X-Men: Dark Phoenix is, in a word, disappointing. The last hurrah for this stellar cast (with the X-Men characters now under the Marvel/Disney roof), is undone by an errant focus and relentless script flaws. There’s a tiredness that pervades this feature, a worn wandering sense where there once was vigor and spark (look back to the rejuvenating X-Men: First Class for that energy), and it all conspires to let down fans and let down the cast. The poor marketing campaign, and the bizarre decision to omit ‘X-Men’ from the title for its theatrical run (remedied here for the home release) certainly didn’t help.
The Production: 3/5
“You’re special, Jean. And if you stop fighting that force inside you, if you embrace it, you will possess the very power of a god.”
When the space shuttle Endeavor experiences trouble and sends out a distress signal, the X-Men, under the direction of Professor X (James McAvoy) undertake a dangerous rescue mission. While they rescue all the astronauts, and the heroic act helps the X-men and their apparent peaceful co-existence with humanity, Jean Grey is struck by a strange energy cloud, absorbing its strange power, and almost killing her. Unsettled, Jean at first appears okay, but soon exhibits strange behavior and an exponential increase in her powers. Unpredictable, potentially unhinged, Jean becomes dangerous, and when she fatally strikes one of her fellow mutants, she becomes hunted by man and mutant alike, and sought by a strange race who may hold the key to understanding her new powers.
Dark Phoenix opens with an surprising tragedy and makes quite a bold statement about the story could be headed. But that strong opening moment and its suggestion of something dramatic and thrilling quickly loses focus and grounding. In the library of X-Men films, Dark Phoenix attempts a more intimate character focus, and that’s a positive step up from X-Men: Apocalypse (which isn’t nearly as bad a film as popular opinion suggests), but there’s an impatience to get into the Dark Phoenix story; a rush that robs the dramatic power of the underlying story. But really, Dark Phoenix fails not for what’s here, but for what isn’t. The groundwork for Jean Grey, or rather Sophie Turner’s iteration of her, isn’t deep or established enough. The effective opening is something intended to center our understanding of the Jean character, but we really needed a much deeper, more engaging examination of who Jean is and the threat she could pose. The original X-Men trilogy had a couple of films to start laying some of the groundwork, and while X-Men: The Last Stand failed to deliver on that early work, we were at least ready for the tragic, dangerous turn Jean takes into her Dark Phoenix. It all seems sprung upon us here.
Director Simon Kinberg, a man who has served as a producer and guide for a good portion of the X-Men universe (and who also co-wrote The Last Stand and the last two X-Men films), lacks the necessary skills to direct a production like this. While there is some good staging and nice cinematography, some good ideas even, the instinct for pulling together the dramatic and thrilling edges necessary to coalesce the action into a more meaningful emotional journey is missing. Individual scenes can work, but not as part of the greater whole. The film is also let down by the lack of wit and wisdom in the script. Rather than drama, we are offered melodrama. Moments that should carry the emotional weight of characters we’ve come to know and love over several films are reduced to soap opera and absent the gravity of better performances from these fine actors in the earlier films.
Speaking of the actors, the large cast is filled with talented actors who manage only moderate success in their performances, and certainly a less vivacious embrace of the characters than we’ve seen in previous films. James McAvoy is perhaps most let down by the corner his character is painted into. Michael Fassbender is offered a little more meaning in his part, but still feels a far cry from the heights he was able to explore before. Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven/Mystique is given short shrift in her small role that hints at a more interesting arc for her character than we ultimately get. Nicholas Hoult, Tye Sheriden, Alexandra Shipp, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Evan Peters as Beast, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, and Quicksilver respectively, find no resolve, evolution or resolution for their characters. Such a waste of talent (especially given how effective these characters have been in previous entries, Quicksilver in particular). Jessica Chastain’s appearance as the mysterious Vuk is effective enough to serve is the side-villain, but so little is explained about her, her species, or her team of agitators, that when the time comes for the big showdown, we’re not really sure why we should worry or care.
Carrying the heaviest burden in the film is Sophie Turner as Jean Grey. A fine actress in her own right, the exploration of Jean Grey’s rise to becoming the Phoenix is so wrought with doubt and repeating circles as she struggles to understand what is happening to her (something she in scene after scene after scene), that we never get to see Turner really enjoy the duality of this character. Turner’s take lacks the weight and intrigue afforded Famke Janssen’s turn in the much-maligned X-Men III: The Last Stand, which tackled the Dark Phoenix story and was equally disappointing for a host of different reasons. Dark Phoenix makes one other foundational error in judgement. We haven’t seen Sophie Turner’s character evolve through the previous films. We have followed Professor X, Mystique, Magneto and others as they grappled with their place in the world, but each of them is largely sidelined as we focus so heavily on Jean Grey with whom we haven’t invested emotionally. Without that groundwork, it’s hard to feel for her as she fights her incredible power, struggles with her uncertainty, deals with the betrayals of her past, and reeling from the outburst of power that kills her friend. The Dark Phoenix story was both premature and too late.
Still, despite the many flaws, there are some positives. The visual effects are often beautiful, the costume work a lovely throwback (to the comics), and the train sequence (shown heavily in the trailers) one of the better sequences of the last two films, and certainly the best sequence in this film. Really, the sequence on the train sequence feels like the only time the film knows what it is and what it wants to do it. For the rest of the running time, it’s lost. That might work as a mirror to Jean Grey’s emotional struggles, but I don’t think the film is designed that way. It’s just a disappointing coincidence.
3D Rating: NA
Fox’s presentation of Dark Phoenix, framed in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1, is quite lovely on UHD. Finished at 2K DI, there is fine detail aplenty to be had, in skin, clothing textures, environments, and the colors are a key delighting feature of the film’s look. With pinks and purples apparent, starting with the beautiful cloud in space that kicks off the story, and aided thanks to the HDR, things positively glow at times. The greens of the Charles Xavier School for the Gifted (and the island hideout where Magneto and others attempt to live in peace) are lush and deep. The yellow in the X-Men uniforms (and the familiar blue of Mystique) render very well in this 4K presentation.
Filmed with Arri Alexa XT Plus, Panavision C-, E-, G-, T-Series and Angenieux Optimo Lenses (according to IMDB), there’s a delightful film-look here. Black levels are also superb.
Dark Phoenix offers a full-throated Dolby Atmos track (that defaults to a rousing Dolby TrueHD 7.1 if you aren’t Atmos enabled).
This film has a sonic punch with an effective, deep rumbling power found throughout. Sound effects are used well in the surrounds to create an immersive, absorbing ambiance. Dialogue is perfectly leveled, primarily in the center channel, making it easy to hear what’s being said even amongst the heavy action and composer Hans Zimmer’s propulsive score.
Speaking of the sore, Zimmer’s music works quite well in the film, but it seems like there’s one compelling theme reused in variations throughout the film. It doesn’t really drive the emotional narrative of the film, merely reflects the emotional state on a few occasions. It’s a theme that gets spun around and, though it’s good (a little Inception, a little Dunkirk here and there), it’s lacks nuance and effectiveness in digging inside the various characters and their emotional states*. And when both the script and the score fail to dig in the way they should, we’re left with something resembling disposable melodrama.
*I should note that, as a standalone listen, I’ve really come to enjoy the score. Zimmer also released a follow up to this score, called Xperiments from Dark Phoenix, featuring his initial renderings of the score (similar to the second disc on his Man of Steel score release), which presents a more entertaining and experimental flavor for his music for the film.
Special Features: 3/5
4K/UHD Version of the film
The 4K disc comes with an audio commentary by Director Simon Kinberg and Producer Hutch Parker. The rest of the special features are found on the accompanying Blu-ray disc.
The rest of the special features, though limited, are anchored by the impressive Rise of the Phoenix: The Making of Dark Phoenix, a 5-part documentary with lots of behind the scenes looks and interviews. This is the kind of feature we don’t get as much these days with new films and it’s a welcome inclusion even if the resulting film isn’t all that great.
Blu-ray Version of the film
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary by Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker*:
o Edwards Air Force Base
o Charles Returns Home
o Mission Prep
o Beast MIA
o Charles Says Goodbye
- Rise of the Phoenix: The Making of Dark Phoenix (5-Part Documentary)
- Scene Breakdown: The 5th Avenue Sequence**
- How to Fly Your Jet to Space with Beast
- Audio Commentary by Simon Kinberg and Hutch Parker
Digital copy of the film
A great looking but ultimately disappointing final outing for the this cast of X-Men characters who will all be recast now that the X-Men universe is being absorbed into the Marvel Cinematic Universe courtesy of Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox.
Dark Phoenix veers away from the narrative thread of previous films, the internal and external conflicts that drove the events these younger versions of the characters faced beginning with the excellent X-Men: First Class. As a result, this is a film that doesn’t really feel connected to the larger canvas, or the threads of previous stories that so endeared us to this collection of characters. Oh well, at least when you watch all the films in order, despite the convoluted timeline, the magnificent Logan would technically be the last film and the end of the story.https://smile.amazon.com/X-Men-Phoenix-Blu-ray-Simon-Kinberg/dp/B07RH666FH/ref=sr_1_1_sspa?crid=P3J1U411BVAF&keywords=dark+phoenix+4k&qid=1569188960&s=movies-tv&sprefix=Dark+Ph%2Cdigital-music%2C190&sr=1-1-spons&psc=1&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUEzTlRVU0VBMUJQSEQ5JmVuY3J5cHRlZElkPUEwMDQwODA2MlFCV0pXWjZQVVZFNSZlbmNyeXB0ZWRBZElkPUEwNzczNzcwMjhEUzMyTUk4VlBBUSZ3aWRnZXROYW1lPXNwX2F0ZiZhY3Rpb249Y2xpY2tSZWRpcmVjdCZkb05vdExvZ0NsaWNrPXRydWU=