X-Men, you’re all up in my head, and like the tormented Jean Grey in “Dark Phoenix,” I’d like some QUIET please!
No chance, not in this middling chapter of the “X-Men” series, which started in 2000 and now numbers 12 movies and counting. While “Dark Phoenix” isn’t as disastrous as the inexplicably terrible “X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)”, it’s nowhere near the level of the best movies in the franchise, e.g., “X-Men: First Class” (2011) or the brilliant “Logan” (2017).
Even if you’ve never even heard of the X-Men and know nothing of the complicated, and I mean really complicated, histories of these characters, you’d be able to ride along with “Dark Phoenix” on a certain level — because for all the tangled-web plot intricacies and all the talk of mind games and all the complicated relationships, great chunks of the movie are devoted to simply showing very talented actors grunting and straining and moving their hands about like overcaffeinated mimes, the better to hurl train cars about, take down helicopters, destroy buildings and do battle with various foes.
Ho hum. Despite the frequent verbal confrontation scenes in which characters lash out at one another, soap opera style, for lying or serving their selfish interests, “Dark Phoenix” doesn’t come close to carrying the emotional impact of so many Marvel Universe films where the characters come across as complicated, relatable and three-dimensional.
(One notable exception: Michael Fassbender’s intense performance as Erik/Magneto. A scene in which Erik keeps asking a character about the origin of the blood on that character’s shirt is so raw and real, it’s as if we’re suddenly watching a different kind of film. It’s a searing piece of acting.)
“Dark Phoenix” stars Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark on “Game of Thrones”) as Jean Grey, who is both telekinetic and telepathic and is already one of the most powerful X-Persons when an outer space rescue mission goes a little sideways and she basically swallows up a giant mass of super-duper-duper energy, becoming far stronger than ever before — but unable to control the force inside her. It’s as if she becomes possessed at times, and will do damage to anything and anyone around, including the people she loves.
Turner does what she can with a role that requires her to say variations on the line, “I don’t know what’s happening to me!” about a half-dozen times in between those moments when the noise in Jean’s head is so loud she feels as if she might explode, and she curls her lip in true movie-villain fashion while breaking things.
Writer-director Simon Kinberg and the special effects team deliver some pretty cool pyrotechnics, especially in the scenes in which certain super-powerful mutants are stunned to find they’re no longer a match for the enhanced, very scary, you-won’t-like-her-when-she’s-angry Jean Grey.
As Jean/Phoenix spirals out of control, causing lasting damage and venturing out on her own, some of the X-Men are in favor of tracking her down and killing her, while others, including of course her love interest Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), insist the real Jean Grey is still somewhere inside this new, split/personality entity, and can be saved.
And if that’s not enough conflict, we have the obligatory Shape-Shifting Aliens Facing Extinction who arrive on Earth, scoff at the insignificant humans and mutants populating the planet, and set about tracking down Jean Grey, because that ultra-powerful energy source inside her could be the key to their survival.
The incomparable Jessica Chastain is a hoot as the leader of the shapeshifting aliens, who vaguely resemble the figures in “Bodies: The Exhibition” in their natural form but have taken on human exteriors. She has white-blonde hair, no eyelashes and wobbles about on high heels, leading us to wonder why she didn’t take on the form of a human who was wearing more comfortable clothes and had a less dramatic look.
Chastain’s character tries to manipulate Jean Grey/Phoenix into joining her team and using those virtually unlimited powers to destroy the silly Earthlings and create a whole new world.
“Your emotions make you weak,” snarls the alien at one point.
Why are the aliens always mocking us for being weak and fallible and self-destructive and having emotions? Hey, you came to our planet because you screwed up your own deal, so maybe scale it back with all the judging, OK?