal: in addition to Treadaway’s and Esmail’s comic excellence, Whittaker effectively contrasts her own stint as a low-class scrub in Venus (2006), and Boyega reveals some genuine talent in playing Moses’ ambivalent efforts to live up to his self-image.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Matthew Vaughn’s first stab at a heavy-calibre blockbuster and a partial vindication after bailing on X-Men: The Last Stand (2005), this latest entry into one of the best comic book franchises is both very pleasing and problematic. The basic idea, to offer an origin story describing the roots of the X-Men world through formative experiences of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), and play it out as a retro-futurist James Bond tribute, is an instantly seductive one. Yet the result, which possesses interludes of cool beauty, high emotion, and some terrific adventure, is also beset by rushed, uneven filmmaking, and a lumpy screenplay. First Class commences by circling back to the grim beginning of Bryan Singer’s series opener, with young Erik (Bill Milner) in a Nazi death camp, desperately reaching out to his parents as they’re herded away, twisting a gate into a modern artwork with his metal-affecting powers. This attracts the attention of Schmidt (Kevin Bacon), a Mengele type who seeks for a way to stimulate Erik’s powers so that he can direct them consciously. Schmidt’s mentoring method is to present a gold coin for Erik to shift, and to threaten to shoot his mother (Éva Magyar), plucked from the gas chamber queue, if he doesn’t. Vaughn practically drags the comic-book movie into realms indistinguishable from Sophie’s Choice here as Schmidt’s pressuring and mother’s assurances equally fail to stimulate Erik’s power; it’s not until Schmidt shoots her that Erik’s howling rage sees him compact soldiers’ helmets around their skulls and turn Schmidt’s surgery into a pile of rubble.

Meanwhile Xavier, equally young but growing up in the far more comfortable climes of Westchester, NY, finds the shape-shifting Raven (Morgan Lily) pretending to be his mother for the sake of stealing some food from his mansion. Xavier’s psychic powers instantly penetrate Raven’s disguise and when she reveals her true blue self, Xavier adopts her. Cut to 1962, when they’re both studying at Oxford, Raven perpetually adopting the blonde and reassuring disposition of Jennifer Lawrence, but fretting about her place in the world, whilst Xavier chats up co-eds with psychically augmented charm. Meanwhile Erik, grown into the form of Michael Fassbender and engendered with a lean, panther-like cool and deeply traumatised rage, is hunting down Schmidt, threatening Odessa-linked bankers and taking out ex-Nazis in Argentina, in an interlude that pays a winking nod to Fassbender’s epic beer hall scene in Inglourious Basterds (2009), and also Bond’s programme of hunting Blofeld in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Schmidt, when he finds him, is revealed to be a practically ageless mutant, one who can absorb and direct energy, and has reinvented himself as the all-American playboy Sebastian Shaw. Shaw has collected a powerful team of aides, including chitinous telepathic seductress Emma Frost (January Jones) and teleporting assassin Azazel (Jason Flemyng).

Shaw is engineering what will be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, manipulating a Russian bigwig (Rade Serbedzija) and his American opposite Hendry (Glenn Morshower). CIA agent Moira McTaggart (Rose Byrne) stumbles onto this plot and looks for someone, anyone, who can explain Shaw’s coterie of superhumans. This leads her to Xavier, who, sensing an opportunity for his breed to come out of the closet, swiftly convinces Oliver Platt, playing the Oliver Platt role, to take him and Raven on as mutant agents. Xavier accidentally outs Platt’s scientific whiz-kid Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) as another mutant; Hank’s engineering brilliance has produced prototypical versions of Cerebro and the Blackbird jet. Soon enough Xavier’s and Lensherr’s paths converge in hunting Shaw down, in a scene that amusingly extends the Bondian tribute, as Shaw’s yacht proves to have a submarine attached beneath it. Erik’s efforts to keep magnetic track of the submarine almost get him drowned, before Xavier pulls him away and convinces him to join the CIA project. They soon use Cerebro to find some fitting prospects for a team ofpotentially talented but callow young mutants to take on Shaw’s squad: sound wave-wielding Sean ‘Banshee’ Cassidy (Caleb Landry Jones), winged stripper Angel Salvadore (Zoë Kravitz), adaptive Armando ‘Darwin’ Muñoz (Edi Gathegi), and energy-hurling Alex ‘Havok’ Summers (Lucas Till). When Shaw launches adestructive assault on Platt’s headquarters, kills Darwin, and convinces Angel to join his side, Xavier and Lensherr hole up in Xavier’s mansion with the remnants of the teamto train them in controlling their powers as the Cuban Missile Crisis develops.

Vaughn’s  increasingly confident pictorial fluency, and effervescent touch with both actors and camera, successfully capture a vibrant yet also chic comic-book look and energy, which make this the most fundamentally likeable superhero flick since at least the first Iron Man (2008). First Class rockets at a swashbuckling pace and offers dazzling stylistic legerdemain essayed in an almost off-hand fashion, from a cheeky appropriation of high Hefner-era sexcapade, as McTaggart gamely strips down to her drawers to infiltrate a high-rollers club amidst an army of similarly attired hookers, to the retro surface textures of Shaw’s flashy submarine interior. Vaughn’s film buff bent also comes out in a Pentagon War Room exactlyreproducing that seen in Dr Strangelove (1964), pinching the opening credits of Dr. No (1962), and dashes of teen movies from all eras. I confess to being of two minds about a core aspect of the film’s pacing and style: part of the film’s beauty is its pure evocation of the unstoppable illustrative pace of classic serials, TV thrillers, and comic books – it’s a pure romp. But you don’t get too much of a chance to ogle any of it as you should. First Class is almost criminally in a hurry, and that’s probably 20th Century Fox’s fault more than Vaughn’s, as it was precisely his ability to indulge a sense of expansive atmosphere and nuance that made his first three films so good. Unfortunately, the film constantly bears traces of a pressure to get the film into release, and a wariness of distressing the fanboys with too much boring character stuff and period flavour, apparent in the often frustratingly arrhythmic editing and exasperatingly jerky narrative propulsion in the first half. Whereas Singer successfully made the series as much about repressed emotion and intellectual mind-games as it was about special effects and freaky superpowers, here the head stuff is pushed aside, which feels like a distinct cheat in the promise of building a portrait of the early character dynamics of the people soon to be Professor X, Magneto, and the rest. The film also attempts to compact far too much into its compact running time as far as getting to the eventual, familiar plot alignment goes, ending with Xavier and Magneto firmly entrenched in opposite camps notwithstanding what the series has already said about how they worked together and grew apart.

The screenplay, bearing the thumbprints of three different creative teams – a story by Singer and Sheldon Turner, developed by intermediate dramaturges Ashley Miller and Zack Stentz, and brought on home by Vaughn and his regular writing partner Jane Goldman – consistently sets up potentially beautiful story elements, but doesn’t quite deliver with the depth and force expected. None of them seem to have figured out to do with Jones’ lissome Frost, although considering that Jones displays, as in Unknown (2011), a completely listless and drearily immobile affect as a femme fatale, that’s probably a good thing. Lawrence, so galvanising in her preternatural sturdiness in Winter’s Bone (2010), is merely okay as Raven, evolving into Mystique: she gets to display none of the aggression that made Rebecca Romijn’s stint in the role so effective. There is a likeably kinky moment in which, disappointed with the self-loathing and sensual rejection of her true blue form by Hank, she instead slides into Erik’s bed, alternating façades before Erik prods to her assume her natural form, whereupon he kisses her with surprising tenderness. McCoy offers up one too many super-duper inventions which the team can just happen to put into play without the need for pace-slowing design and construction sequences. But Hoult excellently captures Hank’s vibrating unease with his secret, underscoring andfinally undoing his tentative romance with Raven, before his callow attempt to rid himself of exterior signs of his mutation results in transforming himself instead into the blue-haired, fearsome Beast, like Cocteau in reverse. Likewise, I’m not really sure if Byrne’s winsome yet competent McTaggart is germane to anything beyond giving Xavier a love interest, but I’m glad she’s there anyway, because Byrne has a capacity to invest almost any role with an air of soulful substance.

What the film really nails, in large part thanks to McAvoy and Fassbender’s terrific performances, is the brotherly friendship, and the much less easy alliance of methods and world-views, of Xavier and Lensherr. McAvoy’s customary fleet-tongued poise and air of conscientious intelligence balances Fassbender’s definitely Connery-esque presence as a young Lensherr, full of lethal intelligence and feral feeling. There’s an interesting undercurrent of deep miscommunication between the pair because of their different backgrounds – “Honestly, I don’t know how you survived,” Erik drawls upon seeing the colossal Xavier mansion which will eventually become the X-Men school – even as they bond over a sense of wonder and mission in realising their gifts. The suggestions of determinism of outlook here admirably fulfils a thread of the series, as Xavier’s prim humanism and Erik’s ever-seething resentment suggest formative influences that can’t entirely be erased, even as Xavier desperately argues otherwise. The film struggles with a bunch of supporting cast mutants who seem for the most part unremarkable or repetitive in their gifts, like Banshee, who can fly using his supersonic screaming powers, visualised with flourishes that truly capture the essence of the source material. The dialogue is occasionally, painfully anachronistic. But the middle act, depicting the rapid cohesion of the multi-racial, multi-talent young mutants finding a giddily enthusiastic fellowship, doomed to very soon be fractured by the pressures of force and destiny, captures something of the comic series’ roots in the ‘60s civil rights and counter-culture milieu. The finale, in which they play havoc with superpower squabbling, evokes the way those cultural explosions got rudely in the way of that squabbling.

Perhaps inevitably for the guy who made Layer Cake and Kick Ass, Vaughn brings an edge of relished violence and sexuality rare in mainstream comic book adaptations, and he really seems deeply passionate in these moments of cruel focus, especially in Erik’s moments of ruthlessness, tearing out teeth fillings with his powers – Vaughn indulging a money shot from within the victim’s mouth – to stabbing an ex-Nazi in the hand (twice) with his own SS knife. His coup-de-grace to Shaw is an act of relished punitive precision involving that fated gold coin. The film erratic energy surely pay off in a terrific action finale that retools the apocalyptic overtones of the Missile Crisis to its own ends, as the Cold War antagonists bond in stoic patriotism and mutual loathing of the mutants whose powers have just been terrifyingly displayed to them. Erik focuses his power at last and hauls Shaw’s submarineout of the ocean, before sub and Blackbird end up crashed on the Cuban shore in hunks of mangled technology testifying to powers almost beyond mortal control. Having revealed just how much he internalised Shaw’s lessons, Erik takes on a messianic air in the final few minutes as he performs his own equivalent of parting the Red Sea – turning back the superpowers’ weapons upon them. It’s an excellent SFX spectacle, and the pay-off, when Moira attempts to gun down Lensherr, now truly Magneto, only for his bullet-deflecting prowess to cause one to hit Xavier and paralyse him instead, is corny but somehow perfectly done. Top marks to John Mathieson’s candy-hued cinematography. Kudos, too, for the cameo by Hugh Jackman as Wolverine: three words of dialogue, but he does stop the show with them.