X-Men: Days of Future Past opens with a vision of what is to come; a smoking, smouldering post-apocalyptic wasteland where the few remaining mutants shelter in the barren crags, darting through the rubble, trying to avoid extermination at the hands of sinister, implacable robots - the Sentinels. The future, however, is not the whole story. The genocidal fate which awaits Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and his kind has been set into motion by a singular event lodged firmly in the past. The assassination of a scientist by a mutant activist in the seventies provided the rationale for the more hard core anti-mutant faction to foment and prosecute its genocidal mission.
Acting from the purview of their future selves, then, Xavier, Magneto and the small coterie of beleaguered mutants who are left, project Wolverine's consciousness back in time, so as to inhabit his earlier person. Wolverine wakes up in the early seventies where he must convince a youthful Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to band together to thwart the impending assassination, thereby altering the timeline and avoiding global war.
If that sounds a tad convoluted, it probably is, and yet, as a result of skilful, soulful character depiction, and its redolent, resonant political themes, Days of Future Past manages to interest and enrapture. The original X-Men comic was always politically charged - very much the child of sixties counter culture. Its depiction of a persecuted minority (mutants) trying to find its voice and place in a hostile world provided the fantasy echo of the burgeoning civil rights movement; a movement which saw black Americans fighting for emancipation from a grotesque and archaic apartheid system.
Indeed, X-Men creator Stan Lee drew the archetypes for the Xavier and Magneto characters from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. And it is their conflict which comes to underpin Days of Future Past; a broader antagonism between two opposed political currents: reform and revolution - more pacific forms of resistance, and the blazing flames of insurrectionary war.
In this film, the young Magneto, his soft sibilant voice belying the deadly convictions which drive him, is now approaching the zenith of his powers, whereas Xavier has been through the wringer; feeling betrayed by his one-time comrade in arms, and wracked by physical injury, the professor has retreated into a drug and alcohol fuelled haze. But as the pace of the plot picks up, these two characters are drawn into a volatile and uneasy alliance; Xavier's underlying humanitarianism is pitted against Magneto's unyielding revolutionary charisma in a battle for the heart and mind of their respective love interest, would-be-assassin Mystique, played to lethal, damaged effect by Jennifer Lawrence.
The soft-light retrospective cinematography evokes the panorama of the USA in the 1970s, but this is combined with bleaker, more modern elements; the Sentinels themselves - whose prototypes appear in the earlier time frame - move with the murderous synthetic grace of modern day drones; while the scientist who masterminded them, Bolivar Trask, presents a sinister Orwellian type figure; his softly pitched arguments for the need for mutant extermination - are delivered in a civilized board room setting adorned with Delacroix' iconic image of liberation - 'Liberty Leading the People'.
But although Days of Future Past is by far and away, the darkest and most dystopic piece in the X-Men multiverse, the sense of severity and gravitas is punctuated by some perfectly timed comic asides, mostly from the grimacing and out of kilter Wolverine, as he endeavours to navigate his new/old reality through a combination of genuine bewilderment and furious outbursts. There are also some visually stunning set pieces. The gorgeous slowmo scene in which a single mutant manages to disarm a room full of guards is played to great effect; as he spins himself off the walls, gently patting away the bullets - the crooning folk song 'If I Could Save Time in a Bottle' floats in the background in a scene of crafted elegance.
But perhaps the film's most significant achievement is that it manages (more or less) to tie together the various plot threads which have been thrown up by the various prequels/sequels in the franchise; one gets the feeling that you are dealing with a film which is substantially darker, more nuanced, and more confident in terms of both technique and plot. The seventh instalment of the X-Men film series is, without a doubt, its finest. In Days of Future Past, the X-Men film franchise has come of age.