Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

★★★

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Heading into Pacific Rim: Uprising, I struggled to recall much of Pacific Rim. That didn’t really matter. Like its protagonist Jaegers, Uprising cranks along like a fairly well-oiled if uninspired machine, only filling in knowledge gaps when absolutely necessary (and often via bouts of exposition). It is swamped with techno-scientific jargon, the majority of which barely enters the cinema-sphere before shooting way over the heads of viewers. But none of it really matters. All that matters is the presence of good giant robots, the counter-presence of bad giant robots, and the absolute certainty that they’re going to fight. And that, I guess, sums up Steven S. DeKnight’s sequel in a nutshell: Uninterested in character development — a few half-hearted attempts aside — and thoroughly compelled by carnage. And provided you leave your brain at the door upon entering, it’s actually sort of okay.

This is primarily because it has John Boyega front and centre. The Star Wars sophomore has bags of charisma and a playful wit that helps him overcome the often cliched dialogue. At one point he is charged with giving a rallying speech before a group of junior Jaeger users, a speech we’ve seen a million times before and in situations where the drama has been significantly better earned, yet he delivers it with enough panache to get you at least a little fired up. Boyega plays Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s now deceased war hero, who has swapped his father’s honour (or something) for a freeing scavenger lifestyle spent on the decimated coast of LA (or somewhere). Upon being captured by the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps, he suddenly rediscovers his honourable streak, rejoining the ranks of civilisation protection alongside his old Jaeger partner Nate (Scott Eastwood), who sort of holds a grudge but not really. Good thing too, because soon after Jake adopts the heroic tag, the world comes under threat from a Jaeger drone system gone wrong and a bunch of giant Kaiju creatures.

That story summary sounded quite snarky, but to its credit the film wears a snarky, self-reflective attitude. There’s a great moment where you think eccentric PPDC scientist Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, played (obviously) by Burn Gorman, is about to unleash Elba’s signature “Cancel the Apocalypse” cry from the previous film, but instead the screenwriters lump him with a significantly flimsier and entirely forgettable punchline. Gorman, like many others, finds himself embodying a walking stereotype and, like many others, makes the best of it. Cailee Spaeny, for instance, plays the newbie cadet whose rebellious existence has landed her in Jaeger school. Spaeny projects a charming aura despite the well-worn character type, and she has solid comic chemistry with Boyega.

Scott Eastwood, looking more and more like Captain America Chris Evans by the reel, has less room to manoeuvre, his only real character quirk coming via a weird non-love triangle between himself, Jake, and Adria Arjona’s otherwise sidelined Jules Reyes. Elsewhere, Charlie Day is charged with doing his Charlie Day shtick, while Rinko Kikuchi returns as Mako Mori, Jake’s adopted sister and PPDC executive. You probably shouldn’t feel short-changed by a giant monster flick that lacks standout characters, but a better film would have at least a few (see Jurassic Park or Alien).

That being said, Uprising does fulfil its visual duties. The Jaegers have a commendably imposing aura, particularly prevalent in a scene that shows three of them gliding down from the sky to challenge a rogue robot. Cinematographer Dan Mindel frames the shot well, depicting the destructive menace of the aforementioned rouge before patiently bringing the trio into focus, their collective authority increasing by the frame. And the enemy creatures are quite creepy too: A swarm of bug-like Kaiju unleashed towards the end won’t please anyone averse to creepy crawlies, but it does make for a neat mid-battle game-changer.

This is better than anything the Transformers franchise has offered, not only because it has one or two performers worth rooting for, but also because its battle sequences are easy to follow. Unlike Transformers’ Hieronymus Bosch-esque action sequences, Uprising clearly defines the good guys and bad guys, and takes care to depict the consequences of each robotic right hook or metallic missile strike, affording viewers a chance to digest events. This is in part because natural breaks in the action take us inside the heads of the giant mechanical beasts, showing us the humans in control and thus giving the Jaegers a degree of humanity. But it is also simply down to decent action direction: DeKnight acted as showrunner on the excellent first season of Marvel’s Daredevil, and while the fights here lack the bone-crunching inventiveness of those interspersed throughout said series, they do at least adhere to Daredevil’s visual clarity.

It may be an easy conclusion to arrive at, but it’s also the right one: If warring monsters is your type of thing, Uprising should tick enough boxes to offer an enjoyable experience. It will also do the job if you just want to spend a few hours at the cinema without having to rev any brainpower. Like me, you might even chuckle a few times — kudos Boyega. What’s certain is you will have the chance to see plenty of other, better blockbusters in the coming months (Ready Player One is already out). Hey, by the end of the summer there is every chance you’ll have forgotten you even went to see Pacific Rim: Uprising on a cold night at the end of March. But at least it knows its place. It’s fine, and that’s fine.

Director: Steven S. DeKnight

Rating: 12A

Runtime: 1hr 51mins

Genre: Action, Adventure, Science fiction

Starring: John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood, Rinko Kikuchi

Images ©: Universal Pictures

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

★★★★★

Captain America Civil War PosterDirectors: Anthony and Joe Russo

Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (UK); May 6th, 2016 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science fiction

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Sebastian Stan, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie

Cards on the table: I’m a massive Captain America fan. Film series and character, but especially character. In The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is puny. A frail, ailing body with great aspirations and an admirable mantra. So he becomes a super solider and fights for his country against the Nazis. It’s great. By the time The Winter Soldier rolls around, Rogers is doing laps of the Capitol building in the year 2013. From the confident patriot, he’s now the unsettled defender of American freedom in a truly globalist world. It turns out Hydra has infected SHIELD; Rogers’ reliance on authority takes a hit. He still fights for freedom, but against whom?

Fast forward to Captain America: Civil War. His corporate distrust has never been more palpable — Rogers, once a willing propaganda figure for the USA, is now thoroughly anti-government. Which poses something of a problem given a guilt-ridden Tony Stark (he funds the projects of MIT students as it “helps ease his conscience”) has aligned himself with a legal arrangement drawn up by the United Nations to help govern superhero affairs. It’s why this incarnation of Stark, completely different from the incarnation relayed by Robert Downey Jr. in the first Iron Man movie, is so interesting. Just like Rogers, Stark has flipped, but in the opposite direction: no longer the rebel, now a willing integrator. And we sympathise with that penchant for integration as much as we do Rogers’ disassociation.

The aforementioned Sokovia Accords are developed in harmony by a conglomerate of nations following the Avengers’ role in the destruction of various cities across the globe. Spearheaded by the UN, the Accords split the protagonists evenly down the middle with Rogers heading up the ‘out’ gang and Stark the ‘in’. From the moment sides are established, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely serve up viable sparring justifications: Rogers fears the new world and its new politics, and believes each superhero should be accountable for his or her own actions. Stark regrets the path his actions have paved, that in shaping a team of valiant world-defenders he has also bred deadly foes like Ultron.

Markus and McFeely have been with Captain America from the beginning and they’ve done the character justice on the page, though kudos also ought to go to those who have helped shape Iron Man. You really feel the weight of history behind each persona and both actors use that pre-established weight with considered aplomb — the first glance between Rogers and Stark in Civil War is momentary, fleeting, and yet the definitive visual symbol for what is to come (spoiler: a disagreement or two). It occurs during a crisis meeting where the film tests our moral mettle via a slideshow showing Avengers-induced decimation, a meeting notable not only because it sets the fragmentation touchpaper alight, but also because it represents the bureaucracy in Stark’s argument.

We see more of that bureaucracy later: when the returning General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) cuts a mission deadline from 72 to 36 hours, for instance, and also during a key UN conference. “Victory at the expense of the innocent is no victory at all,” states Wakandan leader T’Chaka (John Kani) at said meeting. These are significant words in any circumstance, but coming off the back of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky — its premise based on powerful people juggling a young girl’s life before a potentially deadly terrorist strike — they resonate with significantly more gravitas. They place Rogers in a predicament that is ethically unusual for a blockbuster hero, especially one built upon a foundation of untainted righteousness: in arguing for free will, Rogers is by proxy defending the notion that some may die on the road to ultimate freedom.

There are grey tendencies in both camps that serve to ripen the narrative core. The ultimatum posed to the Avengers that they must sign the Accords or retire comes across as too heavy-handed, autocratic almost, while Rogers’ stubbornness suggests an insurmountable ideological purity that is perhaps blinding him from the harsh realities of modern geopolitics. The density of the fractured dynamic between those involved, especially between the lead duo, is endlessly compelling and fairly new to the genre I think, at least to the extent depicted here — you could argue X-Men: First Class tackled something similar, though even then Magneto’s presence shepherded a noticeable cloud of villainy.

Previous Marvel movies have been chastised for their lack of proper stakes, for their inability to suspend our disbelief when it comes to decisive matters such as estrangement or death. The nature of announcing franchise instalments years in advance has undoubtedly tainted the element of surprise (chances are Thor will make it past the end credits of Film Two when he’s on the call sheet for Film Three). Which makes Civil War all the more impressive. There are stakes this time, genuine gut-punchers centred on the solidity of relationships between various characters with whom we’ve spent the better part of a decade. If you don’t get that sense of clout from seeing such personal combustion, the frequent use of bold text to outline numerous city names ought to induce a big-time aura.

And despite all the bickering, there remains a wonderfully light touch; a vitality, a hilarity. At times the action is brutish — an apartment ambush involving Cap and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) borrows tepidly from the more crunching style seen in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones. It’s also fantastical: a monumental airport duel between the two teams almost certainly trounces all that has come before in terms of Marvel silver screen choreography. It’s at this point Ant-Man comes to the fore, Paul Rudd stealing scene after scene atop a wave of witty quips. We have seen him before but this is Ant-Man’s introduction to large scale superheroism and it is perfectly handled. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man is another positive, a bit immature, a bit overawed, a total do-gooder.

Though it may become ground zero for those looking to pull off their own future balancing act when it comes to handling personnel in an action environment, the airport clash only amounts to around one-fifth of Civil War’s runtime. The filmmakers manage to carve out meaningful narrative space for all their recruits throughout the piece in a way that does not indicate last minute hot-shotting. Black Panther gets a solid run-out, played with brooding authority by Chadwick Boseman who affords the newbie an air of instant importance. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow returns in a role that requires as much emotional interaction as it does ass-kicking.

Having landed the daunting task of sorting out so many moving parts — different enemies, different friends, different allegiances — the Russo brothers succeed by matching those variables to the many moving moralities on display. I haven’t even mentioned Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, or Anthony Mackie’s Falcon. Nor have I brought up Daniel Brühl’s scheming villain Helmut Zemo, who might be a tad underserved but then it isn’t really about the baddie on this occasion. This is a formidable cast all in good form. Even Marisa Tomei sneaks in a playful jab clarifying aunts come in all shapes and sizes (take that internet).

Anyone who has any inkling of how blockbuster cinema works will likely recognise what they perceive to be a predictable arc unfolding. But the directing duo and their filmmaking collaborators work hard to induce genuine unpredictability, be it through character decision-making or surprising story reveals. Again the Russo brothers mix hard-boiled geopolitics with a palooza of popcorn-crunching proportions, and again they succeed. In trilogy terms, the Captain America series is by far the best the genre has cooked up to date (Nolan’s Dark Knight films are as much superhero movies as they are love stories) and Civil War is an ideal way to Cap it all off.

Captain America: Civil War - Chris Evans

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures