Film Review: “Dark Phoenix” Burns Itself Down

Film poster: “Dark Phoenix”

Dark Phoenix (Simon Kinberg, 2019) 1½ out of 4 stars.

There is nothing wrong with Dark Phoenix that a coherent plot – and, even more important, logical placement of the film within the larger X-Men cinematic universe – wouldn’t fix. Since script is everything, however, we are left with this occasionally diverting sci-fi action/adventure film that makes little to no sense, even on its own terms. I very much enjoyed Michael Fassbender (Macbeth) as Magneto, but one solid character among a wash of indeterminate motivations does not a movie make. It’s not that I never had any fun while watching, but that the downtimes from the highs went quite low, indeed, eventually leaving me baffled as to what was happening why and when. Burn it down, I say.

The time is 1975 – but only for a moment – where we meet super-powered Jean Grey (whom we’ve met before, but never in early childhood), as she accidentally causes a tragic familial accident. Cut to Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Split), rescuing her from the hospital and bringing her to the school for mutants he founded. Flash-forward to 1992 (9 years after the events in the last film featuring this same cast, X-Men: Apocalypse), where Jean (Sophie Turner) and her fellow X-Men pull off a daring rescue of one of NASA’s Space Shuttles. Unfortunately for Jean, there is a personal cost: struck by an unknown cosmic energy source, she develops new abilities even more powerful than the telekinetic ones she already possessed.

Sophie Turner as a very unhappy Jean Grey in DARK PHOENIX ©Twentieth Century Fox

Soon, Jean starts to remember her childhood trauma, which causes a major mental break and sets her on a collision course with her erstwhile colleagues. Since she is now effectively possessed of greater strength than anyone else, this poses a problem for those who seek to stop her sudden reign of destruction. Add a dash of extraterrestrial humanoids, led by Jessica Chastain (The Zookeeper’s Wife), and the madness becomes even crazier. Contributing to the confusion is the fact that this particular series has developed multiple timelines since its 2000 inception, so when a character dies that we’ve seen in later years, there is a pause while we regroup, perhaps (if we’re lucky), remembering that the 2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ostensibly reset the past in which this new film takes place. Does your head hurt? Mine does.

Not all sequences are terrible, though none stand out. This is Simon Kinberg’s first outing as director, though he has written and produced a number of the previous films. By the end, when Jean fulfils her destiny (in this particular movie, in any case), I cared little for the outcome. It’s not Turner’s fault; she’s a perfectly capable actress, as are the other members of the ensemble. But without a meaningful narrative to support her efforts, everyone might as well just be dust from the embers of her self-immolating Phoenix fire. Plus, why should we invest any emotional energy in the proceedings, since time is malleable, and stories are rebootable? For better or worse, they’ll all rise again, and again, and again …

Alexandra Shipp, Andrew Stehlin, Michael Fassbender, Nicholas Hoult, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kota Eberhardt in DARK PHOENIX ©Twentieth Century Fox

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Associate Editor and film critic at filmfestivaltoday.com; lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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