Saturday, August 22, 2015

Leviathan Wakes

I was on vacation recently and managed to finish novels I couldn't help but compare: Leviathan Wakes by (pseudonymous) James S. A. Corey and Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds. I have been reading less and less recently as the medium of film commands more of my attention and critical resources, so reading something like Leviathan Wakes felt like a betrayal of my time; I could have been reading something better, something more rewarding, more challenging. Not that Absolution Gap was a quantum leap in quality, but at least I didn't hate myself by the time I finished it.

Leviathan Wakes (hereafter LW) is the first book in the Expanse Series. Originally designed as a trilogy, the series was expanded to encompass, at the time of this writing, five novels with a six in the chamber ready to be fired at the masses. Let me assure you, from the beginning of this review, that LW is aggressively middlebrow (something I concluded earlier this month) and has the stink of creation-by-committee. This is not a novel, but a pitch for a television series or anything else that will make money. As the Expanse series appears to be the only blockbuster selling science fiction novel, it behooves me to consider the state of science fiction of a genre using LW as the focal point.

LW imagines a universe in which humanity has colonized most of the solar system but nothing outside that territory. The colonies all rely on Earth to produce the raw materials that sustain life (food, water, air, etc) while the colonies in return produce the raw materials that sustain industry and capitalism. This differential of power and capital causes strain and political strife. Imagine the mini-drama of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall, with its quite prescient points concerning the intersection between workers' rights and quality of life, but magnified to the scale of the solar system. While Total Recall has intriguing things to say about the rapacious corrupting nature of capitalism (ie Benny and his "five kids to feed"), LW is focused on ploddingly basic statements about how corporations are bad, man. The government of Earth and the Moon (the United Nations) are in conflict with the quasi-terrorist group, the Outer Planets Alliance. What exactly they are in conflict over is vague and meant more as setdressing than as any thematic interest. The major tension in the setting of the series is the pseudo-racial divide between Earth-born humans and "Belters," those raised in a different gravity and different social structure. Their bodies, shaped by the pull of a differing gravity, marks them as "Other" while their language, a creole of many languages and -- most importantly -- gestures (they work in spacesuits so gestures make the most amount of sense) further this divide.

There. I just told you about the most interesting thing in this novel. There is literally nothing else in this novel that could be conceivably called "intriguing" or "compelling." What makes this all the more galling is that this idea is exceedingly old hat if you read any New Wave sci-fi from the 60s or 70s. Ursula LeGuin carved a whole career out of this type of worldbuilding.

But this sort of echo represents the failure of LW quite well. LW is not a novel of ideas but a house of mirrors, all reflecting a facet of marketable science fiction, coagulated into a package easy for mass digesting. The plot follows two strands: Holden and his tiny crew of irascible witty ne'er-do-wells as they are bumped from one explosive setpiece to another, with little forward momentum in terms of narrative; and the hard-drinking detective Miller (divorced of course), who is tasked with finding a rich girl who abandoned her lifestyle to fight alongside the OPA. Both plots are old hat science fiction tropes as old as literature. This does not mean automatically artistic failure. If the authors can pull off the execution, any deficiencies in originality can be forgiven. Alas, the execution might be worse than the unimaginative concepts.

There is a tendency among "geek" culture, I've found, to try for witty dialogue. Witty repartee seems to be a very hot and trending element of geek culture. As somebody who adores dialogue, I believe that aspirations to wittiness are commendable. That being said, not every writer can be as witty as, say, Joss Whedon. Nor is every writer adept at varying how they use witty dialogue. Imagine then, a novel in which every line uttered by every character is a painful attempt at wittiness but without any wit. There, you've imagined LW and its fucking awful banter. It's like reading a Family Guy script. For some bizarre reason, the novel thinks anuses are funny and makes reference to them quite a bit. Here's an example:
“Something out there has a comm array that’ll put a dot the size of your anus on us from over three AU away,” Alex said.

“Okay, wow, that’s impressive. What is our anus-sized dot saying?” Holden asked. (95)
This isn't funny. Anuses are not inherently funny. You have to do something with the idea of an anus to make it funny. You can't just dump the word "anus" in a sentence and think it magically turns funny.

The whole novel is filled with clunking plodding attempts at wit and it's interminable. LW is already overlong, but this awful dialogue just slows everything even further.

While the dialogue is atrocious, the narration isn't much better. There are all sorts of phrases and bits that stumble at the gate. Redundancy in prose always signals to itself, calling attention to the inattention of the author. It's also moderately insulting; I loathe when my hand is being held by the author as I prefer to think for myself. LW is full of these redundancies:

"Turn on the lights," Naomi said from behind them. Miller heard Holden patting the wall panel, but no light came up.

"They're not working," Holden said. (244)
Here is the information that we glean from the first two sentences: the lights are off, Holden attempts to turn them on, and this is a failure. Why then do we need Holden telling us that the lights are not working and why does the narration need to tell us that Holden said this? None of the information contained in the third sentence is new nor is any of it necessary. It's lazy and it's redundant.

Maybe the authors are at least adept at the art of metaphor, symbolism, or any of the other tricks in the literary toolset? Not surprising: they are not. Here is a simile that I thought was a joke:
The moon itself -- Phoebe -- filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. (250-something?)
Yuck. Perhaps this simile has meaning, though. Let's look at the constituent elements and see if I'm being too harsh. We have a moon turning in the sky and we have a prostitute turning around to display itself to would be customers. Thus, the comparison is implying that the moon is offering itself to exploitation. Perhaps, let's put the quote in context and see if it gives anything else up. Here is the relevant information:
"A small ice moon, the assumption was that Phoebe would eventually be mined for water, much like the rings themselves. The Martian government commissioned a scientific survey more out of a sense of bureaucratic completeness than from expectation of economic gain. Core samples were taken, and when silicate anomalies raised flags, Protogen was approached as cosponsor of a long-term research facility."

The moon itself - Phoebe - filled the frame, turning slowly to show all sides like a prostitute at a cheap brothel. It was a crater-marked lump, indistinguishable from a thousand other asteroids and planetesimals Miller had seen.
A bit more context: the corporate stooge is providing exposition about the "protomolecule" that an alien civilization fired at the Earth to remake it in whatever shape they decided. The corporation discovered the existence of the protomolecule on Phoebe, which had been marked for mining and scientific study. The other bit of relevant information is that this comparison is being provided by Miller's perspective. Which is odd because he has shown himself to be diametrically opposed to the ruthless capitalist ideology expressed by the stooge. Why then would he imagine a simile that aligns with the idea that Phoebe is ready for exploitation?

This is just one example of the lazy prose contained herein. There are countless more. This is a lazy book, produced for the widest possible audience. It should be no surprise that the books have been turned into a TV series. I believe this is a strong choice, actually. LW is an overlong colossal failure as an aesthetic object or a "novel" (remember that the word "novel" means new) but its pleasingly accessible realism should translate well onto the screen.

Without getting too far into the critical theory, let's all remember that "science fiction" as a set of generic signifiers and "realism" as a set of generic signifiers overlaps. Science fiction trades the present day for another setting, often the future, and looks to extrapolate social, political, or technological possibilities from the present. Science fiction is more often about the current conditions of production (the present) than it is about the setting (the future). This is something it shares with realism as a genre. Realism is less about an objective reality and more about the novel's contemporary conditions of production. Realism doesn't tell us about the author's objective reality but about the author's perception of reality. And not just the author either. Good critics worth their salt use novels in the realism mode to discuss the values, dreams, hopes, wishes, etc of the society that it purports to depict. Again, the same is true of science fiction. Despite its far flung setting, science fiction tells us more about what the authors and their contemporary society believed than it does about the future. Realism is an important element of science fiction.

Some of the best science fiction uses the most basic tool of defamiliarization to express ideas; Darko Suvin refers to this as "cognitive estrangement". The alien species is the basic metaphor to discuss contemporary issues. The alien is the defamiliarized version of the Other, whether that be a marginalized people or a different tribe or group. An example of this process: the film District 9, displaced black peoples are imagined as Prawns, aliens that look like the aforementioned sea animal. How the fictionalized society treats the Prawns is a (super thinly veiled) metaphor for how (and this is the important part) Blomkamp the director imagines actual society treats black people in South Africa. That's an example of terrible science fiction. An example of excellent science fiction could be, say, Samuel R. Delany's Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia or even better his Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. In both cases, Delany uses the tool of defamiliarization to increasingly alienate the reader from contemporary society, or better yet, Delany's conceptualization of contemporary society. As a queer dyslexic black man from poverty during Jim Crow, Delany's perspective and background did not align with the traditionally straight white male of middle class background that dominated the field of science fiction. Instead of thinly veiling his metaphor, Delany chose to increasingly distance the reader from the contemporary. This increases static in the reception of the message (message meaning themes, ideas, concepts, characters, not necessarily a didactic message) and increases ambiguity. Delany's concepts and prose are dense and alien; all the better to use the tool of defamiliarization. He uses invented language, invented gender, invented worlds and unmoors them from realism.

Realism is a blight on contemporary fiction right now. It's the reason for the market's saturation of "relatable" characters and "realistic" scenarios. It's the reason why movies "based on true stories" win more acclaim than genre fiction does. [An aside: the term "genre fiction" drives me nuts. The term refers to the idea that it's not realism, not contemporary literary fiction, which is ludicrous, as both those things have generic signifiers unto themselves. "Genre fiction" encompasses science fiction, fantasy, Weird fiction, any thing that is supposedly not based in realism. The idea that there's a distinction is purely marketing, not aesthetic. Hence, my objection.] Realism's dominance in the market dictates sales and prestige, it seems. This is why we have shit like The Theory of Everything making oodles of money while films like It Follows makes barely enough to cover its microscopic budget. Allow me to quote the philosopher Michael Hofmann (again):
It is as though the contemporary novel – like film (4-D, coming soon to a cinema near you), like theatre, like so much else – is in competition with itself, falling over itself to offer you more interiority, more action, more understanding, more vision. But the form, the vessel, is an exploded form; it is basically rubble, fragmentary junk, debris. It’s not even leaky anymore; it can hold nothing.
LW has the same problem that other contemporary literary fiction has: it's falling over itself to provide the audience with relatable characters, relatable situations, and relatable concepts that narcissistically congratulate the audience for their existence rather than challenging their most deeply held beliefs. Mass produced fiction is a warm blanket that comforts you with familiarity and whispers in your ear that you're so clever for understanding the plot. This sad state of affairs exists in "genre fiction" too. That's why we can ascribe success to terrible unimaginative shit like LW. Both lead characters are boring archetypes lifted from countless other examples of genre fiction (idealistic space captain, or even just idealistic sea captain, and fatalist world-weary noir detective with superfluous wisdom to share and nobody listening). It's fucking boring.

I am reading Peter F Hamilton's Judas Unchained right now and while it's only a slight step up from LW, at least there's a sense of wonder to everything. There's this weird interlude at the beginning of the novel (the second of two) in which the journey from one planet to another by two characters is provided in more detail than previous journeys. I found myself hugely entertained and awed when a character walked through a portal from one gravity to another and stumbled; the character looked up at the red sun sitting in the sky and realized how different everything was. This gave me a sense of wonder. The concept of wonder is integral to theories of the Fantastic, as formulated by the great Tzvetan Todorov. He writes about the interaction with the supernatural. If the encounter can be determined with rational thought, then this is the subcategory of the fantastic uncanny. If the encounter can not be rationalized, then it is the subcategory of the fantastic marvelous, and our law of reality must be re-written to accommodate this new information. It's the encounter with the new that reshapes how we perceive the world.

Darko Suvin talks about how science fiction has the "necessary and sufficient kernel" of "[c]ognitive novelty" or "conceptual promise" as Stanislaw Lem calls it. Suvin continues to explain:
the novelty has to be cognitively explained in each tale or group of tales in concrete (even if imaginary) terms, i.e. in terms of the specific time, place, cosmic and social totality within which it is acting, and especially in terms of its effects on the (overtly or covertly) human relationships upon which it impinges.
Notice the emphasis on "novelty." Obviously, not all science fiction stories can be wholly original. And, as an additional caveat, some of the best science fiction is wholly derivative which Suvin hilariously refers to this as "old meat rehashed with a new sauce." Though, this "new sauce" is what I mean by execution, as aforementioned. The very boring stale nature of LW meant that I was denied any conceptual promise or cognitive novelty, either in ideas or in execution. I was denied my sense of wonder throughout. A ten page interlude in a 1,000 page novel provided more entertainment and more wonder than 600 pages of this overlong mess.

Let's continue with the fun Darko Suvin, though. He speaks of science fiction as the genre of "cognitive estrangement." There exists a spectrum, with "reality" on one end and the "novum" (a "strange newness") on the other end. In early science fiction (Verne, Wells, etc), the novum often manifested itself as an "over there;" characters would journey past an obstacle or over vast distance and witness an "over there" or an "over the range." Suvin says that which we meet "over there" represents a transformed version of ourselves:
The aliens—utopians, monsters, or simply differing strangers—are a mirror to man just as the differing country is a mirror for his world. But the mirror is not only a reflecting one, it is also a transforming one, virgin womb and alchemical dynamo: the mirror is a crucible.
Here's where it gets tricky though. Since "realism" is an essential part of science fiction, Suvin refers to the genre as the "factual reportage of fictions." The narrators and characters of science fiction encounter the novum and reorient themselves to it. They take it as a given, as part of reality. Here's Todorov's fantastic marvelous again. This factual reportage of fictions takes two different sets of assumptions (the characters' original set of assumptions) against a new set of assumptions (the novum). These sets of assumptions (also known as ideologies) constitute their constructed reality. We know that the new set of assumptions is a "transforming" mirror of the original set of assumptions. This epistemological move is called estrangement and it comes from Brecht. He says that, "[a] representation which estranges is one which allows us to recognize its subject, but at the same time makes it seem unfamiliar." Suvin argues that this form of estrangement is at the heart of science fiction. In fact, he gives us a definition (in italics as an added bonus):
SF is, then, a literary genre whose necessary and sufficient conditions are the presence and interaction of estrangement and cognition, and whose main formal device is an imaginative framework alternative to the author's empirical environment.
Leviathan Wakes then is a formal failure in addition to an aesthetic failure. Its rapacious replication of science fictional tropes is more market-driven than artistically driven. We remember that Jameson's diagnosis of the postmodern involves obsolescence:
the frantic economic urgency of producing fresh waves of ever more novel-seeming goods (from clothing to airplanes), at ever greater rates of turnover, now assigns an increasingly essential structural function and position to aesthetic innovation and experimentation
The replication of the tropes, without any possibility of the novum finds itself positioned against aesthetic innovation or experimentation. Obviously, as stated before, the presence of originality is not an automatic guarantee of aesthetic success, but it certainly fucking helps. Nothing in LW utilizes the novum in order to elicit a sense of wonder and/or estrangement. Rather, LW's reliance on realism and generic tropes functions in the opposite of estrangement. It's instead a comfort food.

I've banged on and on about demanding better of our entertainment. I want better for the world. I want better than this infantile pablum that confuses "complexity" with murder and terrorism, that believes "maturity" is synonymous with moral judgements a child could make, that utilizes women as objects for quests, that exoticizes and fetishizes racial differences. I want better than this.

I've barely talked about the plot of this novel because it's not really worth it. A woman is dead (because women are better plot devices than people, according to vast swathes of fiction) and it's related to an EVIL CORPORATION that wants to perform tests on humans that turn them into (massive fucking sigh) zombies or some bullshit. The plot takes 400 pages to get going and when it does, it's not complicated enough to sustain the remaining 200 pages. This was a short story blown up to 600 pages and I fucking hated it.

As a conclusion, let me say that I also read Andy Weir's The Martian yesterday (easy enough to read in one day) and thought it was okay. Aesthetically, I quite disliked the book, but Weir's command of pace and plot was enough to get me through it. Weir's novel is one of extreme estrangement. In taking his astronaut character and ripping all modern conveniences and privileges from him, he exposes how utterly safe and childlike his audience is. That's good estrangement.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

X-Men: Days of Future Past - The Rogue Cut

My partner and I saw X-Men: Days of Future Past in the theatre when it was released and we enjoyed it enough. The film was certainly not the world's greatest movie but neither was it the nadir of superheroics like Age of Ultron or Amazing Spider-Man 2. Part of what made X-Men: Days of Future Past (hereafter DOFP) so enjoyable was that the film did not have ridiculous ambitions of being part of a "cinematic universe." The film, in fact, reaches a complete and satisfying conclusion, rather than operates as a 140 minute trailer for another film -- or more accurately, a series of films. I wouldn't go so far as to say that DOFP was a standalone entry; the film relies too much on the viewers having seen the First Class entry from 2011. However, the main difference between the Marvel movies' reliance on returning viewers and DOFP's is that the X-Men film needs the audience to be familiar with thematic points rather than specific plot points. While this seems an unspectacular detail, this difference is huge in terms of my personal enjoyment of the film.

Historically, the X-Men comics have mired themselves in multiple bogs of sticky plot complexities, from alternate universes to time travel to mysterious backgrounds slowly teased out and then retroactively overwritten. Try following the comics' history of the Summers brothers or Jean Grey and Scott's child (who is possibly Cable or Nate Grey? I have no fucking clue). The X-Men films, by dint of being a different medium with different conditions of production and market necessities, streamline the jagged edges of 60 years' worth of history. The films are more a distillation of X-Men mythos than a series of films; they're a greatest hits package. The Marvel movies have tried, artistically unsuccessfully, to provide the complicated backstory and have tried to replicate the stickiness of comic book history (think of Hayley Atwell's 10 second cameo in Ant-Man). The X-Men film series is less interested in plot continuity and more interested in thematic continuity. The zenith of the film series, X2: X-Men United, pushes the central metaphor that mutants are marginalized populations -- such as queer folks; this is not the world's most complicated metaphor, but Bryan Singer's deft hand and queer subject position provide a more stable position for the metaphor.

I rarely read the X-Men family of comics. They felt like a rabbit hole of plot knots, forever being tied and rarely being loosed. I did read Grant Morrison's run, if only because I love the writer enough to follow him wherever. Additionally, I was always a casual fan of the films. I saw X2 and X-Men 3: Last Stand (which is as atrocious as you have no doubt heard) in the theatre, but I skipped First Class until home video release. Singer's return to the film series with DOFP brought back my excitement. While the original comic book is pretty cool, it's certainly not a story I ever feel the urge to read a second time. The allure of the film adaptation is in the return of the original cast and the new cast, an ambitious bridging of the two continuities, but without getting bogged down in specific timelines. The trailers for the film pushed the time travel hook and offered the idea that the film would explore the complicated ethics of the situation. In fact, it felt like an organic continuation of the thematic concerns of First Class. The previous film ended on an ambiguous note, leaving Magneto as the anti-hero, and Raven torn between Xavier's idealism and Erik's pessimism. DOFP looked to extend this conflict by forcing Erik and Xavier to reteam to stop Raven's attempted assassination and remind her of her essential humanity. So not only was the film advertised as having a complex plot, but also having complex thematic concerns. I was sold.

Luckily, the film mostly delivered on these promises. So rare is the superhero film that uses the climax for concluding a thematic arc, yet this movie tried valiantly to continue exploring the meaning of humanity in a post-human world. However, the central metaphor of Singer's previous series was discarded in favour of continuing Raven's arc from First Class. This was no tragedy; I have trouble imagining how Singer could have kept running with it. His exploration of Raven's humanity or lack thereof was quite compelling, especially when fleshed out a smidge more in the Rogue Cut.

Released a year after the theatrical cut, the Rogue Cut, as it's been known, adds around 20 minutes of footage to the film, specifically the addition of Rogue's subplot into the future timeline. Rogue's character in the original trilogy operated as the audience surrogate (a new pupil to the school) and as the central hinge upon which the metaphor of marginalization worked. Her power did not manifest in cool acrobatics or teleportation but rather left her adrift among humans and mutants alike; she could not have her skin touch other skin for fear of accidentally killing them. Her character allowed for the films to explore the idea that sometimes people don't want to be different, they want to be normal, but self-acceptance is healthy.

In the Rogue Cut, her subplot is essentially about match cuts. Previously, Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) uses her power to psychically send Wolverine back into his past body. However, when Wolverine sees a young Stryker in the past, he gets upset and his body in the future flails around. His claws extend; they cut Kitty; she is wounded and losing blood. The solution? Free the imprisoned Rogue from the X-Mansion and have her use Kitty's power so Kitty can heal. Not the world's most clever use of Rogue or Anna Paquin but it does allow for this pretty nifty sequence that I have lovingly screenshot.

We open in the past, with a shot of the X-Mansion in its prime.

A neat dissolve to the dystopic future with the scary ships hovering in the background.

A cut to inside a tunnel. We hear Xavier give telepathic directions to Magneto and Iceman.

Cut to Past Magneto entering a hallway.

Reverse shot, showing the obstacle that prevents Future Magneto's forward progress, specifically a large metal wall. Since he is the Master of Magnetism, this is not much of a problem.

A thematic match cut as the metal bar represents the same obstacle for Past Magneto. Here, though, we get a shot of him exercising his powers.

This is matched with Future Magneto pulling the metal wall out.

They walk down a hall. This shot shows all the pipes and whatnot, a set up for a payoff that comes at the end of the sequence. Here, the audience is primed to see these pipes.

This establishing shot is mirrored in a past establishing shot. The camera begins shooting 90 degrees down to the ground and...

...slowly pans up to show that Past Magneto is infiltrating the prison he just escaped.

Here we get a couple shot, reverse shots that's temporally distant. Future Magneto walks towards the camera....

...and in the past, Past Magneto walking away from the camera.

Another obstacle, this time guards. The previous shot (above) shows the audience two metal balls spinning above Magneto's hand.

Here we see that they are weapons in the hands of the Master of Magnetism.

He reaches out towards the wall.

And the wall opens for him.

This was tough to get a screenshot of, but there's a cut a reverse shot of Future Magneto opening a door using his powers.

Reverse shot to over their shoulders. Two unfortunate scientists are working on experiments with Rogue's body. Here, we have another delightful thematic match cut.

A clear shot of poor Rogue, the subject of invasive experiments.

Back in the past, Magneto approaches a glass display case.

We have Havok's chest thingamajigger and one of Angel's wings.

A close-up of Magneto looking at something specific.

We get a slow push-in of the coin that he used to kill Kevin Bacon in the previous film. A coin that symbolizes invasive surgery, oppression, fascism, hatred, racism.

A cut to Future Magneto looking at Rogue's strapped body, reminding him of the horrors he's seen in the camps and throughout his life.

The helmet, the symbol of both his imprisonment (Kevin Bacon originally wore it) and his freedom (from telepathic interference).

Rogue sees Magneto and is frightened because as long as Rogue has known the X-Men, Erik has been the villain.

Past Magneto uses his powers:

Cut to the straps coming off Future Rogue.

The helmet comes out of the glass display...

... into Magneto's waiting hand. He is ready to turn things around.

Magneto, Iceman, and Rogue prepare to leave.

The music and Xavier opening his eyes signals to the audience that something is wrong:

Sentinels are awakening.

Iceman tries to hold them back but...

...he dies. His sacrifice is not in vain though... the pipes we saw earlier light on fire.

The X-Mansion is destroyed. Xavier's legacy is blown away.

This, to me, is one of the better scenes of the film, along with the bravura opening fifteen minutes. It kind of captures a lot of what makes both Bryan Singer and the X-Men so alluring: a combination of neat action and moments of introspection, deftly juggled. The match cuts here are quite excellent (my partner is a huge fan of match cuts. I should convince them to make a film essay cataloguing their favourites).

This also sums up another reason why I enjoyed DOFP more than other superhero films: the stakes are high and maintained throughout the film.

Consider the second sequence from the film (I won't screenshot it): Warpath, Bishop, Iceman, Firedude (I don't know his name), Blink, Colossus, and Kitty infiltrate this place to do something or whatever (supplies I think?). They are intercepted by Sentinels. In a series of action beats, Singer both establishes that this second or third generation X-Men team have fantastic powers that are used quite cleverly (eg Blink uses complicated portals to increase Colossus's inertia, increasing his hitting power) and establishes that the Sentinels are unbeatable through normal means of force. The Sentinels kill each and every one of the X-Men and absorb their powers. The main threat is well established: traditional strategies will not save the heroes of the film and thus an alternative stratagem must be executed.

The "classic" X-Men arrive, along with Magneto (always ambiguously a member of the X-Men, which is what makes him so fucking compelling) and the plot of the film is sketched out. With some clunky exposition, Kitty explains her power for the audience and then Xavier explains his plan of action: send somebody to the past to alter the future. The film cleverly steps aside objections that Erik and Xavier would have previous memories of this by having Kitty state that the timeline is affected the moment the traveller wakes up, which creates a single but changed timeline. Now we have a time travel plot that's simple enough to be explained in a couple minutes but thematically complicated enough to sustain and even extend the themes of the previous film.

The true cleverness of the whole thing is that Wolverine has already been established to not age so it makes sense to send him back as he'll look the same in the past. I mean, let's not pretend that Hugh Jackman is ageless but he looks pretty close to his initial portrayal in 2000's X-Men (good god has it been 16 years?).

The rest of the film fulfils the classical Hollywood storytelling techniques perfectly. A main characteristic of this paradigm is the dual narratives, running parallel. Normally, this would involve an A-plot and a B-plot (sometimes a C-plot). In action films, the A-plot is the threat that the hero must stop and the B-plot is the romantic or interpersonal relationship problem to be solved. Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: Indy must stop the Nazis from finding the Holy Grail and he has to mend fences with his estranged father. With DOFP, the B-plot is depicted concurrently, but not temporally as it occurs in the future. Cutting between the two allows for clever cross-time match cuts though perhaps not quite as cleverly as the climax to Inception (with its nested cascading movements), but it works.

Not perfectly, obviously. The problem with a film this size is that certain cast members will be cast aside. The same problem occurs with Age of Ultron: what character development does Thor have? Answer: none. Unfortunately, the same is true here; Wolverine undergoes little change, just as an example, though I could list the other dozen cast members where this is true.

Mostly, this is a film about the intersecting desires and motivations of Raven, Erik, and Charles Xavier. Though, even Magneto is barely changed by the end of the film. He begins angry and misanthropic and end feeling roughly the same about the human race. Of course, since this is a prequel, we already know that Magneto won't see the error of his ways until he is much older. But then, the same holds true for Raven, doesn't it? We know that the Mystique of the 2000's trilogy is mean, lean, and ruthless. How do we reconcile the Mystique of the 2000's with the Raven of the First Class trilogy? Unfortunately, this will have be reckoned with in the forthcoming X-Men: Apocalypse, set in the 1980s, also directed by Singer.

A few final thoughts: the digital cinematography of DOFP looks awful, really awful. As an avowed fan of Michael Mann and other digital film adopters, even I found myself turned off by the ugliness of the film. The camera cannot keep up with any change of light in a single shot, which creates a subtle strobing effect whenever the angle of light changes. The actors all look sallow or conversely caked in makeup. And the disparity between CGI and real life is increased. It doesn't help that the CGI in DOFP looks cheap as well. Though these superficial elements annoyed me, I was still entertained by the film.

I was especially impressed with some of Singer's more subtle stylistic tics. I noticed that Singer likes to use multiple planes of movement within a shot, one that gives his shots a dynamism (definitely something lacking from Age of Ultron and other Marvel movies -- which look like they were shot for television). He juxtaposes motion in the foreground with motion in the background, which increases visual interest for any given shot. Here's an example. 

This is the shot before the shot I want to talk about. Here we have "amateur" Super8 (or something like it) footage of the Past Sentinels starting their flight. Notice that they move from left to right.

Here, we cut to the future; Bishop and Storm notice the coming of the Sentinels.

We cut to what they are looking at.

Back to the X-Men. The following 6 stills are an unbroken shot that lasts about 3 to 4 seconds. Bishop says that they cannot stop them.

Storm says that they can slow them down.

She begins to levitate as the camera begins to move.

The camera moves to their left. Notice now that they are turned to face the same direction that the Past Sentinels were moving towards. In other words, Singer follows the 180 degree rule across time.

Storm levitates out of the frame while Bishop moves forward, to the left of the frame.

This opens space, compositionally speaking, in which Blink teleports in, filling that very same space.

This "call to action" shot is typical of Singer's work with the X-Men film series. In his other two previous films, the frame is usually quite busy with different X-Men moving in different ways. I'm somewhat reminded of Tony Zhou's observation of Kurosawa's planes of motion. In this case, it's a type of parallax motion. It works not only to increase visual interest but it also works thematically, as the different powers of the various X-Men manifest in different ways. Their combined difference is what gives them their edge in conflicts.

Finally, I did enjoy that the end of DOFP is not overly concerned with setup for the next film. There is not a moment where Xavier says to the audience, "there looms a larger threat than this" because that's a stupid thing to do in a story. Doing so undercuts the threat of the current antagonist, diminishing their effectiveness as villains. The Sentinels, in DOFP, share with Ultron only the fact that they are all robots. The differences are huge: Utron never stops talking (it is a Joss Whedon movie after all) and is presented as barely a threat (his drones are easily killed, even by Hawkeye, a dude with no powers whatsoever), and whatever threat he poses is immediately undercut by everybody going on and on about Thanos. Not only that, but DOFP doesn't take 40 minutes to establish the Sentinels as a substantial problem; in 15 minutes, not only are the Sentinels shown to be the primary antagonist but also shown to be pretty much unbeatable. The stakes feel real as opposed to AoU's placeholding status ("guys, just wait until the next movie; it's going to blow your mind").

The Rogue Cut is no substantial improvement over the first version, which I still quite enjoyed. However, it's nice to have if only for that complicated match cutting sequence that I detailed above. Overall, it's a better movie than I think people give it credit for, just because it's so efficiently executed. Also, it's not Age of Ultron; fuck that movie.