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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 31 March 2008 19:00|
The soldiers dissipate, like leaves blowing in the wind. Reality itself seems to fray at the edges. A great destructive force pours forth from Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix, and Wolverine battles against it. As he pushes steadily forward towards her, his costume begins to disintegrate, and then his skin. Brief flashes of the adamantium that is fused to his skeleton appear and then disappear as his flesh is torn away and regenerated once more. It’s a sublime moment, and visually stunning. It is also representative of the film as a whole. X-Men 3: The Last Stand is a complex and dazzling cinematic work that does not try to hide the machinations of the Hollywood machine that powers it, but rather reveals them like glimpses of fused metal, only to cover them back up by incorporating them into the strange reality of its narrative.
The beauty and complexity of this sequence was noticed by few when X3 was released in the summer of 2006. In their analyses of the film, critics instead chose to focus on details such as how ridiculous Kelsey Grammer looked playing Hank McCoy/the Beast. The costume and makeup design of the newest addition to the X-Men cast was certainly a failure, but to compare the Beast to the infamous Jarjar Binks, as some critics did, is to totally misinterpret what is being done by the film and how the character functions within itsnarrative context. Jarjar fails completely in Star Wars Episode I because Lucas tried earnestly to create a character that felt real, and ended up with a cartoon. It was not, however, the special effects that failed to integrate the CGI character into the real world environment; it was the writer/director and the voice actor who portrayed him. To suggest that Ratner and Co. were aiming for this same realism with the Beast is a mistake. Everything about the Beast’s conceptualization and design calls attention to itself, not as an attempt at realism, but as something else entirely. Unlike the pathos-producing and surprisingly convincing portrayer of Nightcrawler in the previous film, X3 uses the Beast to produce something much more along the lines of Brecht’s “Verfremdungseffekt”. In looking so fake, so badly constructed, so blatantly absurd, the Beast draws attention to his own reflexivity. The fact that the Beast looks so unreal explicitly tells the audience that we are no longer in a Brian Singer X-Men film.
Singer’s realism was commendable, and the sci-fi framework within which he situated his films was nearly flawless, but X3 is much more THX-1138 than it is Star Wars. The narrative comforts provided by an easily understandable science-fiction universe rooted in realism have been abandoned, and the Beast serves as a signifier of just that. The Beast is one of those shiny metal moments. His artifice tells us that the “real” X-Men director has left the building, that someone new is in charge, and that he is going to take us somewhere else entirely.
The “death” of Cyclops is another one of these adamantium moments. His “death” is handled so clumsily, so strangely, and with such artificial and false logic that it too produces the same distancing effect. Just why is the character in the film at all? There is no logical reason for his inclusion. He serves no function, and even his “death” is non-existent. X3 appears to pick up where X2 left off, in terms of both tone and narrative, but from the moment Scott leaves the mansion, something strange begins to happen. The reappearance of Jean and the total non-explanation for why she is alive, or why she has appeared there at that moment, is jarring and strange. The pacing feels all off: Scott’s crying in anguish, then suddenly Jean is there, then they are kissing, then she’s telling him to take off his glasses, then she’s sucking the life out him… and then he wakes up, because this is clearly a dream sequence. It has all the signifiers of a dream sequence: nothing feels real or makes sense, yet we are pulled forward by the teleological sense that these events are supposed to happen because that-is-how-the-dream-unfolds. The only way this sequence can end is with Scott waking up. Only he doesn’t.
Not long afterwards, Wolverine and Storm arrive at the same location. It is a brilliant scene, specifically because the dream never ended. Wolverine and Storm walk through a non-realist world of mist, where droplets of water drift slowly and beautifully upwards away from leaves, rather than plummeting down upon them. When Storm uses her powers to clear away the fog, there is a brilliant reveal, and we see that our heroes have walked into a Salvador Dalí painting. Across the alien surface of the dry river bed float dozens of rocks. It is a fascinating image, carrying with it all of the power of one of Dalí’s surrealist landscapes. Ratner is using the Lynchian language of dream cinema, and he is making almost explicit allusions to Dalí! His Beast pushes us outside of the film, rather than drawing us in, and the character of Cyclops seem to exist for no reason at all. By this point in the film it has become blatantly obvious that Ratner has abandoned Singer’s sci-fi realism and entered the realm of surrealist cinema.
It was Dalí himself who first brought surrealism to the medium of filmmaking with his and Luis Buñuel’s 1929 film Un chien andalou, and the criticism that critics directed towards X3 -- that it’s “a jumbled mess”, that it is “all special effects and no heart”, that the narrative is subordinated to “only the symbolic” -- are the same criticisms that were directed towards Buñuel and Dalí’s groundbreaking film. Buñuel would go on to direct several surrealist masterpieces, all of which question the assumptions audiences and filmmakers bring with them when they enter the cinema. It is assumed that “films must obey their own dramatic logic,” but the work of filmmakers like Buñuel actively questioned that very conceit. One might argue that surrealist cinema obeys only its own narrative illogic.
Does it make sense that Wolverine and Jean would make out passionately in the hospital ward? Not particularly. X2 worked hard to establish the fact that Jean would never actually commit to someone like Wolverine, and Logan’s nobility has been established to the point where it is quite doubtful that he would ever actually partake in an affair or steal his ally’s wife. Yet there they are, making out on the hospital bed, Jean’s nails tearing at Logan’s flesh. It makes no sense, and yet it feels right – in a dream logic sort of way. But at the same time, it also feels wrong, and Wolverine knows it. This is why he pulls away from Jean. For a moment, he realizes that they have entered a dream. He realizes the fictionality of the reality in which this scene is taking place. He would never actually consummate his desire for Jean and she would never allow him to do so, yet here they are, like some sort of twisted fantasy made real. And that, of course, is the power of the Phoenix. That is what Jean brings to this film.
Accusations of political conservatism fail to take into account the paradoxical non-political and yet poly-political nature of surrealist cinema. The haphazard juxtaposition of the Cure narrative with the Dark Phoenix storyline, and the seemingly illogical and nonsensical construction of scene placement and character motivation in X3 explicitly resist easy categorization and homogenization. The plurality that critics yearned for is in fact there throughout the film, and is embodied in the Dark Phoenix herself. Jean is a force of chaos and her existence tears at the foundations of reality, as artificially constructed within the film. Once she is unleashed by Scott, notions of realism and linearity begin to crumble and disintegrate. Few of the film’s narrative choices make obvious sense logically, but when events happen it seems like they were supposed to happen (the way it does in a dream) and we, as an audience, are able to believe in them while we are experiencing them. We can enjoy the Beast, because - unlike Jarjar - he isn’t trying to look real.
Like any dream character, Juggernaut too looks utterly ridiculous when frozen in place and viewed objectively, but when in motion -- like when he chases Kitty through the walls of the prison -- he looks perfect and feels wonderful and right. Like most surrealist films, X3 is an experience that exists in time while you are viewing it and becomes something different afterwards. It all makes sense when you are dreaming… but when you wake up? Surrealism refuses to be nailed down, to explain itself, or to present a clear political message. It is always in motion, always pushing forward through the chaos, showing its own constructed nature, then hiding it away again.
X3 is certainly a mess, but so is Un chien andalou; a beautiful, visceral, wonderful, complex mess. Is X3 a better film than X2? Probably not. But it’s a much more interesting one. Whether it was intentional or not (and I highly doubt that it was), Brett Ratner has stumbled his way out of action filmmaking and into the world of art cinema. That is to say, challenging cinema. One looks at X3 and wonders, where the hell did they come up with this stuff? But of course, any X-Men fan knows the answer to that, don’t we? The comics, of course! We would never have a Hollywood character that looks as crazy and nonsensical as the Beast if it were not for comic books. We would never have the beauty of Wolverine moving towards Jean at the end of the film, nor the utter melancholy of Magneto at the chess board, robbed of his power. We would never, ever have that brilliant, brilliant scene of Jean and Xavier at her childhood home. The types of stories told in comics are the types of stories that Hollywood is totally incapable of producing on its own, because they do not fit into the template of Hollywood narratives. From Windsor McCay to Stan Lee to Chris Claremont and John Byrne, the creators of comics have been exploring the world of dreams for over a century, and thanks to films like X-Men 3, a wider audience is now able to experience the joys of surrealism.
And the wonderful thing about dreams is that they are not real. The creators of X3 were able to acknowledge that this is fiction in a way that Singer was never able to do, and to fully acknowledge that this is fiction is to open the doors of infinite possibilities. This means that the events of X3 do not have to be lasting. The cure could wear off, allowing the return of Rogue, Magneto and Mystic. Charles Xavier can live on in another man’s body. Phoenix, of course, dies only to be reborn again and again. And Scott… well, Scott never really did die now, did he? By rejecting Singer’s realism and choosing to explore a dream landscape of his own making, Ratner has moved the X-Men franchise into a space where ANYTHING is possible, including a return to the status quo of Singer’s films.
Who knows… maybe X4 will open with Scott finally waking up.
© 2008 Kevin Johns; licensee (Cult)ure Magazine.