Stanley Kubrick aside, it remains one of the inviolable rules of science-fiction cinema: Light shows are cheesy. In X-Men, Ian McKellen, playing a Holocaust survivor-turned-mutant-fascist-warlord (and you thought this movie wasn't relevant), stands inside a spherical metal contraption, mouth twisting in agony, as a silvery, electromagnetic gyro-thingy spins around him, faster and faster. That's when the light show erupts. It explodes, with the usual megaforce, into what looks like a tangle of high-voltage spaghetti strands, which slither around inside a glowing phosphorescent cloud. Inevitably, a moment like this one is meant to give off a ''mystical'' charge, as if we were glimpsing the incipient, godlike soul of technology itself. The reality, though, is that all we're watching is a dignified British actor get engulfed by the tacky wonder of head-shop special effects.
A lot of actors get engulfed in X-Men. Based on the comic-book series that debuted in 1963, when Marvel Comics was out to challenge the DC empire of Superman, Batman, et al. by creating something gritty and contemporary, the movie is about a rebel band of mutant superheroes, each of whom possesses extraordinary physical or mental abilities, and the equally powerful nasty mutants who are planning to reprogram a summit of world leaders on Ellis Island.
The most arresting of the heroes is Logan, a.k.a. Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), an unsmiling, vaguely counterculturish-looking fellow (his hair and sideburns are very early-'70s werewolf) with a surgically implanted second skeleton made of metal rods, which allows him to shoot razor talons out of his knuckles. ''When they come out,'' someone asks, ''does it hurt?'' ''Every time,'' says Wolverine, grimly feeling his own pain. Speaking of which, Rogue (Anna Paquin), Wolverine's colleague, is a tortured adolescent who can absorb a person's life force with a single glancing touch. This has not exactly enhanced her dating life, but it means that we're frequently confronted with the graphic image of someone getting his vital essence sucked out. The skin turns waxy and veins surface, all followed by instant coma. And these are the good guys.
Over on the dark side, we have Toad (Ray Park), who flicks his endless tongue around like a giant prehensile bullwhip, and Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos), a metamorph with gleaming yellow cat's eyes and a scaly coat of blue-rubber skin that looks as if it has been finger-painted on. She can shift shape at will, impersonating anyone she chooses, but the most memorable special effect here is the remarkable way that Romijn-Stamos' decorative bodywear clings to every curve and hollow.
Visually, X-Men keeps throwing things at you. The movie is a cornucopia of F/X gimcrackery: Eyeballs morph, buildings buckle, metal walkways extend at the speed of thought, a bullet spins on a man's forehead without going in. Yet for all the amazements (and some of them are dazzling), the characters don't seem to get off very much on their own powers. As a comic book, X-Men is deliberately non-lighthearted, a sort of Fantastic Four laced with teen existential angst. But when the film version isn't assaulting you with gizmos, it's an awkward, depersonalized piece of hackwork, and a rather earthbound one at that. This is a movie that was shot in Toronto and looks it. As directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects), it has a diffuse, stop-and-go rhythm that makes it hard to tell where dystopian ominousness leaves off and sluggish amateurishness begins.
Patrick Stewart, with his mandarin elegance and his super-debonair futuroid cranium, injects the movie with a crisp, playful vitality each time he shows up as Xavier, a benevolent telepath in a wheelchair who has devoted his life to integrating his fellow mutants into earthly society. To do this, he must defeat McKellen's Magneto, a paranoid despot convinced that the world will ultimately seek to destroy the mutants, much as the Nazis did the Jews. An early flashback to a concentration camp in 1944, with Magneto as a terrified boy victim, is surreal in more ways than one: Teenagers may think that they've wandered into the wrong theater (didn't Roberto Benigni already star in this war?), but even once you've adjusted, it's a bit much to swallow that Jewish survivalism has become the seed of world destruction.
Magneto's light-show machine is meant to be a device for radiating humans into mutants, but considering that it saps most of his life energy to use it just once, I'd say that he needs an upgrade. For all its doomsday chatter, there's not much of a visible threat in X-Men. A movie like The Matrix captured people's imaginations because its shivery-tactile visual effects served a novel vision of a world literally flipped inside out by techno-corporate brainwashing. Even on its own comic-book terms, though, X-Men fights a skewed, rerun version of yesterday's battles. C