Pacific Rim Uprising movie review

For inSing

PACIFIC RIM UPRISING

Director : Steven S. DeKnight
Cast : John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Jing Tian, Adria Arjona, Zhang Jin
Genre : Action, Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 51m
Opens : 22 March 2018
Rating : PG13

Once more unto the breach, dear friends: a Pacific Rim sequel has arrived in the hopes of kick-starting a full-fledged franchise. Will this world of giant monsters (Kaiju) and robots (Jaegers) proceed apace with a Guillermo del Toro-shaped void at its centre?

It is ten years after the events of the first film. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the ne’er-do-well son of the late war hero, Jaeger pilot General Stacker Pentecost, wants nothing to do with the Pan Pacific Defence Corps. He flunked out of the academy years ago but is drawn back into the fray by his adoptive sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

Re-entering the Corps, Jake confronts his old rival Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). A new cadet arrives in the form of Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a resourceful young scavenger who has built her own Jaeger, Scrapper. It’s been ten years since the Kaiju last attacked earth, but a new wave of invaders, armed with a secret weapon, is inbound. Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) of Shao Industries is developing a new generation of remotely-piloted Jaegers, earning the ire of the current crop of Jaeger pilots. She has employed Kaiju expert Dr Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) to work on the drones. When a mysterious rogue Jaeger named Obsidian Fury attacks, Jake, Nate and the cadets must defend earth and get to the bottom of who or what is controlling the robot.

It’s understandable that based on the premise alone, some wrote off the original Pacific Rim as being a brainless and cacophonous enterprise akin to the Transformers films. Del Toro ensured that was not to be, delivering a well-made genre film bursting with textural detail, featuring archetypical but compelling characters, and paying tribute to Japanese Tokusatsu and anime without feeling slavish.

It’s too bad that Pacific Rim Uprising is the movie some feared the first would be. For every decision that del Toro would’ve made, Uprising bolts in the opposite direction.

Where Pacific Rim was set in a well-realised, lived-in sci-fi future, Uprising looks shiny and toy-like. The robots in the first film had lots of personality, but the ones here are more interchangeable. When the first movie fell back on formula, it was tempered with earnestness and sincerity. This feels like a more cynical studio product. While many of the characters in the first film were likeable, the characters here are largely annoying.

Replacing del Toro in the director’s chair is Steven S. DeKnight, who created the Spartacus TV series and who was the showrunner on the first season of Daredevil. DeKnight also co-wrote the script with Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin. Uprising’s dialogue is often cringe-worthy, and while some jokes land, many do not. There are ham-fisted stabs at relevance by way of referencing outdated memes, and there isn’t enough charm to compensate for the familiarity of the plot and characters.

The world-ending stakes feel diminished, and the computer-generated robots seem to lack weight. Almost all the Jaeger vs. Kaiju battles in the first movie were in rain-soaked darkness, while the fights here take place in the daylight. While it gives us a better look at the larger-than-life combatants, it also exacerbates a sense of artifice. There are certain ideas at play that are very cool, and the throw down between Gipsy Avenger and Obsidian Fury in the Siberian tundra is fun to watch. However, none of the set-pieces are awe-inspiring the way those in the first film were.

This movie comes five years after its predecessor, and it feels a little early to tell a ‘next generation’ story. It doesn’t help that this follows many of the story beats from Independence Day: Resurgence. Despite its $150 million budget, the film sometimes feels like a direct-to-video sequel.

Unfortunately, the Jake Pentecost character is a big contributing factor. Boyega is charming and has excellent comic timing, but he is patently unconvincing as a badass action hero. Idris Elba has left gigantic shoes to fill, and while the movie is quick to remind us that Jake is not his father, it just makes us miss his father. This film sorely lacks gravitas, and Elba is essentially gravitas in human form.

The similarities between Cailee Spaeny’s Amara and Daisy Ridley’s Rey from Star Wars are impossible to miss. They’re both scrappy underdogs who are skilled mechanics and rise from obscurity to face insurmountable odds. While Ridley was endearing as Rey, Spaeny is merely whiny. The newcomer seems out of place in the big budget surroundings. She has plenty of projects lined up and is poised to hit the big time, but there’s room for improvement.

Eastwood is one of those generically handsome leading men Hollywood is trying a little too hard to make happen. There must be less clumsy ways to pander to China than this and films like Independence Day: Resurgence have. Jing Tian is stiff and far from a commanding presence as a Chinese tech mogul looking to revolutionise Jaegers. Jing has had roles in Legendary Pictures projects such as The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island, but these attempts to kickstart a Hollywood career feel woefully inadequate.

Rinko Kikuchi, who was indelible as Mako Mori in the first film, has a drastically reduced part. Charlie Day wears on the nerves with his increased screen time, while Burn Gorman dutifully does what he can as the stock eccentric scientist.

Pacific Rim Uprising delivers popcorn spectacle and is never boring, but it strips away all the heart, sincerity and much of the technical mastery possessed by its predecessor. The influence of Chinese investors on the story is all too apparent and while kids might be entertained by the big fights, there isn’t enough to take one’s breath away. The film’s ending blatantly begs for a sequel, but there’s little here to inspire faith in wherever this series heads next.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Kong: Skull Island

For F*** Magazine

KONG: SKULL ISLAND 

Director : Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast : Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, Jing Tian, John Ortiz, Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Terry Notary
Genre : Action/Adventure/Fantasy
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 9 March 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

12 years after Peter Jackson’s King Kong, the classic movie monster lumbers back onto the big screen. It is 1973, and Bill Randa (Goodman), a senior official of the secret government organisation Monarch, is in search of monsters. He plans an expedition to an uncharted land mass nicknamed as ‘Skull Island’. Randa hires James Conrad (Hiddleston), a former SAS Captain who served in the Vietnam War, as a hunter-tracker. U.S. Army Lt. Col. Preston Packard (Jackson) is a helicopter squadron leader, and is brought on to escort the expedition. The team also comprises war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Larson), geologist Houston Brooks (Hawkins), biologist San Lin (Jing), Landsat official Victor Nieves (Ortiz) and Maj. Jack Chapman (Kebbell), Packard’s right-hand man. When explosives are detonated as part of the survey, an enormous ape called Kong (Notary/Kebbell) is provoked. The survivors of Kong’s initial attack come across Hank Marlow (Reilly), a pilot who has been stranded on Skull Island since World War II. The expedition soon learns that Kong is far from the only beast to call the island home, embarking on a survival odyssey.

Kong: Skull Island exists in the ‘MonsterVerse’, a planned cinematic universe which includes 2014’s Godzilla. This is a B-movie with A-list stars and a big budget, mostly living up to the potential to be a thrilling adventure yarn and a throwback to the creature features of yore. This is the first large-scale tentpole blockbuster for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who directed Kings of Summer and Nick Offerman: American Ham. He acquits himself well, delivering top grade escapism. Taking place in the waning days of the Vietnam War, the film makes great use of its period setting, taking inspiration from works like Apocalypse Now. There’s a healthy amount of humour and while Kong: Skull Island doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s a nail-biter when it needs to be. This is the kind of film that would be enhanced by the audience reacting, with jump scares and unexpected deaths sure to elicit gasps and shrieks.

Kong: Skull Island is not a strikingly original work – fantasy artist Joe DeVito, who co-wrote and illustrated the book King Kong of Skull Island, sued Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures for allegedly stealing his ideas, having had a pitch meeting with the studios. While there are familiar elements to Kong: Skull Island, there’s still plenty of imagination at work. The native Iwi people have distinctive tattoos and markings, and the creature designs are effective and awe-inspiring. In designing the Skullcrawlers, Kong’s Reptilian nemeses, Vogt-Roberts drew on the pit lizard from the 1933 King Kong film, Sachiel from Evangelion, No-Face from Spirited Away and Cubone from Pokémon.

The titular creature is performed via motion capture by Terry Notary and Toby Kebbell from the Planet of the Apes reboot films, and great effort is taken to establish the sheer enormousness of this reimagined Kong, scaled larger so he can one day take on Godzilla. Larry Fong’s cinematography captures the blend of natural beauty and extraordinary danger contained within Skull Island, with location filming in northern Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia’s Gold Coast selling the island as an actual, tangible place.

For all his charms, Hiddleston doesn’t exactly fit the archetype of a rugged, square-jawed action hero. Looking for all the world like he’s cosplaying Nathan Drake from the Uncharted video games, he does seem a little out of his element but is trying his best to sell it. The character’s name, “Conrad”, is a reference to Joseph Conrad, the novelist best known for Heart of Darkness. By the time he dons a gas mask to slash at flying Pterodactylus creatures with a katana amidst a swirl of noxious fumes, we were sold.

Jackson is playing the badass as usual, but there are layers to the Preston Packard character that make him stand out from the typical Samuel L. Jackson role. He’s disillusioned as the Vietnam War ends, and hunting down Kong to avenge his men gives him new purpose. It’s the ‘great white hunter’ archetype, and Jackson has compared his character to Captain Ahab from Moby-Dick.

Goodman is an ever-dependable presence, with Reilly providing comic relief and surprising pathos as a castaway who has spent nearly three decades stuck on Skull Island. Larson’s anti-war photographer helps to mitigate all that testosterone to a degree. While Kong doesn’t get a doomed romance like in almost every earlier incarnation, it’s referenced by having him share a moment or two with Mason.

Most of the supporting characters exist purely to be picked off one by one by the island’s denizens. Jing Tian sticks out, her casting an obvious bid to pander to Mainland Chinese audiences – which is something we’re only going to be seeing more of. After all, Legendary Pictures is now owned by China’s Dalian Wanda group.

Kong: Skull Island kicks off with an intriguing prologue, hits a bit of a lull when all the characters are being established and the mission is being set up, then hits its stride once the expedition arrives on the island. With beautiful scenery, solid visual effects spectacle and thrilling set-pieces in which various characters meet their untimely and inventive ends, Kong: Skull Island makes us wish big-budget monster movies were a little more common. Stick around for a post-credit scene which teases the future of the MonsterVerse.

Summary: Kong: Skull Island is a monster movie that doesn’t skimp on the monsters, a rousing adventure bolstered by its period setting and stellar cast.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong