Generation X (1996)
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Remember the good old days? The days when nobody but comic fans knew what a mutant was? The days when the only thing Marvel could get produced was one TV movie after another, all of them with lofty aspirations but minimal budgets? If not, then sit back and prepare for a crash course in superhero film history: the time was 1996, a year after Batman Forever but before Batman and Robin, a good two years before Blade would prove that superheroes could be cool to a movie-going audience. After the crash-and-burn cinematic efforts of Captain America, the Punisher, and Roger Corman's unreleased Fantastic Four abomination, Marvel had decided to limit their multimedia aspirations to more manageable ventures- specifically, to moderately-budgeted telefilms on the Fox network (probably in the hopes of reproducing their one big live-action success, the Incredible Hulk TV movie, which was parlayed into a popular TV show). Their first production? The teen mutant action-drama Generation X, based on a relatively new comic series of the same name- and for what it is, Generation X is actually surprisingly good. It's directed by Jack Sholder (who brought us such gems as A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and The Hidden), a guy who knows how to make the most of a minimal budget, and it features a pretty solid cast of unknowns, laced with the occasional familiar face (Matt Frewer? What are you doing here?). While the cheese factor is rather high (mostly due to Frewer, who seems to be trying to out-mug Jim Carrey) and the film makes some unfortunate departures from the comic (specifically replacing prominent members Husk and Chamber, because their mutant powers would've been way too expensive to shoot), this telefilm stands as one of Marvel's few freshman successes in the field of live-action entertainment- and as sort of a trial run for their eventual real X-Men movie.
I saw the American version when it first aired on Fox in 1996, but apparently there was a more risque (by T.V. standards) version that aired in Europe at the same time (which included some sexual humor and a suggestive scene or two that were dubbed too strong to air in the U.S.); this is the version I got on DVD, so it's the one I'm reviewing. The film opens with a title-card definition of the word "mutant", including the interesting little nugget of info that being a mutant is illegal in this movie (which doesn't make a lot of sense- how can it be illegal to BE a mutant? Isn't that like saying it's illegal to be double-jointed?- until it's clarified later as that it's illegal to be an unregistered mutant; but they make it pretty clear that "registered" mutants are thrown into concentration camps like the Japanese were during World War II anyway, so the law is not on our heroes' side). After a prologue to set up our villain and his strange mutant-brain-stealing M.O. (because in this film, all these crazy, distinct mutations result from a uniform brain abnormality... which makes fuck-all sense, but just roll with it, it's television), the film gives us our two heroes: Angelo, a Latino kid with stretching powers who leaves his family for parts as yet unknown, and Jubilee, a teenage girl with a passion for yellow jackets and Virtua Fighter. When Jubilee gets sucked into a particularly intense gaming session in her local video arcade and starts shooting fireworks out of her hands, she gets hauled to the big house and scheduled for relocation to a mutant camp, but before she gets shipped off, she's freed by two representatives of the Xavier Institute, a secret school for unregistered mutants: Emma Frost, telepathic schoolmistress and white fetish-wear enthusiast, and Sean Cassiday, Irish goatee-wearing... guy... who screams really, really loud and primarily serves as a bantering partner for Frost. They bring her to the Xavier School for Gifted Children (strangely, we never once see Charles Xavier, and he's never mentioned- maybe this is set after X3?), where she meets the student body- Mondo, the jock; M, the bitch; Refrax, the cool kid; and Buff, the self-conscious introvert- before making a connection with Angelo, who turns out to be the other new student on campus. Meanwhile, in a completely different plot line, our villain, Russell Tresh, is working on a machine that can put him in other people's dreams (because in THIS film, dreams are an actual separate dimension), theoretically to be used as a form of irresistible subliminal advertising... but he nurses much more creative ambitions than simple economic supremacy: with a mutant brain, he claims he can actually dissolve the barriers between the material world and the dream world, transforming himself into an omnipotent metaphysical superbeing in the process (ummm... HOW?!?). And it just so happens that he finds a perfect donor candidate in Angelo, whom Tresh meets on the dream-plain while Angelo is using the other dream machine, a prototype built by Emma Frost because she used to work with Tresh and... you know what? It doesn't matter. This whole dream thing is just to manufacture a conflict that doesn't revolve around teen angst and high school politics. As Grant Morrison once said, this movie is basically "Degrassi with mutants." And if you don't know what Degrassi is, you really should watch more Canadian television, for God's sake.
The cast is... well, it's probably the best cast you could score for a Fox T.V. movie about mutant freaks. Strangely, the top billing for the film goes to Matt Frewer, who chews more scenery as the villainous Russel Tresh than The Phantom's Treat Williams and Batman Forever's Tommy Lee Jones COMBINED. The character acts like he thinks he's a freaking Looney Toon- he does voices and mannerisms right out of Chuck Jones- and it's really groan-inducing at times... but the flip side to that is that he goes SO far over the top that you get the impression that this guy really is dangerously psychotic, and the few times when he gets really quiet and placid almost become chilling by contrast. That being said, though, this is the goofiest villain I've seen this side of Nuclear Man- but that's okay, because the villain is incidental to the high-school ensemble drama anyway. Our proxy hero is Heather McComb's Jubilee, if only because she's the only one we see approached to join the school; she's, well, a '90s-era teenage girl- rebellious and alienated, the kind of girl who probably listens to Nirvana a lot- but her angst stems mostly from the fact that her mother essentially disowned her when she sent Jubilee to Xavier's. She's also one of the two newbies to the school, through which we meet the rest of the characters and learn the premise; the other one is Angelo, a.k.a. "Skin", played by Agustin Rodriguez. Skin is a poor ethnic kid stuck in a prep school environment, so already he has a chip on his shoulder that has nothing to do with being a mutant. It doesn't help that he has a pretty lame power: his skin stretches (actually, his bones and muscles stretch, too, but they claim it's only his skin), and it hurts him to even do it. Even so, he's a likable character, and a perfect example of mutants as social outcasts (which is kind of what this movie is about). The other students aren't developed quite so much, save for some relationship stuff: M, the bitchy girl played by Amarilis, is little miss perfect- perfect grades, perfect looks, even perfect powers (she has super-strength, invulnerability, AND super-intelligence)- but it's made her stuck up and snobby, and she pretty much warns Jubilee not to fuck with her the moment the new girl arrives. Buff (Suzanne Davis), on the other hand, is quiet, repressed, and self-conscious, because beneath her baggy sweaters and sweat pants, she's actually freakishly muscular- as in, when she takes off her shirt, they cut to a female bodybuilder (shudder). Still, it doesn't stop her from getting into a tentative relationship with Refrax (Randall Slavin), the cool kid who wears sunglasses twenty-four-seven because they help him control his eye beams (wait, this is starting to sound familia- oh, dammit, they ripped off Cyclops' powers and stapled them onto a Billy Idol look-alike!). Actually, Refrax can make his eye beams increase in intensity from simple X-rays to full on melty-vision, so his vision power is actually more like Superman's than Cyclops'. And then there's Mondo, the big, bully-ish football lover played by Bumper Robinson. He's the muscle-headed jerk of the group, who can take on the density of any material he touches. This circus of hormones with destructive powers are held in check by the two headmasters- and by "held in check", I mean "loosely corralled by". Finola Hughes is Emma Frost, a cleavage-sporting dominatrix/teacher (HOW is she supposed to keep the students focused on learning?) with telepathic abilities (which, I imagine, makes for the worst part of having a class with Ms. Frost- watching what you think). Frost is supposed to be the British disciplinarian of the group (and Finola Hughes actually is British, go figure) who's trying to teach all of them to develop their psychic abilities (ummm... not all mutants HAVE psychic abilities, but hey, it's there show), and who doesn't take crap from anybody; balanced against her is Jeremy Ratchford's Sean Cassidy, the good-humored Irishman who's a little more lenient with the wee ones, but isn't above using his sonic scream to break up a tussle. The two actually make a good pair: they have banter, they have sexual tension (double entendres abound), and they even seem somewhat authoritative as instructors and headmasters, despite the fact that Frost dresses like a stripper.
The script is, well, I'd say half-and-half. The scenes between the teen characters, the instructors, pretty much all the principle cast, these things were done very well; on the other hand, the plot, the sci-fi elements, and the villain are all Z-grade. The whole dream-world premise of this telefilm is completely unrelated to the concept of mutants, and the two are haphazardly connected by some pretty questionable pseudo-science- I mean, even by T.V. standards, it's a little unbelievable to think that a few mutated brain cells could be used to open a doorway between dreams and reality. If you've read the book Save the Cat! (available in bookstores everywhere!), you'll know that this is a screenwriting mistake called Double Mumbo-Jumbo- asking your audience to suspend their disbelief on two completely separate plot elements at the same time. The special effects don't really help on this score, because not only are they dated, but they're also bargain-basement quality- our first glimpse of the "dream dimension" is little more than a lame green-screen of a cut-rate computer graphic. And the lighting makes things even worse, because this is another one of those films that uses vibrant colored lighting to imply a "comic book" atmosphere, which usually turns the movie into a garish visual nightmare (Dick Tracy, anyone?). It is pretty cool that they use the same mansion that they did for the X-Men movies to represent Xavier's School, though; and since the majority of the movie is carried by the actors in their dramatic scenes (which are usually less painfully lit than the villain or the action scenes), the effects and the lighting don't seem all that bothersome. It IS just a T.V. movie after all; thankfully the producers didn't try to push their budget the way the Nick Fury: Agent of Shield people did.
Generation X is more of a curiosity than anything else. The plot doesn't really bleed into the X-Men movie universe, and none of the characters would appear in the later films (with any dialogue, anyway), but it feels kind of like a prototype for the movies that were to come, in that they emphasized character above spectacle (though in their case, it was from necessity) and tried to ground Marvel's wacky costumed super-freaks in the real world, eliminating the silly outfits and making them just teenagers at a school (well, until the last few seconds, when Buff comes out dressed in a bright red-and-yellow spandex uniform with a look on her face that says she thinks she looks REALLY cool...). Sure, it is more of a cheesy high school T.V. drama than a superhero movie, but this was really Marvel's first step in the right direction- the moment when their projects stopped being horrifically bad and started to get entertaining. After this would be another T.V. movie, the quasi-spy movie Nick Fury in 1998 (a year after Batman and Robin nearly "iced" the superhero genre for good), and that same year we would also get Blade in theaters... and from there, it started to snowball. By the time the first X-Men movie came out in 2000, I doubt if anyone remembered this failed television pilot as anything other than another Marvel movie gone wrong, but I think it's better than that; it's a solid piece of work from a time when no one thought that comic books could really make for good movies- a time when no one knew what the hell a "mutant" even was. It's basically a scaled-back John Hughes brat-pack movie with superpowers. And trust me, if you liked Degrassi, you're gonna love this.
While it's not that bad on it's own, Generation X can't really hang on to its own plot. The colors make for a interesting experience but parts of the film feel really bleak because of it. The ending is slightly corny, and none of the characters really stand out from each other. Some parts work, others just don't.
Kind of interesting as a pre-Bryan Singer 'X-Men' artifact, but the film lacks a coherent plot, and the acting is mostly pretty bad. Matt Frewer is entertaining in a campy way -- the whole thing's a bit campy, really. As a low budget TV movie, I'll cut 'Generation X' some slack and say they might've been able to develop it into something worthwhile, had the pilot been picked up for series... maybe.
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