You wouldn’t like Jean Grey when she’s angry. But there’s not much to like about “Dark Phoenix” at all. While the long-running, time-scrambling Fox “X-Men” franchise has been showing diminishing returns since “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Dark Phoenix,” the directorial debut of writer Simon Kinberg, is the dud of all duds, a boring, flat film that doesn’t seem to even start before it’s over. With this final installment, the franchise goes out with a resounding thud.
If you’re not familiar with Jean Grey, played here by Sophie Turner, and previously by Famke Janssen, we get to know her tragic backstory in “Dark Phoenix.” As a young mutant, she has a hard time controlling her incredibly powerful telekinetic and psychic abilities. She causes a car accident, killing her parents, and is taken under the wing of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), who becomes her de facto father figure and teaches her how to control her gift. But during an attempt to rescue astronauts from the Space Shuttle Endeavour in 1992 (yup), Jean ends up absorbing a direct hit from a solar flare of sorts. She survives, but her powers are even more acute. And she has a hard time controlling things when she’s emotional, especially since this cosmic incident ripped the Band-Aids off all the childhood trauma she’s repressed.
For “Game of Thrones” fans, it is tempting to imagine Turner as the all-powerful being she deserves to be. But with its incredibly clunky and obvious script, “Dark Phoenix” just doesn’t do Turner justice. For an actress who can cut precision daggers with a sideways glance, Kinberg asks her to be a sledgehammer, requiring her to shout every emotional beat and turn, relentlessly hammering the themes and messaging. “My emotions make me strong!” Jean declares to a white-haired alien succubus played Jessica Chastain, indicating that apparently Brené Brown was added to the syllabus at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.
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Hans Zimmer’s restless, propulsive score never lets “Dark Phoenix” settle. And the entire film feels like an extended prologue before the neon watercolor swirl of a climax, where Jean’s powers go turbo-supernatural and explode into a muddy CGI aurora borealis. Despite all the characters essentially running around shouting “emotions!” the entire time, the only reaction one can muster up is a limp shrug.
What’s truly amazing about “Dark Phoenix” is watching the charismatic, award-winning, star-packed cast flail about in this poorly written nonsense cartoon. McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult all agreed to come back for the film, despite the expiration of their “X-Men” contracts, and one hopes they were paid handsomely for the favor. It’s actually astonishing to watch Lawrence suiting back up in the blue makeup to deliver faux girl power lines about how they really should call it the “X-Women.” Chastain, making her first superhero movie appearance, plays some kind of alien who wants Jean’s powers (Why? For what?) and commands the blandest army of Gap commercial extras in pursuit of the X-Men.
“Dark Phoenix” racks up a rap sheet of offenses (it doesn’t even look remotely like 1992!), but perhaps the worst is proving what “X-Men: Apocalypse” started in its treatment of Oscar Isaac. Despite the caliber and talent of the actor, lackluster writing, directing and editing can warp a performance into something truly dreadful. Now that’s power.
Star Rating: 1.5 stars
Cast: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Tye Sheridan, Jessica Chastain, Nicholas Hoult.
Director: Simon Kinberg.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes.
Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action including some gunplay, disturbing images, and brief strong language.