WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
A fun fusion of comic book action/adventure combined with overt social commentary, Bryan Singer's X-Men arrived in 2000 to face a wary audience of rabid X-Men fanatics who had read the comic religiously since its inception in the 1960s. Despite the film's sure-bet director and high-profile cast, X-Men was a nervy venture for Fox that risked alienation from diehard fans and indifference from casual moviegoers who knew nothing of the fabled mutant universe. Somehow, the film managed to satisfy both groups, and now we're on the verge of X-Men 2, which Singer promises will be even bigger and better than the first.
I've never glimpsed a single page of an X-Men comic, and yet I can appreciate the film's scope, its obvious attention to X-Men history, as well as its efforts to draw a new audience into the mythology. The filmmakers have clearly strived to bring a reasonably faithful adaptation to the screen, and have even derived some humor from their efforts. If they haven't produced a completely faithful translation, they have at least come up with a very entertaining and action-packed variation for a whole new medium.
X-Men takes place in an unspecified future. US Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison)—shades of Joseph McCarthy—is championing a bill that would require all mutants—meaning people with DNA mutations that have resulted in special powers—to start registering with the government. Back in the world of the mutants, a couple of groups have established themselves according to two very different philosophies. Under the benevolent leadership of the telepathic Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the X-Men mutants include the telekinetic Dr. Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), laser-eyed Cyclops (James Marsden), weather-swaying Storm (Halle Berry), and two significant newcomers: metal-infused quick-healing Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and the seemingly innocent Rogue (Anna Paquin), who drains the lifeforce of anyone she touches—and briefly attains the special power of any mutant she touches. On the other, darker side of the mutant coin is the group under the control of Magneto (Ian McKellen), a warmonger who views Senator Kelly's actions as a prelude to war against his kind. Under Magneto are three evil-minded mutants: the enticingly blue shapeshifter Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), the animalistic Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), and the loathsome Toad (Ray Park). That seems like a lot to keep track of, but the filmmakers have made easy work of the allegiances and relationships that have been forged among the principal characters.
At its beginning, the film is primarily about the development of the Wolverine and Rogue characters, as they are integrated into Professor X's School for Gifted Children (i.e., future X-Men). This character-focused structure is perfect for newcomers to the X-Men mythology, as it lets us see through these two interesting characters' eyes as they learn about the underground world of the mutants. The relationship between Wolverine and Rogue is surprisingly affecting, given that they couldn't be more different from each other. Wolverine is a quick-to-anger hothead with a mysterious past, and Rogue is a frightened teen just trying to fit in and find companionship.
But as the film progresses, it necessarily becomes larger in scope. Thankfully, it rarely loses sight of its "human" element in the midst of all the incredible powers and freak occurrences. X-Men offers excellent action, top-notch special effects work, and—for the most part—effective characterization. Exposition is at just the right level, and I appreciated that the film didn't spend too much time genuflecting at the altar of its huge fan base by over-explaining its long history. That being said, X-Men stumbles in places. As much as I enjoyed the characterizations of the primary X-Men, I felt that Storm, Cyclops, and Magneto's team were just cypher mutants, devoid of backstory. But the film's strengths outweigh any weaknesses, and X-Men is a genuine crowd-pleaser that will go down in history as one of the better films based on a comic.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents X-Men 1.5 in the same 2.35:1 anamorphic-widescreen transfer that the previous release contained. After performing a direct comparison between the two releases, I came up with no discernible differences. I will say that this is a fine presentation hardly worth upgrading. Detail is exemplary, reaching into backgrounds, even in dark scenes. Colors are vibrant, and blacks are solid and deep. I did notice mild edge haloes, but no other artifacting.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is the same as the one on the previous release. And what a track it is! It's an extremely rich and active track that offers a full-bodied front soundstage as well as lots of enveloping surround activity. Information to the rear speakers is extensive. Music, ambient effects, and even voices reach through your ears and tickle your brain. Impressively, the DTS track actually improves on the Dolby track, providing a slightly cleaner experience and a tighter, punchier low end.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The hoped-for inclusion of deleted scenes that would propel this release to the lofty heights of an X-Men Extended Cut didn't happen. That's the big disappointment of this release, and it might demote this release from a "Must-Have" to an "I'll pass." Which is too bad, because this set includes some very fine extras that, in my mind, are worth the purchase price.
If you remember, the first X-Men release on DVD seemed a bit of a rush job, containing slight extras and, most egregiously, no audio commentary from Bryan Singer, who provided a wonderful track over his Usual Suspects. With X-Men 1.5, Fox and Singer right some wrongs.
First, a couple of items that appeared on the first release are missing. Don't worry, they're just a Fox TV special and a Bryan Singer interview on the Charlie Rose show. I've never been a fan of Rose, so I wasn't upset to see this go.
On Disc 1, you get one carryover feature that's a mixed blessing, and you get one great new feature. This first is Enhanced Viewing Mode, which lets you add a half-dozen deleted scenes into the finished film. The disappointing aspect is that this isn't seamless branching but rather jerky-annoying-branching-to-non-anamorphic-widescreen-footage, just as with the first release. Although I appreciate the inclusion of this deleted material, viewing it on a widescreen monitor is almost more trouble than they're worth. New to the Enchanced Viewing Mode is the inclusion of audio commentary by Bryan Singer over the deleted scenes. Also new is the inclusion of nearly 20 very brief production vignettes.
The great new feature on Disc 1 is a Screen-Specific Audio Commentary by Director Bryan Singer (accompanied by obscure genre actor Brian Peck). Singer says he felt uncomfortable with the idea of recording a solo track, so he enlisted the help of his pal Peck. The result is a lively track, open and honest and informative. The director has a lot to say about even minute details of the production. He talks about the many visual hints he inserted into the early scenes that point to the Statue of Liberty. He draws comparisons between The Usual Suspects and this film, stressing that they're both ensemble films. He talks about his worries regarding fan reaction to the film, and he manages to mention how "spectacular" the sequel will be.
Disc 2 contains a bunch of new material that you can watch either in Play All mode or individually from the menu. Additionally, whenever an X icon appears on the lower right of your screen, you can access several behind-the-scenes vignettes that add to the enjoyment of the primary supplements. (You can also access these from a main-menu index.) Unfortunately, watching all of these supplements on a widescreen set can be annoying, as some are presented in anamorphically enhanced windowbox, some are fullframe, and others are non-anamorphic widescreen. Be prepared to switch among view options on your monitor. That being said, these materials are quite entertaining and informative.
In the X-Men 2 section, Bryan Singer provides a quick 8-minute X-Men 2 Preview, in which he tours the sequel's sets. The video is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. There are brief interviews with Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Alan Cumming, who is new to the series. We see tantalizing footage of Xavier's school as a target of great evil. This section also provides a Daredevil teaser.
In the Evolution X section, we start with the fullframe The Uncanny Suspects, a 24-minute behind-the-scenes look at the filming of the original film. One of the most interesting tidbits I gained from this piece is that the filmmakers took a Martin Luther King vs. Malcolm X approach to the Xavier vs. Magneto rivalry. Much thought is paid to the meaning of the film and the comic-book origins. We hear from all the primary cast and crew, which gives the piece a welcome fullness. The vignettes in this section let you watch two Hugh Jackman screen tests.
X Factor is a 23-minute featurette (anamorphic windowboxed) about at the re-imagining of some X-Men characters from the comic pages to the screen. We go character-by-character through Wolverine, Sabretooth, Mystique, and Toad. Special Makeup Designer Gordon Smith walks us through the process of bringing the characters to the screen. Special attention is paid to the tedious process of applying flimsy appliances and blue paint to a nude Rebecca Romijn-Stamos. The vignettes in this section let you watch an early Storm costume test, the creation of Toad, and an early Cyclops costume test.
The Production Documentary Scrapbook is a 63-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary that is really the jewel of the disc. Presented in anamorphic windowbox, it starts with an early planning meeting (disturbingly like meetings at my own day job) and extends all the way to fan reaction at the world premiere. I loved the non-intrusive nature of this supplement, which truly made me feel like a casual observer on the set. We learn a little of a planned sequence about Storm's origin in Kenya, and we get to watch a couple of geeks crack their knuckles while touring the original sets. We get to see all kinds of props and locations, including Liberty Island with the WTC standing proud in the background. We witness the signing of the budget, and we listen to Hugh worry about fan reaction to him in the role of the beloved Wolverine. We get to watch a little party for Halle Berry after winning her Golden Globe, and we get to watch the cast members goofing off as they impersonate each other. It's a fun time, if perhaps too light-hearted. The vignettes in this section let you watch Wolverine and Sabretooth fight practice and the filming of the train-splitting scene.
The Special Effects of X-Men is a 17-minute fullframe featurette about the film's visual effects. The focus is on three scenes: the Bobby-to-Mystique transformation, the train station scene, and Wolverine's blades. This is fascinating stuff that highlights nuances that I otherwise wouldn't have noticed. The vignettes in this section let you watch four animatics demonstrations and the extremely interesting Making of Senator Kelly's Death.
Reflections of the X-MEN is a 9-minute anamorphic windowboxed featurette that interviews key cast and crew about their concerns about critical and public reception of the film before its release. As we know, the film was a hit, well received by everyone, including long-time fans of the comic, and so most of the interviewees talk about their feelings of relief. The vignettes in this section let you watch the Ellis Island premiere, and lots of video footage of other premieres around the world.
You also get a series of anamorphic-widescreen trailers, fullframe TV spots, and a gaggle of Internet interstitials, one for each main character.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Is it just me, or does the name X-Men 1.5 blatantly suggest that this release should contain a new cut of the film? When I heard about the impending release of this set, I was sure that it would contain the 30-odd minutes of deleted footage that would make this film something truly special. Nope, it's the same theatrical cut. That's a real shame, because now this potentially great release has to depend totally on its new supplements, which are admittedly fine. This set is worth a repurchase, but just barely.