Sunday, July 14, 2024

‘Dark Phoenix’ Never Takes Flight

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Dark Phoenix is a bad movie which lacks any sense of fun, drama, or awareness. Scenes are filled with senseless action while characters spew nonsense. None of it means anything.

Written and directed by Simon Kinberg, I can say after seeing the film that those words are also meaningless. Dark Phoenix has no direction and since it lacks a beginning, middle, or end, it’s hard to argue the term “written” belongs anywhere near it. It’s bad folks.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is the tragic heroine of the story. Based on the Dark Phoenix Saga in the X-Men comics, it is a story that has been told and retold several times with varying success. It is a story about Jean Grey coming to terms with her powers, her past, and her present. It is about rebirth, discovery, and love.

Kinberg has turned it into a story about pettiness, leaden metaphors, and worst of all, somehow made it so where Jean Grey is neither the heroine or focus of her own story. Turner is clearly a talented actress. But like Jennifer Lawrence, another actress who it is popular to dunk on, she is given precious little to do. Lawrence is spared the indignity Turner is subjected to though.

Steeped in the male gaze Dark Phoenix can’t help but sexualize its young women. Turner’s Jean is sexualized at the oddest times. Moments while Jean writhes in agony as Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) psychically peers into her mind not only come off silly but icky as well. Kinberg and Mauro Faire have framed Turner in such a way in these scenes from the torso up, her chest thrust out. 

Juxtapose that scene with the half-hearted “the men are just afraid of you because of your power” sentiment Kinberg tries to infuse Dark Phoenix with and you have a sincerely sleazy undertone to the whole affair. Partly because it is a theme the film only ever grapples with when it feels like it. But partly because it fundamentally doesn’t even believe in what it’s saying.

There are four women characters in Dark Phoenix. Jean Grey, Raven (Lawrence), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and Vuk (Jessica Chastain). Raven dies at the end of the first act. Storm has, if it’s even possible, even less to do than previous movies. Okay, that’s not fair, we’re shown while at a party she can make ice cubes for the other mutant drinks when called upon.

Which leaves Chastain’s Vuk and Turner’s Jean. The two have a total of two conversations about nothing. They discuss nothing. Yes words are said and themes about gender inequality are introduced but since they are never remarked upon again either by them or anyone else, they like everything else, are meaningless.

The death of Lawrence’s Raven is a point we must discuss. Yes, it is fridging a woman character. Her death serves to move, for lack of a better term, the plot, along. But it’s Charles, Magneto (Michael Fassbender), and Beast (Nicholas Hoult) who are the most impacted by it. Yet when it happens, Turner’s face is ashen, devastated and filled with regret. Cut to Hoult’s Beast who seems to take a few seconds to realize what has happened. But behind him, in that same shot where Hoult is realizing the love of his life is dying, Charles seems to be looking off to the side, bored.

Inexplicably Kinberg cuts to a close up of McAvoy’s face as he looks-in another direction-not where Raven lays dying. Dark Phoenix is filled with moments like these. Actors come off as if they are each in a different movie than the other, even while sharing the same frame.

Kinberg’s dialogue doesn’t help. Look I understand these are comic book movies and the X-Men are more comic-book-ish than most. But there are two types of nonsense. The type of nonsense that sings and delights because of its absurdity mixed with a sense of play with words.

The other fundamentally misunderstands how words work. Vuk attempts to explain to Jean the energy blast she experienced at the beginning of the movie while trying to save a crew of astronauts. “It is a pure and unimaginably cosmic force.” Now one could argue that cosmic is here used to mean “vast and inconceivable”. But why then call it unimaginable?

Am I being pedantic? Yes. Am I sorry? No. You wouldn’t be either if you had to sit through Dark Phoenix.

The lack of any clear narrative hobbles everything. But it doesn’t help matters when you realize there are no rules. Vuk and her people are a shape-shifting alien race. Fine, got it. Bullets don’t kill them. Great. Yet, during the climactic train chase scene, some bullets work while others don’t.

The action is senseless. After killing Raven Jean Grey runs to Magento’s mutant hippie commune to seek help and guidance. They have a stilted and aggravating conversation wherein, like every other conversation, nothing is resolved. By the end of the scene, Magento and Jean are having a psychic-off as they play tug of war with a helicopter and a squadron of army soldiers.

I found myself yelling out loud, “Why is any of this happening?” Jean’s part is so small we are left to fill in the gaps of her inner turmoil ourselves. Dark Phoenix is not the first to do this. The MCU is lousy with moments that should have been shown but are skipped over instead talked about or alluded to. Character development happens off-screen in other words. It’s not so much text but textual.

It irritates me when it happens in those movies as well. But those movies skip character development that happens between movies. Dark Phoenix skips whole swaths of Jean’s development in the movie where it’s supposed to be happening.

Kinberg is to blame of course. Not just for Dark Phoenix but for the lazy development of its women characters for three out of the last four X-Men movies. Jean has a moment where she is, rightfully, reading Charles the riot act and ends with, “It’s always the women saving the men. We should change the name to X-Women.” It is too little too late. Not to mention in context with the rest of the film utterly and simply insincere lip service.

Dark Phoenix is remarkable for its dumbness in terms of action. The penultimate fight scene takes place outside of an apartment building where Jean is essentially being pitched a membership with benefits by Vuk and her species. It is stultifying in its dearth of suspense and breadth of stupidity.

But Kinberg shows himself not to be outdone by following the scene with the climax without a climax. A fight scene which is also a chase scene on a train. Those of you who might have read my review for The Secret Life of Pets 2 might recall I compared a similar scene in that movie to one in Paddington 2. Well, when it comes to the scene in Dark Phoenix you will discover The Secret Life of Pets 2 did it better.

None of them hold a candle to Paddington 2. I’m telling you we do not deserve that lovely kindhearted bear.

Faire has shot such movies as Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven and Training Day along with James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s hardly conceivable that the same man who shot the breathtaking and industry changing shots of Avatar shot Dark Phoenix. The action is jumbled and it’s never clear where characters are in relation to another.

The lighting is too dark, the cuts, are too frantic, and since the action is borne out of a desperate need to appear to be doing something it all comes off as visual noise. Faire isn’t helped by Hans Zimmer lackluster score either. Under Kinberg’s direction, the score is muted and underwhelming.

I suppose it was meant to be supplanted by the emotion of the scene. But since scenes follow each other without rhyme or reason the result is flat dull action. Dark Phoenix is one of those rare movies where it feels as if the movie itself were dragged into the theater kicking and screaming.

Dark Phoenix is a merciless, idiotic bore, and the lack of any redeeming features is honestly miraculous. I saw the movie with friends, one of whom fell asleep just as the movie began. Thirty minutes into the film he woke up. After the movie was over we discussed our feelings. He said he had a good time. Maybe that’s the secret.


Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

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