Making No Waves
What happens when you take a successful franchise and just run with it? Director Brett Ratner should know. He's able to roll things along just competently enough, getting out of each actor's way and otherwise treading water with whatever production he happens to be handling. The closest parallel to his latest offering, X-Men: The Last Stand, is Red Dragon, which also happened to be the third movie of its series. That movie had no personality to it, but it coasted well enough on its script and its high-caliber cast. Ratner's contribution was to present it through an unfiltered glass -- straightforward directing, no subtlety necessary.
And so it is with X-Men: The Last Stand. Fortunately for Ratner, the first two movies were successful on several levels, not the least of which was the marriage of story/plot and theme. The X-Men movies are about persecution, with "mutants" (humans who have a gene that gives each of them some kind of randomly ordained super power) standing in as the metaphor for any given minority group. Under the control of Bryan Singer, who directed the first two movies, the metaphor worked best when applied to the homosexual community (e.g., in X-Men, a point of contention was the idea of having to register as a mutant, since most of them can't be identified by the way they look). Thus, the movies worked perfectly on two levels -- the surface-level superhero action movie, and the deeper consideration of the unjust segregation of fellow human beings based on superficial differences.
The theme carries over to Ratner's film, and as it was so potent to begin with, it's able to sustain itself with conspicuous effect. But a sustainment it remains. With a plot emphasizing the conflict the mutants face (a cure is discovered that removes a mutant's powers; ethical mayhem ensues), the theme comes across with more noise, and clear lines for the characters are drawn. This doesn't so much expand the ideas of the first two movies; it simply shines a brighter light on them.
What is even more regrettable, though, involves the movie's inability to meld its main ideas with what the other movies managed to maintain quite successfully -- the lore. X-Men: The Last Stand contains two distinct threads, and the problem here is that they stay distinct. In addition to the "cure" plot, the story contains perhaps the most famous of the X-Men comic book stories, the saga of the Dark Phoenix, wherein Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) rises from the dead more powerful and dangerous than before. In The Last Stand, this thread has been relegated to secondary status, and it runs along exclusive to the first plot, adding little in the process. If you think about it, you could take that subplot out of the movie and lose very little; likewise, you could've taken that subplot and turned it into its own movie, with its own variety of emotional conflicts.
Ratner, in the meantime, directs the whole thing like a waiter carrying multiple food trays, trying not to let them topple or spill any drinks. One curious side effect of this approach is the lack of an exciting pace -- my memories of X2 consist of feeling pumped up by the numerous action sequences, while here the first action scene doesn't occur until about halfway through the movie, and then there's no encore until close to the climax.
I have other minor nitpicks as well -- several characters die or lose their powers rather uncermoniously or undeservedly, and, well (forgive me for not being less blunt) that just bugs. But it's mainly The Last Stand's feeling of treading water that bugs the most. Although it's certainly a watchable movie, the franchise has led us to expect much more than that.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG-13" by MPAA.)
Review also posted on www.windowtothemovies.com.