X-Men (2000) – Retrospective Sci-Fi Film Review

This multi-million dollar, star-studded movie adaptation of the Marvel comic book characters is a solid entertainment even for filmgoers who know nothing about the X-Men. Unlike many summer blockbusters in general (and comic book adaptations in particular) actually shows some thoughtful signs of intelligence instead of wallowing solely in visual effects and mind-numbing action. Yes, the comic book action is there, but it serves the story (credited to exec producer Tom DeSanto and director Bryan Singer), which introduces us to the titular team of mutants, and that story is brought to life by a diverse crew of actors who somehow make the whole thing seem almost believable for a couple hours.

Not that the film is perfect; in fact, it gets off to a rocky start, with not one but two prologues. In the first, we see Magneto manifest his power as a young boy during the holocaust; in the second, we see Rogue (Anna Paquin) traumatized over the discover of her power (which saps the lifeforce from those she touches). Both scenes have a slightly cheesy feel to them, presenting their ideas and emotions without conviction, and the movie looks to be on the verge of toppling over like a wounded elephant before it’s barely started walking. Fortunately, things pick up with the introduction of Wolverine, and the movie stands on sturdy feet for the most part after that.
Thematically, the X-Men mythos is about intolerance, prejudice, and fear of the `other.` These concepts are standard fare in science-fiction, fantasy, and especially horror (in which misshapen monsters elicit both a gasp of fear and a tear of empathy), but usually this concept is dramatized through the story of a single individual. In X-MEN, the movie, the issue is enlarged to envelope all of society, which provides a backdrop of political witch-hunting against `mutants` (evolutionary anomalies with strange powers that make them hated and feared by normal humans). This leads the mutants to join up with one of two factions: one advocating non-violent co-existence (Professor Xavier’s academy) and one advocating violent confrontation (Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants). What elevates the melodrama above the usual good-versus-evil dichotomy is that Magneto (Ian McKellen), the villain of the piece, has a righteous reason to oppose the society that seeks to oppress him and his followers. This turns the conflict between him and Xavier (Patrick Stewart) into an intellectual confrontation between two opposing but valid viewpoints.

Unfortunately, although the script uses this concept to add a layer of subtext and depth, the film fails to maximize the potential. With screen time spent devoted both to illuminating the back story and to showcasing some exciting action, there is little left to portray the world at large; consequently, the theme of racial prejudice is confined almost completely to a single individual, Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), who (we are to assume) represents a majority of public opinion. As a result, the film turns out to be actually small in scope, confined mostly to Xavier’s academy, with only occasional excursions outside and a climax set on Ellis Island (chosen for its symbolic importance – the entryway for outsiders to become part of America). Thus, in spite of good intentions, the story slips into a basic narrative structure: the bad guy attempts some evil scheme, and the good guys launch a mission to thwart it. The outcome is not based on whose philosophy is more persuasive, but on who can throw the fastest punch. That’s not a very damning complaint to lodge against an action movie, but it does underline the point that X-MEN has intellectual aspirations that are never fulfilled. After the film is over, other flaws, overlooked in the excitement of the action, rise into consciousness. To name one, the Brotherhood of Mutants is a rather small brotherhood, with only four members. One wonders why more mutants are not joining up with Magneto, out of fear of persecution. Certainly, a more dramatic story would have focused on Xavier and Magneto vying for the loyalties of the unaligned mutants? It would not have hurt to leave at least some doubt as to whether newcomer Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) would join the Brotherhood or the Academy. And lastly, if Magneto’s cause is so righteous, why are all his henchmen vicious thugs who seem to be in it for the mayhem and violence? Why doesn’t it bother him that he’s hiring exactly the kind of mutants that make Senator Kelly’s paranoia seem justified?

Perhaps we should overlook these flaws and simply enjoy the fact that the script uses its political subtext to lend gravitas to the fantasy storyline, creating a film that does touch upon interesting issues while serving up fight scenes, special effects, and even clever dialogue.

Unlike many art-house directors, who drown in budgets and bureaucracy when they move to large-scale Hollywood projects, Bryan Singer manages to keep his head above water while crafting a film that satisfies the audience appetite for enjoyable thrills. The effects work is a seamless combination of physical effects and CGI that maintains an organic, realistic feel, seldom lapsing in the cartoony imagery that often undermines computer-generated imagery.

The acting is solid, the cast engaging. Although the narrative structure pushes most of the X-Men into supporting roles, the actors add some charisma that keeps you wanting to see more. Stewart and McKellen make for an excellent set of adversaries; you really can take the film seriously because of them. And Jackman is an instant movie star as Wolverine. As the outsider being introduced to the group, he stands as the eyes and ears of the audience, helping to introduce us to this strange new world. His lupine good looks, physical presence, and canny acting ability sell the character completely, and he even manages the tearjerker, sentimental moments without sinking into bathos.

SEEN TODAY

When the eagerly anticipated X-MEN movie hit theatre screens in 2000, it turned out to be a rarity: a big-budget Hollywood adaptation of a comic book that pleased both fans and newcomers. The main strength was its storytelling integrity. Director Bryan Singer never fell back on the comic book origins as an excuse for camp, instead striving for believable treatments of the characters. In the great tradition of Hollywood popular entertainment, the film took on heavy issues like intolerance, and examined them in the context of a rousing fantasy film with a broad appeal to a mass audience. In short it seems like the perfect film to enjoy again and again, relishing every nuance, every fight, every explosion.
Unfortunately, repeat viewings reveal the film’s lack of spectacular action and excitement. As the first film in the franchise, X-MEN spends much of its time establishing its premise; in fact, the first hour is mostly exposition that introduces the characters, Professor Xavier’s School for the Gifted, and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants. The action sequences are few and far between – and not terribly overwhelming when they arrive. High-octane excitement does not kick into gear until the second half. This weakness is not enough to ruin the film, but it does become clear that X-MEN falls short of being a classic that can be enjoyed over and over again. It is better than average for its genre, but it is not great, serving mostly as an introduction to set up the sequels.

TRIVIA

This film includes some funny inside jokes. Two examples:

  • Ray Park’s Toad, for no visible reason, re-enacting Darth Maul’s swordsman routine.
  • Cyclops’ reply to Wolverine’s expressed distaste for his new black leather X-Men outfit: “Would you prefer yellow spandex?”
The shape-shifting Mystique attacks.

The shape-shifting Mystique attacks.

DVD DETAILS

Unfortunately, the initial DVD release of X-MEN was a slight disappointment, a one-disc presentation that left the door open for a later, improved two-disc set that arrived just before X-MEN UNITED reached theatres.

The single-disc DVD presents the film in a letterboxed widescreen anamorphic format. The sound options include English Dolby 5.1, and Dolby Surround Sound in English and French. There are also subtitle options for English and Spanish. The Dolby 5.1 mix isn’t as impressive as it might be. The rain sound effects of the opening scene really do seem to surround you, but later moments are less effective. (When Wolverine races through the School for the Gifted, Professor Xavier’s whispered hardly seems to come from any and all directions; it just flutters back and forth between the left and right channels.)

The disc opens with a montage of other Fox DVD releases. In a clever touch, the standard warning about video piracy is interrupted by static, then replaced by a close up of an eye-scan as seen in the film, followed by the CGI menu, which portrays the interior of Cerebro.

Here, you can play the movie, select specific scenes, check out special features, or select the language. The twenty-eight chapter stops have titles such as “The Mutant Problem,” and each is illustrated with a film clip running on a loop. You would think this would be more than enough to help you find your favorite moments again and again, but the clips are misleading; the most you can hope for is to find an overall sequence, not a particular moment, and even that can be in doubt. For example, the “Attack Plan” chapter stop features a clip of the X-Men’s plane in flight; selecting this chapter actually takes you to the moment when they are inside their headquarters, looking at their 3-D map of Ellis Island – the plane doesn’t show up until the end of the chapter.

The Special Features button offers several interesting items: an “extended, branching” version of the film, an interview with director Bryan Singer, a Fox special called “The Mutant Watch,” Hugh Jackman’s screen test, theatrical trailers, and TV spots, an Art Gallery, Animatics, and a button marked “THX.”

This last option runs you through a series of tests to insure that your sound system is perfectly set up to capture the glories of Dolby 5.1 sound, but you should select this option last, as you really can’t get back to the Special Features directly from here. (You have to go back to the Main Menu and then select the Special Features button again.)

The Art Gallery contains two sections: one for character designs and one for production designs. In the character section is more interesting, you will see the evolution of the characters’ on-screen look, which sometimes varies wildly from the final version in the film.

The animatics offer simple computer-graphic renderings of the train fight and the climax on the statue of liberty. These modern-day versions of old-fashioned storyboards provide a better sense of a scene’s pacing for those working on the film (especially useful for complicated action and effects), but they are of limited value to consumers, except as a curiosity. The computer graphics are resemble a video game with little facial expression; their purpose is only to act as a guide for live-action and effects filming. Still, they provide a glimpse at the development process, revealing noticeable differences from the finished film.

The two trailers and three TV spots mostly recycle the same footage. There is also a promotional spot for the film’s soundtrack CD.

The Bryan Singer interview is excerpted from the director’s appearance on The Charlie Rose Show. Divided into five sections, the interview shows Singer explaining why he made the film; he also talks about comics-to-film adaptations, about directing actors, about learning from actors, and about the challenges of handling a studio production. It is a good interview, but Singer’s answers tend to be a bit general, and they aren’t substantial enough to stand in for what’s most obviously missing on this disc: a director’s audio commentary. In one amusing moment, he says that he has as much to learn from his actors as they do from him—and then adds “if not more,” as if suddenly realizing that he has put his own relatively brief experience in the entertainment field on the same level with that of seasoned veterans like Stewart and McKellen.

For fans, the most interesting feature is the “Extended Branching” version of the film. This option (which seemed to be in vogue a few years ago before fading away in favor of fully revised “director’s cuts on DVD) displays additional or alternate scenes inserted at appropriate points during the film; or you can view the extra scenes separately, one by one.

The six additional or alternate sequences include:

  • Storm teaching class;
  • Wolverine noticing Jean and Cyclops holding hands, followed by Bobby and Rogue in class;
  • an Extended Bedroom scene (just more dialogue, folks);
  • Bobby walking Rogue to her room, followed by Xavier and Jean in Cerebro;
  • Xavier and Jean in Xavier’s office, and a scene in the Ready Room before the X-Men take off.

Except for the footage of Bobby and Rogue, these scenes deepen the characterizations, adding interaction that may not advance the story but does establish a foundation for better material that is in the final cut. Their excision saved the film only a few minutes of running time, and the film probably could have benefited from their inclusion.

The two-disc X-MEN 1.5 Edition DVD improves upon the single-disc version in several ways, most obviously with an audio commentary from Bryan Singer. Besides the deleted scenes, the first disc also includes seventeen behind-the-scenes featurettes, but the real treasure trove for fans is Disc Two. Beginning with an introduction by Singer, this includes:

  • The Uncanny Suspects pre-production featurette
  • X-Factor The Look of the X-Men Costumes
  • The Special Effects of the X-Men
  • Reflections of the X-Men
  • Animatics-to-film comparison
  • Footage from the world premier at Ellis Island
  • Multi-angle scene studies
  • Three trailers, fourteen TV spots, twelve Web interstitials, and more
  • X-Men 2 sneak preview
  • Daredevil teaser

X-MEN (2000). Directed by Bryan Singer. Screenplay by David Hayter, story by Tom DeSanto & Bryan Singer, based on the Marvel comic book characters. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijin, Bruce Davis.

About the Author

Steve Biodrowski

Cinefantastique's Los Angeles Correspondent from 1987 to 1993 and West Coast Editor from 1993 to 1999. Currently the webmaster of Cinefantastique Online, I also run a website called Hollywood Gothique that covers Halloween Horror and Sci-Fi Cinema Events in the Los Angeles area.

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