‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

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John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is One of the Best Horror Movies Ever Made

The Thing movie poster

Many of you probably know the story behind John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It came out in the summer of 1982, two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s “E.T,” and while the alien from Spielberg’s movie was warm and cuddly, the one in Carpenter’s was cold, ugly, and utterly vicious. As a result, “The Thing” was quickly derided by both critics and fans alike, and no one hid their disgust towards Carpenter for what they saw as pornography of violence. In all fairness, however, the movie was released at the wrong time of the year. To release it during what Carpenter called the “summer of love” opposite not just “E.T.,” but also “Star Trek II” and “Tron” was a big mistake on the part of Universal Pictures, and they would have had more luck had they released it in the winter of 1982.

Years later, “The Thing,” like many of Carpenter’s movies, found the audience it deserved through home video and digital media. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but it is now considered, and rightly so, one of the best horror and sci-fi movies ever made, and it is easily the best horror remake in a sea of horrendously crappy ones. It certainly plays better today than it did when first released, and it is still utterly terrifying 35 years after its release.Unlike the original Howard Hawks version of “The Thing,” Carpenter’s movie hews much closer to the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. The movie takes place at an American scientific research outpost in Antarctica, perhaps the coldest place on Earth. We are introduced to a bunch of men who are studying the surrounding area, and they look bored and listless as they pass the days smoking, drinking scotch, watching “Let’s Make a Deal” reruns, and playing ping pong. One day, they are met by a wolf being shot at by a Norwegian for no discernable reason. This later leads to events which make them realize they have encountered an alien of unknown origin unearthed from the ice after thousands and thousands of years. It then proceeds to imitate every creature it comes into contact with, and it is revealed any of them could be the thing. They have to destroy the thing before it reaches civilization because, once it does, it would mean the end of the world.

The premise of “The Thing” is genius because it allows for an unending escalation of tension and suspense throughout. Like the characters, you have no idea who to trust. The paranoia which closes in on the characters puts them in an airtight cage, and this cage gets smaller and smaller as it heads to its infinitely bleak climax. There are no women to be found which eliminates any sexual tension and could have added an unnecessary element to the movie. Many say this makes the movie sexist, but it is a ridiculous charge.

“The Thing” was released when the whole world started to become aware of the AIDS virus. The idea of any virus infecting us completely and rearranging our body to the point may have seemed unreal to us back in 1982. But today, it is a reality more horrifying than ever, and it presents itself with no cure. This makes “The Thing” even scarier to take in when watching it now. The scene where Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) observes a computer image of the virus infecting a human host is one of the movie’s scariest moments, and it feels like an all too real a possibility today. The only thing truly dated about the scene is the computer graphics look like they are from some old Atari game, but it doesn’t change anything.

This movie also marks one of several collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who started working together on the TV movie “Elvis.” After all these years, Russell can still make you believe he is a regular guy like the rest of us, and his role as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady is one of his best. You never get the feeling Russell is acting here. Instead, he inhabits the character he plays, and you follow him every step of the way without any doubt of who the hero really is.

Carpenter cast “The Thing” perfectly with actors like Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and David Clennon. But one of the best performances comes from Brimley as Dr. Blair. In the past, we have seen him in countless oatmeal commercials and in roles as the grandfather we wished we had in our lives. But his role in “The Thing” offered him an opportunity to go completely against type. Brimley goes from curious to utterly horrified by what this unknown creature can do, and he ends up wreaking havoc in a way you would never ever see in an oatmeal.

Another great actor in this movie is Keith David who plays Childs. David has a don’t mess with me intensity, and he matches Russell’s intensity every step of the way. The tension between them is as frightening as is waiting for the thing to make its next horrifically gory entrance.

But let’s talk about who the real star of “The Thing” really is, and that is Rob Bottin who designed the movie’s horrifically brilliant special effects and makeup designs. Long before the advance of computer technology, Bottin had to make all these designs from scratch, and what he came up with is now considered a benchmark in his field. The thing mimics everything it touches, and this must have been a huge inspiration for him as it allowed his imagination to run amuck with infinite possibilities. You never know what’s coming next, and this makes “The Thing” even scarier.

Some have called this movie a “geek show” made only with the intention of grossing people out. Granted, a good case could be made for that, but “The Thing” explores a theme that is commonplace in many of Carpenter’s movies; the struggle to maintain one’s individuality. Of never letting go of who you are because it allows you to survive in a world which keeps finding new ways of robbing your individuality at any given opportunity. The threat of this loss is very real, and the characters have the unfortunate disadvantage of being stuck in one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth.

I also imagine a big complaint people have about “The Thing” is we never learn about the alien or where it came from. Basically, we know it’s from outer space which imitates whatever it comes in contact with, and it clearly deals with the cold better than any of us do. Here’s the thing, do we really need to know everything about this creature? Maybe not knowing is more terrifying than knowing. It leaves a lot of things to the viewer’s imagination which I love because it leaves so many possibilities open for how this horrific situation is going to play out.

“The Thing” truly is Carpenter’s masterpiece as it shows him to be a true master of horror and suspense. He endlessly generates unbearable tension throughout, and just when you think the movie has peaked, you realize it has not. Carpenter’s goal here is not just to make us jump out of our seats, but to make us feel the terrifying isolation and complete lack of trust these characters are forced to endure.

Carpenter has said “The Thing” was the first in his apocalypse trilogy (the other two were “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), and it does have an unrelentingly bleak tone which made it seem completely out of place back in 1982. As time goes on though, many of us keep thinking the world is coming to an end with more deadly diseases like the Ebola Virus among others, and the scenario this movie presents us feels all the more frightening and immediate as a result.

Some movies are robbed of their greatness through the passage of time, and we watch them and wonder why we liked them in the first place. But “The Thing” is an exception as the passage of time has made it all the more effective. You can’t help but think its story was ahead of its time, and it remains one of those movies I never ever tire of watching. It has more than earned its place on the list of my all-time favorite movies.

* * * * out of * * * *