[box cover]

X-Men

Fox Home Video

Starring Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman
Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, Anna Paquin
James Marsden, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Tyler Mane,
and Ray Park

Written by Tom DeSanto (story) and Bryan Singer
Directed by Bryan Singer


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Review by Alexandra DuPont                    


I. PREAMBLE

So I was discussing the DVD medium with my special-needs younger brother the other night, and we both agreed on a couple of points w/r/t DVD's direct-access, media-by-the-slice, multiple-cuts-on-one-platter convenience:

  1. Watching a DVD on a good home theater is, with notable exceptions, a vastly better experience than going to the movies. These days, owning the disc costs only slightly more than hauling oneself to a greasy cineplex with a hungry date — and the jabbering ne'er-do-wells you'd encounter in the movie theater are at least invited ne'er-do-wells when it's at your house.

  2. More important, the medium's capacity to store multiple cuts and other effluvia is making it so that filmmakers are crafting their movies for DVD rather than for the cineplex. This is because DVD — far more than celluloid, far more than retail videotapes — is the unassailable final punctuation mark on any film project.


If I may further ascend the lofty slopes of Mt. Obvious, point (2) represents a profound shift in the way movies can be bargained over creatively. Directors fighting the studio on a given scene might concede to deleting that scene — if they get to restore it on the disc. The dirty little secret, of course, is that everybody sort of wins: The Suits can claim Round One for themselves and keep their fannies nice and shiny, but the filmmaker gets the last word — and on a medium that will last infinitely longer than celluloid. This sort of negotiation is already happening, and it will happen with greater and greater frequency as "The Industry" figures out just how much the landscape's been altered since mid-1997.

Which brings us, in a roundabout way, to the X-Men DVD. Given point (2) above, geeks 'round the world have their hopes up for this platter — mostly because of the following:


Well, you may need to lower your expectations a little — down to "reasonably high" from, say, "the stratosphere." Extras-wise, this is a good, not great, platter for a very good movie. There's no commentary track, and "Extended Branching," I'm sorry to report, comes off as a not-entirely-effective gimmick. (More on that later.)

Following is my spoilerific analysis, which includes a fairly explicit detailing of the disc's two "Easter eggs." But first I'm going to talk about what I thought of the movie; if you've seen X-Men and you devour "X-Men" comics and your opinion is an already-hardened, flame-retardant block of granite, skip ahead to Part IV, which is devoted to the extras.

II. FOR THE REST OF YOU, BUT QUICKLY: HERE'S THE STORY

Evolution has produced a new social caste of "mutants" who have nifty powers, brood and scuffle more than they ought, and serve as a catch-all metaphor for every oppressed class in history — from gays to minorities to that dork who was really shy in class and wore glasses and drew pictures of dragons and barbarians on his Pee-Chee (not coincidentally, that latter oppressed person represents the target audience for the film). Several of the above mutants make grandiose plans and fight; special effects ensue. Based on the Marvel comic.

III. ALSO QUICKLY: WHAT I THOUGHT OF THE MOVIE

I liked it. I liked it a lot, actually. As directed by Bryan Singer, X-Men sort of came off like the greatest TV-movie pilot launching an X-Men television series that could possibly be made, if that makes any sense. By which I mean Singer does extremely solid work with his team for less money than usual — pulling a character-driven, occasionally moody film out of his hat where other filmmakers might have pulled out something more like the "X-Men" coin-op game.

What struck me most about the first third of the movie — which is primarily devoted to introducing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen) before they form teams and fight — was its almost weighty sense of loneliness. Key introductory and meeting scenes are shot in somber, wintry tones; there's an intro set during the Holocaust (quite a tone-setter, that) that looks for a good minute like it was shot in black and white. There's another scene where McKellen's arch-villain Magneto says "by any means necessary" — making subtext text w/r/t the movie's broadly sketched Malcolm-X-vs.-MLK-Jr. theme. (Granted, this Planet of the Apes-caliber social commentary is seriously clouded by the fact that people on the MLK Jr. side spend a lot of time beating up people on the Malcolm X side, but still....)

This prevailing thoughtful tone is abetted by the actors, who almost uniformly underplay their roles. McKellen and Patrick Stewart (as Professor X) lend, as if from on high, gravity and class and intelligence to their scenes. Save one "witty" quip about toads and lightning uttered by poor Halle Berry, who's barely in the film, nothing and no one in X-Men insulted me. Given that people are flying around hitting each other, that's marvelous news.

And though some may have marked the absence of a certain "oomph," a certain adrenaline rush, to the proceedings, Singer still crafted something with well-sketched characters, a watertight plotline and genuine thematic weight — and I'm happy to report all that stuff stands out even better on DVD (plus you get a more leisurely chance to notice the director's placement of "X" visual motifs throughout the film; there are more than you may remember from the theater).

I suppose Singer's "genius," if I may totally abuse the word, was to approach X-Men as one might approach one of those somber, broadly sketched science-fiction morality tales that Hollywood doesn't make much any more. It's more like Gattaca with fistfights than it's like Batman and Robin, which is in my opinion a very good thing. And while there's no relentless Woo-Ping-choreographed fight sequence crowning the film (and there certainly isn't one in the DVD's deleted scenes), in every other sense, this was the comic-book adaptation that vocal sectors of the geek community had been clamoring for — a superhero movie that took the notion of a superhero universe really, really seriously.

So anyway:

IV. HERE'S WHAT'S ON THAT "SPECIAL FEATURES" MENU

(1) But First, A Word on the Menus and Fox DVD Promo: Before I begin, I want to address the Fox DVD promo (horrid tag line: "GET INTO IT!") that blares at you like an unsubtle neighbor, uninvited, for a couple of minutes after you first pop in the disc. First off, we bought the DVD already — why are you trying to sell us on the medium? Second, Fox advertising executives might re-consider their promotion in the commercial of what they call their "full 3-D cutting-edge menus!" It comes off like Nintendo pimping its N64 games by yelling, "Totally awesome Top-10 score rosters!" I mean, really.

And for that matter, the menu screens on the X-Men DVD are among the first sort-of-blah screens Fox Home Video's come up with since they cleaned up their act last year with their Alien Legacy DVDs. The main menu is preceded by a long fly-around of the Cerebro chamber that's about as interesting as a slow orbit of a Christmas ornament; and the Special Features menu has a high-speed POV of Wolverine's high-speed motorcycle ride (a good idea) addled with blaringly loud motorcycle effects that grate after literally 10 seconds (very, very bad idea).

Anyhoo, on to the extras:

(2) The "Extended Branching" Feature. Here's how "Extended Branching" works, as stated on the relevant DVD menu: "By selecting the Extended Branching Version, you have the opportunity to see unfinished scenes that were not included or edited differently from the movie. With this option selected, an 'X-Men' emblem will appear during the film to indicate that the player is locating the additional scene. There will be a short pause before and after the scenes are played. Upon completion of the added scene, you will be returned to the movie.... To view the unfinished scenes independently of the film, select specific scenes from the scene listing."

It's an awkward but quite accurate description: "Seamless" this ain't. When "Extended Branching" is on, the movie's tempo is broken at six points by a one-second dark screen; then you see a semi-murky deleted scene (with some artifacting) that may be an extended cut of something you just watched or will be watching next; and then you're returned to the movie. It's a little awkward, truth be told — though I'm certainly grateful the deleted scenes are on the disc and can be viewed separately, which is what I'll probably be doing from now on.

As for what those deleted/unfinished scenes entail:


(2) Fox Special: "The Mutant Watch": One of the things I rather enjoyed about X-Men was the fact that clichéd right-wing demagogue Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison) gets a chance to make his case for fearing mutants — and to grow during the course of the film. Somehow, this 22-minute Fox TV special promoting the film makes him seem less nuanced. Written by Marshall Brutus Drazen and directed by Tom Grane, it's set during some hearings of a "Senate Subcommittee on Mutant Activities," and features Davison calling mutants "deceitful" and all but twirling his mustache as he refers to "genetically pure and patriotic Americans" and says, "One should love the mutant but hate the mutation." Another sledgehammer touch: Every senator challenging him is a minority, a woman, or both. Subtle!

As infomercials go, though, this is still a pretty good one. Its closing moments are funny and a little chilling, and there are interviews with Stewart, McKellen, Singer, Jackman, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Tom DeSanto, Avi Arad and Bob Harris of Marvel Comics, makeup designer Gordon Smith, Lauren Schuler Donner, and of course Stan Lee (who goes out of his way to give his late "X-Men" collaborator and comics genius Jack Kirby his due, God bless him).

(3) Bryan Singer Interview: Rather than the coveted director commentary, we're given about 10 minutes' worth of clips from a TV interview Singer conducted with the esteemed Charlie Rose. The subjects? "Why he made X-Men," "Bringing X-Men from comic book to big screen," "Directing actors," "Learning from actors," and "The challenges of making a studio film." You're left wanting more, of course — Singer barely hints at the obstacles he faced when the studio moved his production deadline up by almost six months — but the clips are valuable in revealing the director's solid grasp of character and theme as he worked to transcend the comic-book genre. He talks about X-Men in a way that, say, Steven Spielberg did not talk about Jurassic Park on the JP DVD.

(4) Hugh Jackman's Screen Test: This is one of my favorite extras, actually, because it's devoted to the best thing about X-Men: the woman-melting, star-making performance of Hugh Jackman as Logan/Wolverine. As The New Yorker's review of the film rather breathlessly put it, Jackman's charismatic, hairy-chested performance was an act of "pure sex," but there's more to it than that: Jackman speaks for the audience (or, rather, for whom the audience wishes it could be when it's having a bad day at the office), making fun of the code names and the uniforms and pretty much every other superhero trope even as he quietly relishes the fantasy heroism.

In the screen test, which focuses on Jackman and Paquin playing an earlier, longer draft of their scene in Logan's truck (there are references to his possible wife's photo), Jackman plays it so cool he almost looks bored — but the clip reveals his stillness as a major factor in the success of his performance, and the success of the film. (Whenever I read that Mission Impossible 2's rather underwhelming baddie Dougray Scott almost played Wolverine, I invariably blanch; good heavens, they dodged a bullet with that one.)

(5) Trailers and Promotional Spots: Two theatrical trailers, three TV spots — all well-produced — plus one "Music Promotional Spot" for Michael Kamen's tuneless score. But get this: Remember how I said DVD gives the director the last word? And remember the horrid wire work in the very first theatrical trailer as Wolverine rounded the Statue of Liberty's crown? Well, Fox (or Singer) have placed recut trailer(s) on this disc — with the bad wire-fu effect apparently replaced by the (much better) final version of the shot. "Trailer A" is, in effect, not exactly "Trailer A."

It's a minor quibble, but I find this revisionist history mildly appalling: It would have been nice to be able to track the progression from early trailer to final cut, and for my money something's lost when the DVD is no longer an accurate historical document of what was shown in theaters. (That said, it's entirely possible the trailer[s] were re-cut while still in theatrical release. But still.) Please discuss.

What is nice is that the first of two "Easter eggs" can be found in the "Trailers and Promotional Spots" lobby menu: Click on the rose, and you get the shortest of blooper reels.

(6) Art Gallery: These are fairly standard collections of character- and production-design sketches and still photographs; my personal favorites were a close-up of a dummy Westchester Tribune newspaper with mutant-fearing headlines and some far-grosser depictions of the mutated Sen. Kelly.

In the "Art Gallery" lobby menu, you also find Easter Egg No. 2: Click on the Wolverine dog tag, and you'll find preliminary ILM sketches of "The Beast" and "The Blob," two characters who didn't make the final cut (and from looking at the sketches, I'd say it was due to budget constraints; I'd keep an eye out for The Beast in the inevitable sequel). For fans of the comic, I'm happy to report that The Beast looked very bow-tied and professorial — save for his thumbed feet and hypertrophied limbs. The Blob looked like The Kingpin in a wrestling singlet.

(7) THX OptiMode: This is a relatively new feature that you can also find on Fox's Fight Club and Disney's Toy Story discs, and I like it: It's essentially a tutorial that provides audio and video tests to help you balance your speakers and calibrate your TV set. Kudos to Fox for including it.

(8) Animatics: These play, essentially, like groovy soundless video games for two action bits: the "Train Station Fight Sequence" and the "Statue of Liberty Fight Sequence." These are notable for their differences from the final cut; framing and pacing and logistics, particularly on the Statue of Liberty fight, are considerably altered.


As you can see, there's a considerable amount to enjoy here — even if it isn't the "Director's Cut" many had longed for. Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me a bit if there's an extras-packed, two-disc edition of X-Men in the works — I've heard rumours of rumours at mysterious martini lunches, and of course Fox has a two-discer of Die Hard in the works, so why not X-Men? But all of this is, of course, obsessive snobbery. Extras and gewgaws and trailer recuts aside, the bottom line is this: There's a fantastic transfer of a very entertaining, well-crafted, 90-minute movie called X-Men out there, and it's well worth checking out. Just keep that "Special Features" menu volume turned way down....

— Alexandra DuPont
dupont@dvdjournal.com



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