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

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

All Eyes on The Force Awakens Cast in Official New Posters

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Rey

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Finn

Star Wars news klaxon! Those behind The Revenant’s marketing campaign recently stepped things up a notch with the release of two brand new, ominous character posters. Now 2015’s most anticipated movie, and The Revenant’s stiffest competitor this winter, is getting in on the artistic act.

Disney and Lucasfilm previously sent moviegoers the world over into a unified frenzy (or two) over a couple of exceedingly well-crafted trailers, and now the studio behemoths have opted to gift us a handful of superb character posters for The Force Awakens. The images don’t say much, a principle wholeheartedly in keeping with J.J. Abrams’ tight-lipped directorial approach thus far.

What we do know is this: the film is set around 30 years after Return of the Jedi and stars Daisy Ridley as Rey, a self-sustaining scavenger whose life takes an adventurous turn when John Boyega’s Finn shows up in stormtrooper gear — presumably he ain’t dressed up for Halloween. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, and Andy Serkis join familiar faces Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill to form a seriously exciting cast.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Kylo

Rey, Finn, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Kylo Ren (Driver) all have solo head shots, though there is nothing as of yet for Isaac’s Poe Dameron or Gleeson’s General Hux. Isaac can at least rest easy in the knowledge that his character unequivocally has the best name. Luke Skywalker is once again conspicuous by his absence, having already missed out trailer-wise. Read into that what you will.

Intriguingly, each poster shows its respective character’s right eye being obstructed by a weapon, or a beam of light in Leia’s case. I’m mystified by the visual symmetry on offer though I’m sure its symbolism will wreak havoc upon the galaxy at some point. For now we can only mull over any underlying message and anticipate what could end being the biggest film of all time. Avatar might have the Na’vi, but it doesn’t have a Chewbacca.

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens is out December 17th in the UK and December 18th in the US. My heart merrily bleeds for you America.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Han

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Leia

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures