X-Men: Dark Phoenix is quite simply a film without proper direction, figuratively and literally. As this was writer-director Simon Kinberg’s first film – it’s hard to be so tough on someone so new to the job – but it’s important to understand that stories about characters who descend into a melting pot of psychological complexity require a specialized direction to pull off, especially when balancing blockbuster elements into them. Unfortunately we are not given that here.
X-Men: Dark Phoenix follows the story of Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) as she encounters a cosmic force of unknown origins that turns her world upside down while the X-Men must try their best to ensure she doesn’t break the world in the process. Jean Grey is a complex young girl with a few issues, but mentally and in terms of her characters construction. It’s clear we’re meant to look at Jean with sympathy; as a good person trapped within a terrifying and unstable situation that is out of her control – but what remains problematic is that there is very little actual setup for Jean herself – she’s an underdeveloped character who’s about to undergo a transformation – it’s like a stranger changing their hair color and expecting everyone to care – how can the audience care if they aren’t familiar with this character?
Director Simon Kinberg attempts to shunt in multiple thematic directions for Jean to go in. These directions vary wildly, from destiny, evolution, fixing broken things, being special, allowing your emotions to “set you free”, the list goes on… these themes were supposed to represent aspects of Jeans character and her arc, but instead are clumsily mixed together to include them all. Again, it comes back to the blunt fact that we don’t really know Jean as a character and are expected to care. What’s odd is that Kinberg is not a bad writer and for reasons unknown his films have a tendency to turn south fast.
The characters in this franchise we’ve become familiar with since X-Men: First Class feel somewhat distant in this follow-up; so much so that I would say this film had a fundamental reduction of their personalities. Characters like Hank (Nicholas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) feel muted and unfamiliar; it’s almost as if the Phoenix force absorbed the personalities they once had and left nothing but husks. Something serious went wrong in a writing room or board room for the soul to be sucked clean out of these characters.
Sophie Turner makes an attempt at providing some semblance of emotion in her lead role, but there’s a fundamental flaw; Turner is simply mismatched with this character, unable to provide the emotional feats required from such an emotionally varied character. Jean may be the vessel for the Phoenix force, but Sophie Turner is no vessel for Jean Grey. At no point did Jean feel like an uncontrollable raging Phoenix; instead, more like a scared girl with some explosive mood swings. In fact, it became almost impossible to tell Jean and the Phoenix apart, inevitably making the whole “dark phoenix” aspect of this story completely moot – the intent should be to show two personalities in conflict, instead we’re given a generalized version that combines the two. This lack of variety truly makes you appreciate the multi-faceted performance actress Famke Janssen provided in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) as Jean Grey.
Beyond the lead performances, Michael Fassbender of course provides the best role here; following up from the critically panned X-Men: Apocalypse it becomes almost comical how great Fassbender is within a franchise that lost its soul some time ago. Jennifer Lawrence nicely represents this lack of soul, with her dull and sullen performance. Now, while it’s true her character grew more vanilla as each movie progressed, Lawrence seemingly doubled-down on the dullness here – producing lines so flat that I would immediately forgot what she had said two seconds after she said it. These flat characters feel like a trend that was happening for almost the entirety of the cast, even for MacAvoy, who had previously bested Fassbender in this position of best mutant performance. Jessica Chastains’ role is so insignificant to the story that her flat and almost non-existent presence is barely worth mentioning. Why her character even exists, I do not know.
Surprisingly, Kinberg’s faults here are not so strongly pointed towards the filmmaking as they are prevalent in his writing – one of his strengths. Kinberg is able to orchestrate a great ensemble action set-piece that utilises all of the mutants strengths that create some effective moments that the audience can finally get invested in whether it be a space mission to rescue astronauts from a solar flare or fight an alien race on a moving train.
Aside from these rare moments injected into a lifeless narrative, we get a three camera setup for most character interactions that add no life to the frame ultimately making it joyless. Also, for a high-budget film ($200 million) this movie has some of the worst visual effects in relation to the time and money invested as each frame is flooded with layers of CGI and no detail between them.
This film is definitely lowered in scale which is equally met with a lack of creative imagination as the set locations are uninteresting and do not add any energy into sequences. Luckily the film finds its grounding a lot more inside the make-up and hairstyling department where the mutant characters fit the aesthetic of the universe. Wondering why all that X-Men action sounded so good? Oh yeah, the saving grace that is the legend himself, Hans Zimmer. Creating a captivating score that interprets the elements of what a dark phoenix theme should contain with its larger-than-life thematic music. Hans Zimmer goes above and beyond delivering a score that creates atmosphere and portrays emotions that is far superior to the screenplay and filmmaking facets.
Dark Phoenix had intentions to soar high, but could never manage to build enough altitude with an overstuffed plot weighing it down. There’s perhaps a good story in this movie here somewhere, but what’s done is done. All I know is that the real heroes of this film are Fassbender, Hans Zimmer, and the makeup department. Anticlimactic and above all, dull – Dark Phoenix quickly turns into a smoldering pile of soot, that hopefully, won’t be reborn from its ashes any time soon.