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Review – X-Men: Apocalypse (12a) [2016]

X-Men 3 - Title banner

Star Rating: 2.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • John Ottman – X-Men IIHouse of WaxFantastic 4 I-IIValkyrie, X-Men: Days of Future PastNon-Stop, 20,000 Leagues Under Sea

The Godfather Syndrome is a common problem for film trilogies. When the first film is a good and the second is better, the third film has a hard act to follow. So often, it cannot raise the bar to the required level and, consequently, the film is unsatisfactory. The Godfather trilogy is the most high profile to fall victim to this syndrome (hence the name), but the third film in the Alien franchise and in Sam Raimi’s Spiderman trilogy suffered from the syndrome as well. Sadly, so too does the third film in the X-Men prequel trilogy, Apocalypse.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the 'decadent, corrupt' world of the 1980s.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has awakened and keen to inflict punishment, using his incredible powers, upon the ‘decadent, corrupt’ world of the 1980s.

X-Men: Apocalypse begins in Ancient Egypt with the creation of the most powerful mutant of all time (played by Oscar Isaac). This mutant is not given a name, but his enemies nickname him Apocalypse. No sooner is Apocalypse created when he is entombed and falls into a coma.

Fast forward to the 1980s and Apocalypse is awoken. He sees the world is full of decadence and corruption. So he decides that he must destroy it in order to make a new and better world. He recruits four (angry) mutants to his cause: Magneto (Michael Fassbender), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn), in order to carry out his master plan. Only the X-Men can stop this plan from coming to fruition. But only if they unite.

Apocalypse’s plot is quite dull, unoriginal and unfaithful to what the X-Men prequel trilogy has been about. First Class and Days of Future Past were original and interesting because they were not about good vs evil. Rather, they were about the polar-opposite approaches of Charles Xavier/Professor X and Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto to tackle the problems mutants faced in the world (mirroring the stances of Martin Luthar King and Malcolm X during the American Civil Rights movements of the 1960s). Neither Professor X’s nor Magneto’s approaches were completely right or completely wrong, which was what made First Class and Days of Future Past so fascinating and realistic (for the X-Men world that is). However, Apocalypse goes back on this theme and focusses more on stopping an all-powerful, under-developed and poorly written (and so obviously evil) villain. This is a real shame as director Bryan Singer should have done more to continue the theme of the previous two installments.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world... and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Charles Xavier/Professor X (James McAvoy) using his machine to find mutants around the world… and being mentally invaded by Apocalypse.

Yet, the near abandonment of the theme running through the first two movies of this trilogy is not the only major problem with Apocalypse’s plot. The storyline is bitty at best and incoherent at worst. As is so often the case in X-Men films, there are many characters with competing storylines. To condense so many storylines into a TV series is a struggle (just look at Game of Thrones). But to do it in a 144-minute film, and to develop the characters as well, is nigh on impossible. As a result, so much in Apocalypse is left under-explained or simply not explained at all: for example why Magneto begins the film in a metal-works factory in Poland (yes, just go with it)? Why, also, does Apocalypse need four assistants to help him execute his grand plan? (One would think these questions are profound enough to warrant answers. But, no, instead Singer spends the time explaining how Professor X went bald and how Storm’s hair turned blonde.)

It is safe to say that Apocalypse’s plot has enough holes to rival Swiss Cheese. However, to some extent one can ignore its many problems and enjoy watching some of our favourite mutants once more. Like in First Class and Days of Future Past, the acting and the dialogue is good. Again, both are a little bit down on the other two movies. But that may be due to viewers becoming accustomed to the high standard of acting set by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in particular.

No, the only real surprise in Apocalypse is how much screen time is given to the new members of the cast; notably, Sophie Turner as the young Jean Gray. Turner’s American accent vacillates across the Atlantic during the course of the film and she does not have the screen presence or the charisma (as yet) of the more senior members of the cast. But Turner does a good job with what she is given nevertheless.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

The new mutants: young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner, left), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, centre) and Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, right) in the thick of the action, trying to stop Apocalypse from carrying his plan to destroy the world.

And like with the acting and the dialogue, the action scenes and the special effects are good without being spectacular. Similarly though, audiences have seen what Apocalypse has to offer before (not only in previous X-Men films, but also in other sci-fi and comic-book movies). This, therefore, leaves viewers feeling underwhelmed and yearning for something more interesting to watch.

All-in-all, X-Men: Apocalypse is a disappointing film. The storyline is a muddle, undercooked and a betrayal from what made the previous two films in the trilogy so engaging. With a plot so problematic, it is no surprise that neither the quality of its cast nor the numerous (inconsequential) action sequences can save this third film from being a let-down. Thus, The Godfather Syndrome has struck again and means that the X-Men prequel trilogy has not got the conclusive third chapter that it richly deserved.

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Review – Ex Machina (15) [2015]

Ex Machina - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Alex Garland

Writer:

  • Alex Garland – 28 days Later…, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go, Halo

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Geoff Barrow
  • Ben Salisbury

For decades, mankind has had a continuing urge to create and enhance artificial intelligence (AI). This has been reflected and taken to all kinds of extremes and dangers in science fiction films, such as the Terminator franchise, A.I., i,RobotHer and Transcendence. Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s directorial debut, smartly deals with the issue of AI again and the possible consequences of it.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finding out at work, to his delight, that he has won the competition to be part of a break-through experiment.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finding out at work, to his delight, that he has won the competition to be part of a break-through experiment.

Ex Machina is about a programmer called Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who wins a competition at work to go to a remote facility to be part of an experiment. Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the man behind the experiment, wants Caleb to find out if his human-looking robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander), can pass the Turing Test. But neither the experiment nor Nathan is what they seem.

Ex Machina is an interesting and stylish movie. Alex Garland successfully contrasts the beautiful and open nature of a remote location, with the claustrophobic feel of being based there. This creates a natural tension that never truly leaves viewers. It might be allayed for parts of the film, but at the slightest change in circumstance, this tension (re-)tightens one’s muscles, reminding viewers of how terrifying remote locations can be.

In addition to this natural terror, Garland, who has written a superb script, tackles some thought-provoking (and disquieting) topics concerning AI, to augment one’s terrors. Some of the topics have already been done with varying levels of success in Transcendence and Her which dealt with the (disturbing) issues of consciousness within AI and having a relationship with AI, respectively. But Ex Machina arguably takes these issues to higher (and more alarming) levels by blurring the lines between people and machines; notably, by giving AI robots sexual desires and the capability to act on and enjoy them.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, unrecognisable with a beard) talking with Caleb about the purpose of the experiment.

Nathan (Oscar Isaac, unrecognisable with a beard) talking with Caleb about the purpose of the experiment.

Ostensibly, the issue of sexual desire within an AI robot may seem far-fetched and ludicrous. But watch the documentary series Through The Wormhole, plus appreciate the intelligent ways that modern technology can respond to requests, and it might dawn on audiences that what we see in Ex Machina is not so far-fetched or ridiculous and that the lines between people and machines is genuinely being distorted. Bearing all this in mind, Ex Machina enables audiences to believe in this distortion because of Alicia Vikander’s astonishing performance as the AI robot, Ava. Ava’s (arousing) physique and general movements are robot-like. But her facial features and her observational and intellectual sharpness are so human-like that one almost forgets they’re watching an AI robot.

Yes, it helps that Ava/Vikander is an attractive woman and that the special effects on her are outstanding. Equally, though, it helps that Caleb and Nathan, played well by Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac, respectively, buy into Ava’s supposed realness and respond to her (human?) personality in differing but very human ways. Indeed, their responses say something about their personalities. Yet, while audiences learn about Caleb’s background and why he is the way he is, the same cannot be said for Nathan. This is unfortunate as there is undoubtedly more to Nathan than he lets on; his brooding face, alone, tells us that.

Caleb having one of his sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if Ava has human-like consciousness.

Caleb having one of his sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), to determine if Ava has human-like consciousness.

However, the lack of information given about Nathan is not the only element of Ex Machina’s plot that weakens it. The film is slow-paced; so much so, that for much of the movie one may wonder where the film is going. Moreover, the ending leaves itself open to scrutiny, not to mention out of kilter and jarring to the rest of the film. Nevertheless, one should not stress too much on the movie’s faults because so much of it is impressive.

Over-all, Ex Machina is an intriguing, weird, and noteworthy film. The movie is slow and the ending is questionable, but all the same Alex Garland has made a striking piece of work in his directorial debut. He deals perceptively and philosophically with important issues regarding AI. These are extremely pertinent considering mankind’s disconcerting hunger to further enhance AI. For heaven knows that these issues will not be isolated to the realms of science fiction films for much longer as it is likely that the world’s first Ava will be created in the not-too-distant future.

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