I freely admit that I don’t know jack about X-Men. I’ve never read the comics and I only saw the first movie years after its 2000 release. So I went into X-MEN: FIRST CLASS with no expectations and no knowledge of the characters or where the story was heading. I knew it was a prequel, nothing more. Pitting the mutants against the Russians during the Cuban Missile Crisis would seem to give the story some dramatic weight, but watching a scantily-clad stripper buzzing about on her wings or a nondescript, though well-dressed, bad guy conjuring whirling storms out of thin air during such a tension-filled historical moment was ludicrous at best.
Kevin Bacon seems to be having a blast as former Nazi Sebastian Shaw, and James McAvoy (Xavier) and Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto somehow create fully-realized characters out of their thinly-written roles. But the other performances are often laughably bad (I wanted to strip Jennifer Lawrence of her worthy Oscar nomination for WINTER’S BONE) and it’s hard to work up any empathy for the characters. Since the story didn’t interest me and the actors generally turned me off (outside of some nice eye candy here and there and the rare appearances by Oliver Platt), I had plenty of time to focus on Henry Jackman‘s score.
I was as unfamiliar with the musical world of X-MEN as I was with its accompanying cinematic counterparts, so I also had no particular expectations or preconceived musical notions going in. From the opening track of the CD (which is not the opening of the film), “First Class,” we are firmly entrenched in the sonic world of Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control, which should come as no surprise given Jackman’s RC affiliations. With its frantic string ostinati, whole note descending line in the basses, and the serviceable (if uninspired) minor-key melody, Jackman has arguably created a theme that could potentially give some musical life to the series going forward. But just barely.
“Pain and Anger” begins the film proper, which takes place in a concentration camp during the war. The music is appropriately dark and dramatic for the separation of young Erik from his parents. But once the youngster goes ballistic following the murder of his mother, metal crumples and surgical instruments go flying (done with some cheesy special effects) all to the accompaniment of booming brass and percussion reminiscent of Zimmer’s INCEPTION score.
In its quieter moments, the electric guitar gives a little Morricone twang to “Not That Sort of Bank” and “Frankenstein’s Monster.” But most of the time, it is screeching and howling on top of the other musical components and sound effects, not even bothering to add period color to the score. Only occasionally does the music calm down, like in the tender piano solo and sustained strings of “Would You Date Me?” and “To Beast or Not To Beast.”
Throughout the final action sequences, strings swirl and the brass growl as the Russians and Americans face off. There’s a lot of movement and muscle in the music (and it certainly gives the orchestra—and synth programmers—a workout), but it adds nothing dramatically or emotionally to the film. The massive percussion overlays shatter what little acoustic feeling the music has. Even at ear-splitting decibel levels, the music contributes no excitement to the uninvolving proceedings onscreen and it’s not interesting enough musically to provide much enjoyment off.
There’s some real musical drama in the descending brass lines of “Coup d’etat” and “Mutant and Proud,” but there’s nothing particularly new or compelling about them. The split-screen action gave a nice ’60s visual appeal to the “X-Training” sequence, but the music stays firmly rooted in current musical trends. And that’s my primary issue with the score—it’s all too derivative and contemporary. The film makes few attempts to install some ’60s period color (most of which are laughable), so it’s no surprise the score doesn’t bother either. And while originality is always difficult in a franchise (not there was ever little, if anything, musically to tie all these scores together in the first place), I do wish the score had functioned more dramatically and successfully without aping sounds from other recent films.
Since I was so clueless about this superhero world, to prepare for this review I listened to the four preceding X-MEN scores, none of which I’d ever heard. Outside of John Powell’s THE LAST STAND, the X-MEN franchise contains very little of musical worth. So in retrospect, perhaps Jackman’s work is a notch above most of the forgettable meanderings of earlier X-MEN scores, but that’s not saying much. The themes and chord progressions are simple and constant (so don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming bits and pieces of the score by the end of it), and for a reboot, the music already feels stale.
If you enjoy the current blockbuster film music sound, you might enjoy Jackman’s score more. As his delightful score for last year’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS showed, Jackman has talent when he’s not hidebound by his Remote Control trappings. But his X-MEN is oh-so-predictable. For me, this is one score that is anything but “first class.”