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

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: June 19th, 2009 (UK); June 24th, 2009 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox

When it comes to giant robots hitting each other, this is more horrific and dim than Pacific Rim. After being punched illegally below the belt last time, we’ve carelessly staggered back for round two where everything is bigger, louder and even more insulting. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, then, hones in on a once universal toy that has moved on from mild swearing to juvenile leg humping. Michael Bay’s second instalment looks neat for a while but once the materialistic disguise wears away we’re left with an outing that makes up for in immaturity what it loses in efficiency.

There is no structure here. No beginning, middle and end. It’s just a mass of special effects that progressively squanders specialness and a bunch of indecipherable machines who relentlessly fritter away parts. At two and a half hours long and over $200 million spent, Revenge of the Fallen simply isn’t good enough.

A few years have passed since the events in Transformers. Sam (Shia LaBeouf) is heading off to college, Mikaela (Megan Fox) is fixing vehicles and the Decepticons are looking for another reason to attack. Fortunately, a piece of the cube from the last film innocuously falls from an old T-shirt in Sam’s closet (imagine that!), setting in motion a series of events involving odd symbolic visions, the Pyramids of Giza, Optimus Prime and stealing the Sun. Or something.

Humans and Autobots now work together as part of a military NEST branch that targets Decepticons. Straight away, we see Autobots project the form of attractive females. A few scenes and countless soaring fireballs later (Bay can only withstand five minutes without including an explosion this time) the focus shifts to Megan Fox suggestively bending over a motorcycle, because that’s how mechanics roll in her neck of the woods. At least we know where we stand. The Transformers trademark has transformed from a children’s plaything to an adrenaline-fuelled macho void, and for absolutely no justifiable reason. Bay even uses college sex as an excuse to unleash his beloved brand of action-packed booms. His woman characters — because, let’s be honest, nobody else would dehumanise the female gender like this — are sold as nothing more than window dressing to pull in adolescents who know no better. Rachael Taylor’s smart scientist is out, services no longer required. Too intelligent obviously. Her substitute is Isabel Lucas, who exists solely to have a thing for Shia LaBeouf. Do the Oscars give out an award for misogyny?

The film is even more of a mess than its predecessor. From start to finish proceedings play out as a constant battle where the only people who care about civilian fatalities less than us are the filmmakers. “Worldwide casualties are in the neighbourhood of 7000,” we hear before the outing hastily returns to what’s important (loud bangs). The conclusion of this continuous war is a human versus robot encounter that is outrageously implausible even within the context of maximum implausibility. Though, it is rather poetic that the main monster here takes the form of an enormous hoover, particularly given Revenge of the Fallen is a total moral-vacuum. A National Security Advisor shows up at one point to explain the details of what happened previously. The moment actually works on two pathetic levels: both as a quick fix for those who avoided the first film and as a driving force for this film’s narrative. Essentially, Bay relies on simplifying that which is already simple because he feels it’s the only way his audience can understand the plot.

The piece even begins to suffer in the only area where it normally impresses. Sure, the visuals are pristinely executed and rather impressive for a while, but the mystique soon dissolves in favour of splurging cinematic yuck. A spread of music videoitis is rife; the camera simply cannot sit still and instead consistently circles characters in tandem with puppet string musical interludes. There’s never a hair out of place as good looking people appear even better looking and the average Joe doesn’t exist. We’re even rewarded with moments of slow motion, bestowing a longer life span upon the explosions. Ben Seresin’s cinematography is so obviously trying to impress that it manifests as desperate. And still, sequences unfurl with ugliness — watch out for the Decepticons landing sloppily on Earth.

Revenge of the Fallen is actually at its best when the Transformers aren’t around, when what’s playing out on screen is an awkward family comedy. Driven by stupid humour, the sequences involving Sam and his parents are the most entertaining. Kevin Dunn and Julie White offer brief junctures of light relief as Mr and Mrs Witwicky. (In truth, these sparsely spread few seconds go down like a glass of ice cold water in the desert). Shia LaBeouf annoys a tad more than in the first film, but it’s unfair to chastise him for the all-encompassing faults strangling a severely lacking script. Megan Fox has even less to do than in the first flick, if that’s possible.

It might not be a total money-making scheme yet — that’s the next one — but Revenge of the Fallen is undoubtedly the grandest black hole in a star-destroying franchise. Nothing’s salvageable from the wreckage. This is cinematic homicide and Michael Bay is guilty as charged.

Transformers Revenge of the Fallen - Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Paramount Pictures

Transformers (2007)

★★

Transformers PosterDirector: Michael Bay

Release Date: July 3rd, 2007 (US); July 27th, 2007 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel

It’s Transformers week everybody! Indeed, unlike you lucky people across the Atlantic who’ve had a whole seven days to digest Michael Bay’s latest installment of metal mayhem, for us cinema folk here in the UK Transformers: Age of Extinction is hot off the press. I’ve not seen it yet. (Admittedly, the robustness of the word “yet” in that sentence is questionable.) To tell you the truth, I’m not a great admirer of Bay’s adopted franchise. It all started in 2007.

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is a stereotypical boy teenager. He’s into cars, girls and late-19th century exploration. Perhaps that last attribute isn’t the most applicable to a male adolescent, but it’s part of an eccentric mosaic that sets Sam apart from the rest. It could simply be a feeble plot point, but who am I to judge. Certainly, Sam has a crush on his classmate Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) but the only way he’s going to get her attention is with an engine.

Turns out his new car is a Transformer. There’s a multitude of other stuff going on — political struggles, technological misfire, a band of surviving soldiers in Qatar (that’s in the Middle East, by the way), the arrival of evil Decepticons, the arrival of friendly Autobots — but at its most basic, and this film is rather basic, Transformers is about giant robots punching and kicking and wheeling each other.

Director Michael Bay cannot contain himself. His immaturity spills out across the screen from the get-go: a gravelly, deep voice kicks off proceedings ushering in the overly macho tone; an array of snazzy camera angles each act as a sales pitch for the next military helicopter; it only takes six and half minutes for the first (and second, third, fourth) explosion to shake the screen. Bay absolutely has a way with visuality. He’s able to create carnage that looks impressive and that sounds impressive. But it’s all very movie trailer-esque, as if we’re watching a feature length advert for the next blockbuster only it’s stuck on a loud, grating loop.

Substance would take a back seat if the back seat still existed — Megatron probably crushed it. He, or it, is the villain. Adversary of the human-appreciating Optimus Prime who arrives promptly with his band of misfit car pretenders to save the day. They’re robots though, and they’re not blanketed in enough development to make us care. Nor are the human characters and, although the likes of Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox (she’s far from the worst thing in this film) amass their very best collective effort to generate some sort of viewer connection, one doesn’t exist.

It could be that goings-on shimmer with an unhealthy sheen of artifice. The CGI looks good but ultimately acts as a momentary veil over the real problem: shallowness. There are four female characters dotted throughout the almost two and a half hour runtime. That’s about one for every six male. (At least, males with lines.) We’ve got two mothers who seldom appear, a smart analyst played efficiently by Rachael Taylor who’s treated as though she’s dumb despite being the smartest of the pack, and Megan Fox whose role is almost entirely based on her cosmetic allure. The US President doesn’t make a full-body appearance but we do hear him mutter some chauvinist line to a flight attendant — oops, there’s a fifth female.

There’s arguably an even larger issue at hand here and it’s to do with us, the audience. But what audience? It’s eternally tough to care about giant car shape-shifters because they do little else but fight, so in that sense Transformers might not be for me. I’m not into meaningless vehicular smackdown, that’s fine. It’s a film for kids then, one for the younger boys and girls who do get a genuine kick out of that sort of thing. Only there’s Megan Fox bending over car bonnets. And hold on a minute, those child-friendly robots have started swearing now. It’s only mild here, but the defamation of what once was a children’s 80s cartoon flick and toy line is catapulted into the next stratosphere in Transformers 2 and 3. There obviously is an audience for the franchise, it’s already made over two billion dollars worldwide, but the respect between filmmaker and his viewership is seemingly only half-mutual. (Come on Michael, we know Qatar is in the Middle East).

The aforementioned runtime is also unnecessary, particularly when scenes involving irrelevant clothes removal and lamppost handcuffing take up five minutes of screen time. This is the director at optimum indulgence. It’s more boring than annoying. In Michael Bay’s material world where only good-looking people exist and big booming fireballs carry more weight than sturdy narrative, Transformers is probably a masterpiece. In the real world, it’s a film that alienates the young audience it should be targeting in favour of a guaranteed cash prize.

Early on Mikaela’s jock boyfriend says, “Oh no, this is not a toy”. He’s talking about a car and he’s completely right. Transformers ain’t a toy anymore. The innocence is gone.

Note: This was originally posted over at Movie Pilot, where you’ll find more articles and reviews from myself, plus the occasional poll. We all love polls, right?

Transformers - Michael Bay

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): DreamWorks, Paramount Pictures

The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.