Plain, Simple Tom reviews . . . “X-Men: Dark Phoenix” (2019)

Writer/director Simon Kinberg’s concluding chapter of the X-Men franchise takes the group of young superheroes into the 90s when, after embarking on a space mission to save a group of astronauts in danger, telekenetic/telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is hit by a colossal space phenomenon and surprisingly absorbs all of its energy. Back on Earth, she initially appears to be alright but her increased powers become much harder to contain and as she finds out certain secrets that Xavier (James McAvoy) kept from her as a child, “Phoenix” becomes more of a danger to her family of X-Men and is quickly sought out by dangerous alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain), who desires Jean’s power for her and her own people’s nefarious purposes.

Going in to this new, and apparently final, chapter in the X-Men franchise, I was aware of the less-than-positive feedback it had received; I avoided most reviews and muted the appropriate words on Twitter but I was made aware of its low Rotten Tomatoes score and general feedback among fellow film fans. But although I feared a disaster of a movie, I actually kind of liked Dark Phoenix, odd as that may seem to some, and although it could never be as remarkable as X2 or Days of Future Past, it’s far from the worst instalment in the series and is superior to The Last Stand and the actual worst in the series: Apocalypse.

The film starts off very promisingly with the opening mission to space; straight away, it’s clear that the character and costume design is rather appealing since Beast looks as cool as ever (the extremely dodgy CGI of First Class has been long forgotten by now), Nightcrawler looks better than he did in Apocalypse and, despite the hate her make-up design received on social media, Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique is superbly rendered and she sure looks more appealing than she did in the bodysuit of Days of Future Past. This opening setpiece also displays some mighty fine special effects work, clear cinematography, and even in the opening few minutes, all of the characters get to play an equal part in the action.

And all of that is where Dark Phoenix is at it’s best – in the design department. In an age when we get our fair share of blockbusters with bad cinematography and unappealing design (COUGH. Godzilla sequel. COUGH), it’s great to note that Dark Phoenix boasts some very neat cinematography (thanks to Mauro Fiore for that) and special effects work (despite maybe one particular instance, there are no unappealing or awkward shots) and in the style department, the film proves its worth because Dark Phoenix has some pretty impressive setpieces such as the opening mission and the final train battle wherein all the characters are equally utilised. True, these setpieces aren’t as memorable as those you’d find in previous instalments but in this film, they work a treat.

As director, Simon Kinberg has gathered all the right crew that includes frequent Nolan collaborator Lee Smith (editing) and he even gets the great Hans Zimmer on board to do the score, with excellent results. His music perfectly compliments the action and the music is loud, bombastic, exciting, adventurous and I appreciated it so much that I often wondered “who did the music for this? It’s great!” Wow, Hans Zimmer is one of the best, eh?

The acting in Dark Phoenix is solid all around, another one of the film’s assets, and in the title role, I thought that Sophie Turner was downright decent, a far cry from Apocalypse (the first time I had ever seen her on screen), where I thought she was unpleasant and a little annoying – the wrong casting choice, in my eyes. True, she could never be as ideally suited to the part as the sublime Famke Janssen and maybe there are actors out there more suited to the role, but Turner displays a little more life and energy this time around, no longer acting as a perpetually sullen teenager as she is known to do, and she does the best she can with the material.

Elsewhere James McAvoy is alright as Charles, though he’s certainly been better and this version of his character is actually the weakest, Nicholas Hoult continues to breathe life and intrigue into his interesting character of the conflicted Hank/Beast, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence are decent but the script doesn’t allow their characters to be special in any way, Evan Peters continues to be a bright spark (though he’s unfortunately pushed to the sidelines for virtually all of the film. Presumably because his character is too powerful and effective), and Tye Sheridan, Alexandra Shipp and Kodi Smit-McPhee are given more to do than in Apocalypse and overall, all of the X-Men in this film are given an equal amount of screen time.

And lastly, Jessica Chastain gives her character of Vuk her best shot but although she’s appropriately nasty and clearly evil, the role could’ve been performed by anyone because the character is completely one dimensional and unremarkable. More on that below.

So while Dark Phoenix gets passing grades for cinematography, music, entertaining setpieces, character design, special effects and its commited core cast (well, maybe not so much commitment from one actor who checks out early on in the film), the film does have its problems that prevent it from reaching the heights of most of its predacessors.

The film’s biggest flaw by quite a long way is its script and story. Despite proving himself capable as director, Simon Kinberg’s writing is troublesome because for a concluding franchise chapter, the story is unremarkable and doesn’t treat us to anything ground-breaking or overly exciting. At the end of the day, it’s very similar to what we saw in The Last Stand (well, they were both adapted from the same original story) and in addition to the safe and familiar Jean/Phoenix storyline we already know, we are also introduced to a race of intergalactic baddies whose backstories aren’t properly explained to us and simply exist as very generic antagonists (looking like a cross between Skrulls and Groots) who desire the McGuffin-y power cloud thingy so they can . . . bring back their home planet or destroy things or take over humanity or . . . I don’t know. Overall, it’s an uninspired and slightly lazy story that doesn’t make much sense and it certainly doesn’t break new ground.

The dialogue isn’t the best either and there are too many occurrences of po-faced speeches about the importance of family and how “there is still good in you and you have a choice” – Apocalypse was notorious for Charles constantly telling Erik about how there was still good in him but with Dark Phoenix, Jean gets the infamous treatment over and over again! It’s at these times, when things get too serious, that the film slows down too much and as the “good hearted” speeches and pleas to “stop the madness” keep coming, it becomes clear that Kinberg is just repeating himself and the attempts to be meaningful and deep come across as tiresome. As Erik says: “there’s always a speech. But no-one cares!” Sums it up well.

The characterisation is also a bit iffy because on the whole, the characters of Dark Phoenix aren’t as fleshed out or as interesting as they have been in the future past: Charles is an egotistical hindrance, Raven is as far away from Rebecca Romijn’s enticing Mystique as you could possibly get, Magneto is written particularly blandly – nowhere near as memorable as he was in X2 or Days of Future Past and in an odd “limbo” between hero and villain – and various members of the X-Men team inexplicably turn on on Jean in a heartbeat. And of course, the baddies have no personality at all and most are just forgettable cannon fodder.

And the worst line goes to “It’s always the women that are saving the men around here. You should change the name to X-Women.” Far too random and a transparent attempt to be progressive and #MeToo-y, I’m afraid.

So in conclusion, I was expecting a disaster but in fact, I was never bored and I surprisingly found Dark Phoenix to actually be quite good. Yes, the story is weak, the baddies are bland, the characterisation is iffy and the dialogue is sometimes mawkish and uninspired but it’s nowhere near as bad as some would make it out to be. It’s a perfectly satisfying and entertaining blockbuster and where it lacks substance, it definitely makes up for it in style – showing off pleasing cinematography, spot-on character design, impressive visuals, fine setpieces and an excellent Hans Zimmer score.

And at least it’s leagues ahead of Apocalypse.

The weak story, bland baddies, thin characterisation and po-faced speeches may disappoint but Dark Phoenix gets by with its winning cinematography, great effects, spot-on character design, bombastic score and entertaining setpieces.

★ ★ ★

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