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Locarno festival film is a critical flop

Mutants face off in duel, in a scene from the X-men film Keystone

The Locarno film festival opener, a screening on the town's Piazza Grande of the film "X-men", directed by Bryan Singer, was a success with the young audience but disappointed the critics.

X-men is based on the comic strip of the same name, which began in 1962 and quickly acquired cult status with its combination of action-loaded science fiction plots with some of humankind’s oldest moral questions.

The comic series’, and the film’s, main characters are mutants. All over a world which otherwise looks very much like our own children are born with a twist to their genetic code, giving them superhuman powers.

Ordinary humans soon become aware of the new species that lives among them, often undetected. This issue is exploited for political reasons by right wingers, who spread fear and demand measures to severely restrict the movement and freedom of mutants.

In an atmosphere of mutual fear two factions evolve among the mutant minority. One, the so-called X-men, led by a mutant genetics professor (played by James Marsden), appeals for tolerance and cooperation. The other, led by the evil Magnetos (played by the British actor Ian McKellen), opts for all out war.

Bryan Singer, who at the age of 30 superbly mastered one of the most complex crime plots in film history when he made The Usual Suspects in 1992, exploits the many opportunities of the X-men story for a fast and breath-taking action film.

There is a lot of violence, screaming, and chase sequences both under and over ground. The action, based on the superhuman powers of the mutants, and on gadgets such as lasers projecting from eyes, and blades protruding from limbs, is absurd, and always taken with a pinch of salt.

The film also relies too much on digital effects, and the actors are often reduced to little more than human copies of their comic strip counterparts. This is a shame because the performances fail to do justice to the abilities of actors like Ian McKellen.

X-Men doesn’t really work as science fiction either. It doesn’t attempt to project into the future current or thinkable trends in science and nature. It is science fantasy instead: the mutants develop an extraordinary array of characteristics, with some able to fly, some to absorb the energy of others, some to read minds.

The film opened in July in the United States and hits Europe’s screens in the autumn. Predicted to be a box office, if not a critical, success, it is clearly the first but not the last episode, with an ending leaving room for sequels and prequels.

by Markus Haefliger

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR