When we last left the mutants in 'X2: X-Men United,' things weren't going so badly for them. They had successfully deflected growing support in Congress for the "Mutant Registration Act," and had foiled an offensive by the evil William Stryker (Brian Cox) to eradicate all mutants. Sure, the beloved Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) was dead, but with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) finally uncovering the secrets of his past, Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) getting on all hot and heavy like an episode of 'Dawson's Creek,' and Professor Xavier managing to hold onto the Xanadu-like X-Mansion, it was hard to feel too sorry for such a photogenic band of superheroes and their way-cool powers.
Well, all of that gets blown apart in 'X-Men: The Last Stand,' which (at least at the time of its theatrical release) was reported to be the last in an X-trilogy. Of course, given the boffo box office for the latest go-round, the mutants could well be returning for another installment. But if 'The Last Stand' is indeed the end, then the film takes the series out with something between and bang and a whimper. Overstuffed with characters, subplots and storylines that go nowhere, it is far too convoluted and inconclusive to be called a truly exceptional curtain call. Yet it is also filled with enough fun action scenes, cool new characters and neat twists on existing X-mythology that it certainly isn't as crappy a capper as, say, 'Matrix Revolutions.'
First, the bad news. As directed by uber-hack Brett Ratner, 'The Last Stand' lacks the cohesive vision, classy visual style and level of mutant empathy that Bryan Singer displayed with the first two X-flicks. No offense to the guy (who I'm sure is a very nice person), but Ratner always seems to make Identikit movies that lack any discernible personal vision. Though he remains respectful both visually and narratively of the world Singer fleshed out in 'X-Men' and 'X2,' he also doesn't bring much new to the material. And that Singer is an openly gay filmmaker is more important than it may at first appear; the X-movies are so clearly an allegory for the current state of gay civil rights in America that it doesn't even need explaining. The strong connection between the director and the material gave 'X-Men' and 'X2' a level of humanity and passion rare for a comic book movie, which leaves 'The Last Stand' feeling a bit bloodless by comparison.
Yet even if, with its soap opera storylines and over-the-top number of characters, 'The Last Stand' is the "As the World Turns" of mutant movies, I still enjoyed taking the return trip. Watching the film again for this Blu-ray review, I was struck by how much better the film plays on video. It's very vignette-y, and almost feels like an overly-long episode of an 'X-Men' television series. Which may have made it somewhat disappointing as a theatrical experience, but it's no less fun than such small-screen comic book hits like 'Smallville' or 'Heroes.' Every character gets an arc so narrow it takes but two or three scenes to introduce them and then send 'em packing. Wolverine barely hangs on to his star status with little to do but gower and flick his knuckle-knives, while Halle Berry's Storm finally gets to use her superpowers, although she could have been replaced by any other mutant and it would have made little difference to the narrative. More appreciated is the humanity in the film's core dramatic concept -- would you willingly give up your "otherness" if you could enjoy a discrimination-free, normal life? -- which is well-played out (if far too briefly) in the ultimate fates of Rogue and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn). I also liked the fact that (spoiler alert!) some major characters die, and some of the lamer mutants from past X-flicks are also killed off quickly or don't return at all.
Again, 'The Last Stand' is a total soap opera. It also seems a waste that more wasn't done with such cool new mutants as Kelsey Grammar's Beast and Ben Foster's Angel. And what is up with that little bald kid who sits in a white room the whole movie, adding nothing to the story? Nor can I deny that it is still jarring to think that Singer didn't return for the third and final X-go 'round. But taken on its own terms, 'The Last Stand' is nothing if not a fun flick, and the perfect Saturday night rental. Sure, I wished the X-saga had gone out on a true high note, but quite frankly, I will be utterly shocked if Fox doesn't make another one of these things. Don't believe me? Stick around all the way through the end credits of this one... you won't be disappointed.
'X-Men: The Last Stand' is certainly Fox's flagship Blu-ray launch title, so it is a bit of a surprise that despite pre-release buzz the disc comes to the format as a BD-25 single-layer disc. At least according to the back packaging, which left me a bit dubious as to how this presentation would look. 'The Last Stand' gets the full high-def treatment with a 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer, and encoded at an average bitrate of 18mbps. (Kudos go to Fox for delivering the most detailed packaging specs I've seen on either next-gen format, with listings for all formats, codecs, disc types and the like.)
BD-25 issues aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall high quality of 'The Last Stand' on Blu-ray. Brett Ratner has been a vocal proponent of the Super35 process, which tends to increase visible film grain. Indeed, 'X-Men 3' does look grainy here, with a thin veil covering just about every scene, and some shots veer on the excessive. But that's indicative of the source, and video noise isn't really a problem (more on that below). Colors are well-saturated, yet not too overdone. The X-films always looked a bit more naturalistic to me than, say, the 'Spider-Man' movies, which is again evident here. Blacks are rock solid and contrast is eye-popping but not tweaked to hell. Whites don't suffer from harshness or blooming (the exception being that damn bald kid again and his all-white room, which seems intentionally diffused).
Detail is also above-average. Though I thought some of the large-scale effects shots (such as Magneto moving the bridge for the film's climactic battle) appear a bit soft and flat, medium and close-up shots are often extraordinary. I could make out individual hairs on Wolverine's pork-chop sideburns, and even in high-def Storm's new wig looks pretty real. Unfortunately, I did see some posterization throughout the film. Nothing severe, but gradual transitions of color sometimes looked blocky and artificial. Note, though, that I'm now using the new Sony LcOS XBR2 70" display, which tends to make posterization more noticeable than my previous DLP monitor. I suspect results will vary depending on your display device.
Fox has broken ranks with most other Blu-ray-supporting studios and is offering DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio tracks on most of its initial releases. 'The Last Stand' even gets the 6.1 channel treatment, plopping an extra center speaker of surround info behind your couch. That's the good news. The bad news is that in order to access a DTS-HD soundtrack, you either have to have a decoder built into your Blu-ray player, or in your A/V receiver. Unfortunately, as of this writing, neither of the two Blu-ray players on the market -- the Samsung BD-P1000 and Panasonic DMP-BD10 -- offer DTS-HD decoding. Nor are there any such receivers on the market. The silver lining is that Panasonic promises to have a firmware upgrade available soon that will enable DTS-HD, as does Sony for the PlayStation 3. Not to mention a number of A/V receivers that should be hitting stores over the next year for those who don't want to buy a whole new Blu-ray player. In any case, we will certainly be revisiting the audio portion of this review very soon when we get our hands on DTS-HD-capable equipment. (By the way, none of this is a dig at Fox -- we're very excited that the studio is "future-proofing" their Blu-ray discs, even if all included formats and features are not yet accessible to consumers.)
That said, Fox has not included any other English soundtrack options on 'X-Men: The Last Stand' (only French and Spanish dubs in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround), which to me is a surprising oversight. So what you are going to hear without DTS-HD decoding is the core, lossy DTS soundtrack at a healthy 1.5mbps. Which on its own terms is still pretty darn fine. The sound design of 'The Last Stand' is as superb as you'd expect for a movie with a reported budget of nearly $150 million. Surround use can be incredibly aggressive; just about every action scene in the film could serve as demo material. My favorites where Magneto's attempted rescue of Mystique, Storm creating a tornado, and the big climactic X-fight. Imagining is excellent, with near transparent pans between channels a wholly immersive 360-degree soundfield. Dynamics are predictably top-notch, with crystal-clear clarity in sound effects and dialogue. Bass extension is also very powerful, with some serious vibrations delivered by the subwoofer. If nothing else, the quality of this soundtrack only leaves my mouth watering to hear it again in full DTS-HD soon.
'X-Men: The Last Stand' was released on standard-def DVD a couple of months back in a somewhat lackluster single-disc special edition. The set's extras were quite sparse for a film that grossed over $200 million at the domestic box office alone, though it is a foregone conclusion that Fox has another, more feature-laden version of 'X3' waiting in the wings. (In fact, a two-disc set with many more extras has already been released in Europe).
So, while this Blu-ray version gets all the same goodies as the previous standard-def DVD, it's hardly an avalanche of fabulous content. The "highlights" are the two audio commentaries, the first with director Brett Ratner and screenwriters Zak Penn and Simon Kinberg, and the second with producers Avi Arad, Lauren Shuler Donner and Ralph Winter. Shocking to me is how banal and inconsequential both are. I even checked some other online reviews of the standard-def DVD to make sure it wasn't just me, but apparently I'm not the only one underwhelmed. Ratner seems not so much dismissive as indifferent -- he and his screenwriter pals joke and goof around to the point where we get little more that surface-level insight into the mutant characters we already know so well, and such fascinating tidbits as how CGI can actually render objects *that weren't even on the set*! The Kinsberg guy also doesn't even seem to know anything about the X-universe at all, so I wonder how he got such a plum screenwriting job? Unfortunately, the producer track doesn't fare much better, with lots of back-patting and high-fives about how great the movie is, the stellar cast, and Ratner's "energized" direction. I must say, these were two of the more disappointing commentaries I've heard in a while.
Up next are ten Deleted Scenes and three Alternate Endings. Most are mere scene extensions, and inspire a fair amount of interest. Some stuff is dull, like a gratuitous spat between a guard and Mystique during the president impersonation scene and an alternate opening voiceover for Professor X, while a different introduction for Beast and Logan and an extended version of the battle at Jean Grey's house are a bit more exciting. Likewise, the alternate endings are all over the map. The "Next Year at School" coda is totally cheesy, while the two other endings offer more fleshed-out resolutions for Logan and Rogue. Indeed, the film's theatrical ending was the best choice.
Rounding out the extras is the film's theatrical trailer in full 1080p video.
'X-Men: The Last Stand' was not unanimously praised by fans of the series, but it was still a big box office hit. I can't deny that I enjoyed the movie on a pure popcorn level, though it certainly can't compete with the first two Bryan Singer-directed films in the series. As Fox's most high-profile Blu-ray launch title, this release is a great start. The transfer shines, there's a DTS-HD track included for when compatible players and receivers become available, and we get a good suite of extras. Sure, a more supplement-packed version of 'The Last Stand' is inevitable, but in the meantime, this is a very fine offering for Blu-ray fans. My only complaint? At $39.95, Fox's list price for its Blu-ray titles is pretty steep. But if you can get this one at a discount, it's well worth a look.