‘Dark Phoenix’ Has Lots of Fiery Effects but the Story Fizzles Out

The latest X-Men movie, “Dark Phoenix,” finds many excuses to blow things up, but few reasons for its actual plot. It takes an idea from the X-Men comic books, which served as the basis for a series of episodes in the ’90s animated series that reached operatic heights (at least when compared to this movie), and slims it down to a redhead having a bad day while a blonde alien starts some trouble. To be clear the cast is great, but they look marooned in a meaningless script covered up by skillful special effects.

We open in 1975 as a young Jean Grey (Summer Fontana) rides down a highway with her parents. Just then her psychic mutant powers begin to manifest themselves and a horrific car crash ensues. Cut to 1992 and NASA is doing space shuttle flights. One such mission gets trapped in some kind of exploding star, gamma ray event, you know how it goes. The White House calls Prof. Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) asking for help. And help he does by sending the X-Men which include Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), a grown Jean (Sophie Turner), Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), and Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Holt). During the mission something goes wrong and Jean is trapped in the shuttle as the exploding space energy concentrates itself all on her. But the X-Men and the astronauts make it back alive. Soon it becomes evident however, that something is wrong with Jean. She has a mental breakdown, exposing how Xavier had blocked from her mind the memory of her parents’ death. Angry and erupting with a new, fiery power, Jean flies off in a rage. As the X-Men try to find their friend, an alien named Vuk (Jessica Chastain) arrives seeking the flaming power inside Jean.

If you count the early Bryan Singer movies from the 00s, this is the 12th “X-Men” movie, but it’s actually the third in the reboot trilogy that began with the excellent “First Class” in 2011. That movie and its sequel, “Days of Future Past,” combined gorgeous visuals set in the 1960s and 1970s with inventive popcorn fun. “Dark Phoenix” is the final descent after 2016’s terrible “X-Men: Apocalypse,” where Oscar Isaac paced around in blue makeup making Biblical threats. But at least that movie still had a more coherent explanation for its villain. “Dark Phoenix” lazily reunites the characters we expect to be present for little reason other than to deliver one more “X-Men” title. The opening scene is strong, revealing a little more about where Jean Grey comes from and the tragedy that marked her life. But after the whole space shuttle sequence the narrative stumbles all over the place.

The biggest flaw in the screenplay by director Simon Kinberg is that it never gives proper space to explore or explain what’s going on with Jean Grey and her apparent possession. In the comics the “Phoenix” is a cosmic being protecting a powerful crystal which inhabits Jean Grey’s body, but after she helps the X-Men save the world she stays inside and begins to experience new, human sensations which make her grow wild and destructive. None of that is here. In fact no one ever calls it the Phoenix. To add even more puzzlement, Jean began showing signs of having the Phoenix already inside her in the last film, complete with a scene of her writhing in bed as the walls boil. So what exactly takes over in this movie? Vuk gives an explanation later on with fancy visuals thrown in about the Phoenix being a force of life in the universe, capable of making planets grow. Fine, but so what flaming entity was Jean using in the last episode? And is it becoming destructive in this film because Jean herself is angry and moody over Xavier blocking her memories? Apologies for the geeky turn in analyzing the film, but even comic book yarns need to have some story discipline.

As for the rest of the film it just tosses around developments and twists before climaxing in another, typical stand-off where everyone uses their powers against each other. Apparently Jean and Cyclops are a thing, but we just get one quick scene where they kiss without any chemistry and for the rest of the film there’s no emotional pull or drama between these two. You don’t sense any despair in Cyclops as his girlfriend becomes Linda Blair with fiery powers. Jennifer Lawrence is done with the “X-Men” franchise, the Oscar-winner gets killed off after Jean blows up a house. This is merely an excuse for Mystique’s own sort-of boyfriend Beast to turn on Xavier and go look for Magneto (Michael Fassbender). In the other movies Magneto was always the more interesting character, a Holocaust survivor who believes in internationalist mutant revolution and dismisses Xavier’s snowflake philosophy of coexistence. Here not only does Fassbender look incredibly youthful in 1992 for someone who survived World War II, but he’s reduced to being a shallow revenge tool, seeking out Jean to kill her because she killed Mystique, who was his sort-of long distance girlfriend. Jessica Chastain’s Vuk just appears, speaks with a slow, menacing tone, deflects bullets and wants Jean’s powers. She almost has an intriguing backstory. Apparently the Phoenix destroyed her planet. But there’s little scope to any of this, the story never even goes into space itself. Sophie Turner, fresh off of “Game of Thrones,” proves again she is a promising actress when allowed to act, particularly when she calls out Xavier for lying to her. But for most of the movie she doesn’t do more than hover with extended arms, her rage expressed through occasional CGI flames. It doesn’t help that the dialogue falls flat often, sometimes being unintentionally funny. Consider a scene where Chastain tells the X-Men to stop and Beast simply yells “No!” Or when Cyclops musters up to the courage to tell Magneto, “If you hurt her I’ll fucking kill you!” It takes the X-Men to inaugurate the era of f-bombs dropped in PG-13 movies.

Let’s not dismiss everything about the movie. At a cost of reportedly $200 million, it does have some engaging visuals here and there. Kinberg directs moments that stand out briefly, like a scene where Magneto uses his powers to levitate several guns inside a train car and aim them at Vuk. The music by Hans Zimmer adds tension to scenes that would be dead without it. The VFX artists can be commended for doing a good job with scenes involving exploding helicopters, dissolving aliens and Jean’s face constantly showing fiery cracks.

“Dark Phoenix” (as opposed to what other kind of Phoenix?) ends with a shot over two characters playing chess that suggests the saga isn’t over. It’s hard to tell with Disney now about to own Fox. Here’s hoping if this particular version of the franchise does come back, it will have more to offer than all smoke and little fire.

Dark Phoenix” opens June 7 in theaters nationwide.