Avengers: Infinity War review

For inSing

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

Directors : Anthony and Joe Russo
Cast : Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Karen Gillan, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin
Genre : Action/Comics
Run Time : 2h 29m
Opens : 25 April 2018
Rating : PG13

We’re going to do things a little differently.

Going into Avengers: Infinity War, you’ve been told to avoid spoilers like the plague, and yet, we want you to read this review, which will be spoiler-free.

This will be a review, and yet not a review. We’re hoping that you’ll read this, but if you don’t wanna, that’s fine.

We’ll say it up front: this is a particularly tricky movie to write a spoiler-free review of, but we’ll give it the best shot we’ve given anything.

Marvel has hyped Avengers: Infinity War as the most ambitious crossover event staged in entertainment media. They’re not wrong. No matter which way you look at this movie, it’s tricky to put together. It’s a puzzle with the pieces constantly moving.

Even with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War under the Russo brothers’ belts, there are still many times during Infinity War when one is wont to wonder aloud “how did the guys from Arrested Development and Community get here?” This is a film with a sprawling scope, even for a genre which is all about scope. The Russo brothers, with the in-built support at Marvel Studios, do a commendable job of wrangling it all.

This reviewer would love to have been a fly on the wall while the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were hammering this out. Imagine all the iterations, all the bits and pieces that maybe didn’t quite work, before we got here.

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A studio hasn’t quite been able to announce to the audience “right, you should’ve seen all 18 of these movies, or at least most of them, before you watch this. Off you go, then.” Not even long-running franchises like the Bond movies, Star Wars, or Harry Potter can really demand that, and know that most audiences would have fulfilled that demand. There’s a swaggering confidence about Infinity War, and yet it’s not off-putting or self-congratulatory. If anything, Marvel Studios is deliberately making things really difficult for themselves going forward.

Over the years, the MCU has garnered its fair share of detractors. There are purists, there are ardent fanboys who have fixated on one niggling aspect or another that dissatisfied them, there are those who loyally back the other team (this reviewer has been accused of being both paid off by Disney and being biased towards DC movies), there are those who say it’s all too funny and nothing is taken seriously enough. Depending on the context, some aspects of these criticisms are valid, but it’s important to take a step back and consider all the myriad hurdles that the people making these films have cleared to get here.

At the core of Infinity War is a MacGuffin hunt that has spanned multiple movies, with so much being set up in previous instalments, leading up to this. The film takes inspiration from the Infinity Gauntlet comic book arc in 1991, written by Jim Starlin, and the 2013 Infinity crossover event, written by Jonathan Hickman. Infinity War is the culmination of intergalactic warlord and ‘mad titan’ Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) search for the Infinity Stones. We’ve seen five of the six stones in previous movies, and he’s looking to collect them all.

This is a quest that has attendant consequences and sacrifice, and from the beautifully staged, dramatic and grave opening scene onwards, viewers have a good idea of what to expect. There are plenty of jokes, but unlike in previous MCU movies, this reviewer felt less of a sense that said jokes were stepping on the dramatic beats.

This reviewer wasn’t the biggest fan of Civil War, because there was noticeable bloat and the central conflict didn’t really get enough room to breathe. Weirdly enough, that seems like less of a problem here. Clocking in at 149 minutes and costing an estimated $300-400 million, it seems a foregone conclusion that Infinity War would be more bloated than a beached whale, but it moves with great finesse.

Infinity War could easily have come off as a string of unrelated set-pieces. It’s evident that this was not constructed by devising the set-pieces first, with the plot being filled in around those. Our massive ensemble is handily organised into groups, with said groups meeting and then diverging as the story progresses. The groups all make sense, and there is considerable time dedicated to reinforcing and evolving existing relationships.

The romance between Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) elicited the most emotion out of this reviewer. The Guardians of the Galaxy team up with Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and we delve a little deeper into the relationship between Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her estranged adoptive father Thanos.

It seems like Markus and McFeely really enjoyed writing the Guardians, nailing the voices of each character. There’s a consistency which feels organic and yet must’ve been challenging to achieve. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) and Doctor Strange/Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) butt heads and egos, while Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) faces more struggles in getting control of his alter ego, the Hulk. A good portion of the film is set in Wakanda, which in Black Panther, has just opened itself to the outside world, its people getting more than they bargained for here.

It wasn’t really that long ago when we thought we’d never see Peter Parker in the MCU, so it’s a genuine thrill to see Holland’s Spider-Man interact with so many characters and feel like he was always meant to be in this line-up.

Thanos feels like an actual character rather than just an obstacle our heroes must overcome. We get just enough back-story and there is respectable gravity to the proceedings. There’s a lot of fantastic acting on display from everyone involved. This is not a movie in which the spectacle does all the legwork.

Avengers: Infinity War is a staggering work of virtuosic audacity. Its filmmakers play the audience like a fiddle. The ending is either a howl-inducing gut punch or sheer genius – maybe both at once. You’re probably going to be frustrated at some point or another, but there will be gasps, there will be cheers, there will be laughter, and depending on how fragile the audience at your screening is, there might be open sobbing.

Given the nigh-insane parameters the filmmakers were working within, Avengers: Infinity War is the best movie it could’ve been.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Rampage movie review

For inSing

RAMPAGE

Director : Brad Peyton
Cast : Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Åkerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Marley Shelton
Genre : Action/Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 47m
Opens : 12 April 2018
Rating : PG13

Rampage-posterDwayne Johnson, arguably the closest thing this generation has to 80s action heroes like Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, shares the screen with monsters who dwarf even him in this creature feature.

Johnson plays Davis Okoye, an Army Special Forces soldier-turned primatologist working at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. George, an albino silverback gorilla with whom Davis shares a close bond, begins growing and displaying violent, erratic behaviour. George has come into contact with a mutagen developed by Energyne, after a genetic splicing experiment conducted aboard a space station goes horribly awry.

Rampage-header

Geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a former Energyne employee, arrives to help Davis deal with George’s mutation. In the meantime, a wolf and an alligator have also been exposed to the mutagen. As the creatures become ever fiercer, government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) attempts to control the situation, while butting heads with Davis and Kate. The pair must foil the dastardly plans of Energyne’s head honchos Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman) and her doltish brother Brett (Jake Lacy), who draw the creatures to Chicago where they will wreak untold havoc.

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Rampage is based on the classic arcade game of the same name. In the original game, players controlled one of three mutated, formerly-human monsters, causing as much destruction as possible to proceed to the next level. There was not much in the way of plot, and there didn’t need to be.

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The plot in the Rampage movie serves little purpose other than to fill time and justify the giant monster action sequences. The film reunites Johnson with Brad Peyton, who directed him in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas. Like San Andreas, there is plenty of disaster movie mayhem on display in Rampage, but while it was a little uncomfortable watching that movie right after the 2015 Nepal earthquakes, the wanton destruction is easier to enjoy in Rampage, given that there haven’t been any giant gorilla, wolf and alligator attacks in major metropolises lately.

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The visual effects work, especially on George, portrayed via motion capture by Jason Liles, is excellent. When the giant monsters are onscreen, which is the case for a significant portion of the film, things are entertaining and silly. There are some violent moments which push the PG-13 rating and it’s hard not to derive some joy from that. Even then, the city-levelling climactic action sequence can get a little numbing. Anything involving our human characters is tedious, thanks to stock back-stories and cringe-worthy exposition-laden dialogue. “It’s going to be a lot more emotional, a lot scarier and a lot more real than you’d expect,” Peyton said of the film when it was announced. Alas, Rampage is none of those.

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Dwayne Johnson delivers the performance one would expect: that of the charismatic, larger-than-life action hero who’s here to save the day. It’s nothing different from what we’ve seen before, but it gets the job done and he’s good at this stuff. Davis shares quite a bit in common with Jurassic World‘s Owen Grady: they’re both former military men who work with dangerous animals and have bonded with one creature under their care. Johnson tries to sell the relationship between Davis and George, and while that is never emotionally affecting, Johnson can’t be faulted for it.

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Harris’ Dr Kate Caldwell comes complete with a groan-inducing motivation for getting back at the company that’s done her wrong. Harris tries to make the material work, but the film seems to struggle with figuring out what purpose her character serves for most of the movie.

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Rampage is at its cheesiest not during the monster attack sequences, but when it turns its attention to the villainous Wyden siblings. Claire is coolly evil while her brother bumbles about in the background. While both Åkerman and Lacy look to be enjoying themselves, neither is ever actually threatening, and the cartoonish nature of their performances undercuts the stakes of the monster madness.

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Jeffrey Dean Morgan drawls his way through a reasonably fun supporting part as a shadowy government agent, while Joe Manganiello shows up very briefly as a private military contractor. Everyone’s playing to type, and Rampage contains frustratingly little in the way of surprises or spontaneity.

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Nobody can accuse Rampage of not delivering the all-out giant monster goods, but the movie stops considerably short of being the expertly-made escapism it could’ve been. There’s a tonal struggle between being ridiculous and being earnest that Peyton lacks the skill to reconcile. Rampage doesn’t take itself too seriously at all, but its clumsy attempts at emotional beats and its predictable, store-bought monster movie plot stand in the way of it being truly entertaining.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Titan movie review

For inSing

THE TITAN

Director : Lennart Ruff
Cast : Sam Worthington, Taylor Schilling, Tom Wilkinson, Agyness Deyn, Nathalie Emmanuel, Diego Boneta, Noah Jupe
Genre : Sci-fi
Run Time : 1h 37m
Opens : 5 April 2018
Rating : NC16

In 2009’s Avatar, Sam Worthington played a man who transfers his consciousness into an alien body. In this sci-fi thriller, Worthington turns into an alien-like being again, albeit under different circumstances.

It is 2045, and mankind is forced to find new means of survival. Overpopulation and environmental destruction have doomed earth. Professor Martin Collingwood (Tom Wilkinson) has devised a revolutionary new procedure which will alter the genetics of test subjects, changing their physiology so they can live on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Collingwood believes that this “forced evolution” is the future of humanity.

Former soldier Rick Janssen (Sam Worthington) is one of the test subjects in the Titan program. Together with his wife Abigail (Taylor Schilling) and son Lucas (Noah Jupe), Rick moves to a research facility where he will undergo the transformation into a new species adapted to life on Titan. Unexpected side effects begin to occur, with the other test subjects turning uncontrollably violent. Abigail realises that she hasn’t been told everything about what exactly will happen to her husband and must face the horrifying reality that this terrifying leap forward in evolution might just be the end of humanity as we know it.

In Singapore, The Titan is being released on Netflix and in theatres. Smaller-scale sci-fi films have always fascinated this reviewer – it’s fun to see how filmmakers circumvent budgetary restraints and tap on their creativity to convincingly create world with limited resources.

The Titan has an intriguing premise and establishes it with a degree of plausibility. The production values pass muster, and the film benefits from the picturesque shooting location of the Canary Islands in Spain. The film has a slow build and there is a sense of dread as to what unexpected mutation lies around the corner for Rick. Towards the end, it enters action movie mode, and that’s when the movie feels a little clumsy and not fully realised.

The theme of man playing god has often fascinated filmmakers, and while The Titan stays a safe distance from schlocky silliness, its exploration of this theme lacks depth. The wider social implications of this type of genetic experimentation don’t quite take hold. Director Lennart Ruff, working from a screenplay by Max Hurwitz (with Arash Amel receiving a ‘story by’ credit), attempts to put the focus on the characters rather than the technical aspects of the procedure. Unfortunately, the characters aren’t especially interesting.

Sam Worthington seemed destined for A-list stardom after the success of Avatar, and while that has eluded him, he’s continued working steadily in smaller projects. Rick is a rather generic hero and the movie doesn’t get far enough into his head for us to appreciate the inner torment he experiences as he undergoes the procedure. It’s not a bad performance, but it could’ve been more affecting.

Taylor Schilling’s Abigail is a paediatrician, and she has a more proactive role in the story than most designated love interests in films of this type do. Thanks to her medical expertise, she can tell that’s something is amiss, and takes it upon herself to find out just what is happening to her husband. The film’s most emotional moments are when we see Abigail process that her husband is being taken from her bit by bit.

Wilkinson lends gravitas and dutifully delivers exposition, but by the end of the film, Dr Collingwood emerges as a rather one-dimensional character.

The other test subjects, who are played by actors including Nathalie Emmanuel, Diego Boneta and Aaron Heffernan, aren’t given huge amounts of character development. The fates that befall the less fortunate test subjects are shocking enough but aren’t quite as horrific as body horror movie aficionados have come to expect. The film’s restraint in not falling back on over-the-top gore is admirable.

The Titan isn’t bad, it’s just one of those films that sounds more interesting on paper than it winds up being. As a smaller scale sci-fi film, The Titan doesn’t take its premise far enough to truly capture the imagination but is unique enough to warrant curiosity.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Ready Player One movie review

For inSing

READY PLAYER ONE

Director : Steven Spielberg
Cast : Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen
Genre : Sci-fi, action
Run Time : 2h 20m
Opens : 29 March 2018
Rating : PG13

This Easter, several faith-based films are being released, including I Can Only Imagine and Paul, Apostle of Christ. This movie is about an Easter Egg hunt of epic proportions, with none other than Steven Spielberg as our guide.

It is 2045, and teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in ‘the Stacks’, a shantytown outside Columbus, Ohio. Like millions of other people around the world, he escapes the drudgery of life by entering a virtual reality realm known as the OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation), where he is known as Parzival. His best friend within the sprawling game is Aech (Lena Waithe), who runs a virtual garage.

James Donovan Halliday (Mark Rylance), who created the OASIS with his former partner Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg), has passed away. Halliday has created an Easter Egg hunt – the Easter Egg Hunter (Gunter for short) who finds three keys will inherit Halliday’s fortune of half a trillion dollars, and full control of the OASIS. Wade teams up with Aech, Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Sho (Philip Zhao) and Daito (Win Morisaki) to complete this epic quest.

Their main opponent: the Sixers, an army of Gunters indentured to Innovative Online Industries (IOI). The company’s greedy CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) has effectively enslaved players indebted to the company and wants control of the OASIS himself. It’s up to Parzival and company to beat Sorrento to the prize.

Ready Player One is based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. This is the ultimate geek power fantasy – what if one’s knowledge of pop culture ephemera could actually be used to gain a fortune and save the world?

At its heart, this is a hero’s journey, and the mechanics of the plot are not unlike that of many Young Adult novels with ‘chosen one’ plots. What makes Ready Player One more than the sum of its innumerable references is director Spielberg. Working from a screenplay adapted by Cline and Zak Penn, Spielberg infuses the film with energy, wide-eyed imagination and sheer awe-inspiring spectacle.

Spielberg works in one of two modes: ‘fun Spielberg’ and ‘serious Spielberg’. We saw ‘serious Spielberg’ this past awards season with The Post. While many ‘serious Spielberg’ movies are masterpieces, this reviewer always prefers ‘fun Spielberg’. The self-confessed video game enthusiast gets to indulge his inner gamer, fashioning a dizzying virtual world bursting with detail and lots of existing characters for audiences to point at the screen and recognise.

Ready Player One comments on nostalgia, escapism, and the power of pop culture in shaping our world. Much of Spielberg’s filmography inspires nostalgia, trades in escapism, and he is one of the premiere forces in shaping modern pop culture. Spielberg omitted the overt references to his own oeuvre found in the book, fearing it would come off as too self-indulgent. It feels like no one else could have made this movie, and even over 40 years after inventing the modern blockbuster with Jaws, Spielberg’s still got it. There are times when Ready Player One feels like it’s pandering to its geek target audience, but that’s inherent in the source material. There’s a pleasure in knowing that a filmmaker as exalted as Spielberg demonstrably is a geek at heart.

Of special note among the surfeit of references is a sequence which draws heavily on Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining. This is a delightful tribute to the late filmmaker, who was originally set to direct A.I.: Artificial Intelligence. Spielberg took over after Kubrick’s death.

The staggering scope of the OASIS is effectively conveyed. It feels like a world which would demand nothing less than complete devotion, and it’s therefore easy to buy the idea that people’s lives have been ruined in the pursuit of credits in-game. The visual effects, supervised by Roger Guyett and supplied by vendors including ILM and Digital Domain, are expansive and astounding. Credit also goes to special projects supervisor Deidre Backs, whose job it was to clear licenses to the myriad properties referenced in the film.

Spielberg’s regular composer John Williams dropped out of scoring this film to work on The Post. In his stead is Alan Silvestri, who seems like the best possible replacement for Williams. Silvestri pays homage to his iconic score for Back to the Future with rousing, melodic music.

The characters are all archetypical, but because of the storytelling device of the video game, that’s more than justified. Tye Sheridan’s Wade is a sometimes-dopey geek, a nobody in the real world but a somebody in the OASIS. He’s very much a wish fulfilment figure, but Sheridan is never annoying in the role.

Cooke’s Art3mis is a typical action girl, and the attempt at portraying the vulnerabilities that lie beneath that surface are sometimes clumsy. Cooke is poised to be the next big thing and is often more interesting than Sheridan. The romance is almost absurdly underdeveloped, undercutting Art3mis’ agency in the story somewhat.

Waithe is fun as the stock best friend character, while the two Asian characters seem to be only there so they can do martial arts. The supporting characters don’t get too much development, but that’s a function of the structure, so it’s easy to forgive.

Mendelsohn has found a niche playing middle management supervillains, and Sorrento is squarely in his wheelhouse.  It’s an entertainingly smarmy performance that’s the right side of hammy.

Rylance, Spielberg’s new muse, delivers a deeply affecting performance as misunderstood genius Halliday, who displays traits of Asperger’s syndrome. There’s a Steve Jobs-Steve Wozniak-type dynamic between Halliday and Og, which the film doesn’t quite have the space to flesh out but is compelling based on the little we see of it. This reviewer would love to see a prequel just about Halliday and Og developing the OASIS.

Ready Player One might feel intimidating to those who aren’t dyed-in-the-wool pop culture connoisseurs, but even if one doesn’t get all or even half of the references, there’s plenty to enjoy in seeing a master of the blockbuster work his magic on a massive canvas.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Jedd Jong

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 that. 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

Annihilation movie review

For inSing

ANNIHILATION

Director : Alex Garland
Cast : Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac
Genre : Sci-fi, horror
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 12 March 2018 (Netflix)
Rating : M18 (Violence And Disturbing Scenes)

Natalie Portman steps forth into the unknown in this sci-fi horror thriller. Portman plays Lena, a biologist and former soldier whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has vanished under mysterious circumstances. Lena learns that Kane went on a mission into ‘the Shimmer’, an otherworldly anomaly. Within the Shimmer lie all manner of mutant flora and fauna, the structure of every living thing in its boundaries transformed by a meteor which hit a lighthouse.

Lena volunteers to join an expedition into the Shimmer, with the knowledge that none who have entered before have ever left. Psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads the team, which also comprises paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and surveyor and geologist Cassie Sheppard (Tuva Nuvotny). The five women venture into the Shimmer, attempting to decipher its enigma and, more importantly, emerge alive.

Annihilation is based on the novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer. The film was adapted for the screen and directed by Alex Garland, who made his directorial debut with the much buzzed-about sci-fi drama Ex Machina. Garland decided not to re-read the book, instead adapting the material as “like a dream of the book”.

There was a degree of intrigue surrounding Annihilation and it is clearly a film that was intended to be seen on the big screen, so it’s a bit of a shame that while it received a theatrical release in the U.S. and China, it is being streamed on Netflix everywhere else. It seems that Paramount financier David Ellison wanted the film reshot after poor test screening results, deeming it “too intellectual”. Director Garland insisted on keeping the film the way it is and was backed by producer Scott Rudin. Paramount eventually made a deal to let Netflix handle international distribution.

With that background out of the way, it’s easy to see why Annihilation might not win over mass audiences, but the very things that set it apart from typical commercial films also make it interesting. Annihilation is a movie that will mess with your head, and if challenging, cerebral sci-fi is what you’re looking for, you’ll find that and then some here.

In Annihilation, what’s scary is also beautiful. The Shimmer is a world in which lots of things have gone wrong – or has everything gone right, and it’s the world outside that’s out of order? Annihilation delves into some heady themes but has the visual invention to hold our interest as it burrows ever further into the madness.

With echoes of H.P. Lovecraft, the works of John Carpenter and Stanley Kubrick, Annihilation is deliberately opaque and vague, but is tense enough to reel the viewer in. Cinematographer Rob Hardy plays with the light within the Shimmer, rendering everything ethereal but slightly menacing. The effect, when combined with other atmospherics including the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, creates a beguiling yet disorienting world that is truly alien.

 

Annihilation isn’t all highfalutin ponderousness: there are a healthy number of visceral genre thrills, including sequences when our characters get chased by monsters like an albino alligator with shark teeth. There is one truly stomach-turning moment of gory body horror, but Annihilation gets under one’s skin with psychological trickery rather than overt grossness. Just like the characters, we’re questioning everything we see. Garland masterfully generates a sense of being sure of nothing except the danger.

It’s worth noting that the film’s main cast is all female. Each of the five characters who go on the expedition are distinct enough from each other and while there isn’t a great deal of development for everyone, there’s sufficient information conveyed about each character that we’re invested in them as a group.

Lena is competent and intelligent but haunted, and Portman portrays the character with admirable sensitivity. She’s somewhat detached from the world, as if she’s lost a piece of herself since the disappearance of her husband. Lena is flawed and difficult to pin down. We see Lena fight battles internal and external, calling on her wits and determination to survive an overwhelming, perplexing ordeal.

Jennifer Jason Leigh is severe and guarded as Dr. Ventress, the authority figure who’s hiding something. We’ve seen Tessa Thompson play badass and assured, so it’s interesting to see her play withdrawn and insecure. Gina Rodriguez is a lively presence who also brings a degree of unpredictability to the table. Of the main cast, Tuva Nuvotny is the blandest, and a scene in which she tells Lena about the background of each team member feels a little on the nose.

For all its trippiness and immersive atmospherics, Annihilation makes several missteps. While the framing device set after the events of the bulk of the film is ostensibly to contextualise the flashbacks, it also means that we know at least some of the outcome of the expedition. There are moments when the film feels like it’s being ambiguous and confusing for the sake of it, but it never feels lazy while doing so.

Annihilation is an intense, thrilling and deeply creepy slice of sci-fi horror that’s sufficiently different from what audiences are used to. Garland continues to show promise as a genre director with an exciting voice, and many spirited discussions about the minutiae of the film and what it all means are bound to ensue. Step into the Shimmer; it’s a wild ride.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Wrinkle in Time movie review

For inSing

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Director : AvaDuVernay
Cast : Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Genre : Fantasy/Sci-fi/Family
Run Time : 1h 55m
Opens : 8 March 2018
Rating : PG

Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult sci-fi fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time has captured the imaginations of children for decades. Under the guidance of director Ava DuVernay, the story makes its way to the big screen.

Young Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has never been the same since the mysterious disappearance of her astrophysicist father Alex (Chris Pine) four years ago. She and her adoptive brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) are visited by the eccentric Mrs Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), a cosmic entity.

Meg, Charles Wallace and their schoolmate Calvin (Levi Miller) soon meet Mrs Whatsit’s compatriots, Mrs Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs Which (Oprah Winfrey). The three ‘Mrs Ws’ whisk the children away on an adventure in search of Meg and Charles’ father. It turns out that Alex Murry found a way to ‘tesser’ or ‘wrinkle time’, travelling through the universe and unable to find his way back. The path that lies before Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin is paved with wonder, but also untold danger.

Any time a major studio attempts to make a weird, trippy blockbuster that looks to be something outside the norm, it’s a risk. While audiences constantly crave something different, executing a project like that can be tricky. A Wrinkle in Time is as ambitious as it is flawed – while those flaws do make it very interesting, it is frustrating to glimpse the incredible film that might have been.

Ava DuVernay, director of Selma and 13th, is voice who needs to be heard. It’s a great thing that Disney hired her for A Wrinkle in Time, and DuVernay puts her stamp on the story. There are significant changes made the source material: in addition to updating the setting, the characters of Sandy and Dennys, the twins, have been omitted.

The activism that is at the heart of DuVernay’s storytelling can be glimpsed in the film, through small touches like naming the elementary school attended by Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin after novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin.

The film’s message is admirable, and its themes of insecurity and a search for belonging are eminently relatable. Unfortunately, A Wrinkle in Time isn’t the easiest film to get into. The world-building seems somewhat haphazard, and the movie struggles to sweep viewers up. There are some beautiful visuals, but much of the computer-generated scenery feels stubbornly synthetic. Location filming in Otago, New Zealand, does lend the film some grandeur, but the landscapes stop short of feeling truly magical.

L’Engle was reading about quantum physics while she wrote A Wrinkle in Time, and in the decades since then, there has been considerable progress in that realm. Both L’Engle’s Christian faith and her interest in science manifest themselves in her writing. We are presented with a melding of science and spirituality, with a new age sensibility permeating the film. The ‘problem of evil’ is confronted head on, with all the evil in the universe emanating from a mystical, malevolent entity known as “The It”. It’s a lot to wrap one’s head around, let alone in a film aimed at kids.

The film’s diverse cast is a point in its favour and is a major way in which DuVernay exercises her voice as the film’s director. Storm Reid shows promise playing the sullen, withdrawn Meg. Many young viewers will readily identify with Meg, and the film’s treatment of body image issues is praiseworthy.

McCabe is impish and endearing, but stumbles through some of the more challenging material in the third act. Miller, best known as Peter Pan in 2015’s Pan, is winsome and just the right amount of dopey as the tagalong.

The three Mrs Ws are appropriately larger-than-life, aided by dramatic hair and makeup and colourful, eye-catching costumes. Oprah Winfrey is convincing as a powerful, benevolent being, since that mostly aligns with her public image. Witherspoon is bubbly and silly, while Kaling is stranded reciting inspirational quotes, a device which doesn’t quite work. The Mrs Ws exist mostly to dispense reams of exposition and aren’t quite as fascinating as their appearances indicate.

Pine is charming, as he is wont to be, if not quite believable as a genius scientist. Gugu Mbatha-Raw doesn’t get too much to do as Meg and Charles Wallace’s mother Kate, but the film is effectively emotional when it depicts the family coping with Alex’s disappearance. Zach Galifianakis is quirky if inessential as The Happy Medium, who fits the ‘weird character we meet along the way’ archetype to a tee.

There is great value in much of what A Wrinkle in Time has to say, but as a transportive, absorbing sci-fi fantasy epic, it doesn’t quite hang together. A Wrinkle in Time is a ‘points for effort’ movie that takes risks – it’s clearly the work of a passionate filmmaker with a distinct voice, so it’s too bad that it winds up being this muddled and unsatisfying.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

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Wakanda Awaits: meet the characters of Black Panther

Get to know the heroes and villains of this Marvel adventure

By Jedd Jong

Filmgoing audiences were introduced to Prince T’Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War. The Black Panther movie, directed by Ryan Coogler, takes us to T’Challa’s  home country of Wakanda. The technologically-advanced African nation has harnessed the rare mineral Vibranium, derived from a meteorite that crashed there millions of years ago.

Black Panther is the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and kicks off its tenth anniversary – the first MCU film, Iron Man, was released in 2008.

The character is the first superhero of African descent to appear in mainstream American comics. Black Panther debuted in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966, and was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Writers including Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin and Ta-Nehisi Coates and artists including John Romita Jr., Brian Stelfreeze and Denys Cowan have worked on the Black Panther title.

The Black Panther film is already receiving rave reviews, with some calling it the best film in the MCU so far. The first Marvel film with a predominantly black cast, Black Panther is making an impact on the landscape of comic book films in a similar way that Wonder Woman did last year.

Before the movie whisks you off to Wakanda, here’s a primer on the characters you will meet there.

#1: T’CHALLA/BLACK PANTHER (Chadwick Boseman)

Chadwick Boseman has portrayed pioneering figures in African-American history in several biopics: baseball legend Jackie Robinson in 42, the godfather of soul James Brown in Get On Up and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. “The projects that I end up doing…have always been projects that will be impactful, for the most part, to my people — to black people,” Boseman said.  “To see black people in ways which you have not seen them before. So Black Panther was on my radar, and in my dreams.”

Boseman studied with a dialect coach to perfect a South African accent, and underwent an intense physical training regimen with martial artist Marrese Crump to perform the fight scenes. The film sees T’Challa struggle with the loss of his father, as he tries to keep the growing civil unrest in Wakanda under control – and face a challenger to his claim for the throne.

#2: ERIK STEVENS/KILLMONGER (Michael B. Jordan)

While Michael B. Jordan was in the critically-savaged Fantastic Four reboot, that did not scare him off taking on another role in a comic book movie. Like Chris Evans before him, who also played the Human Torch in two earlier Fantastic Four films, Jordan gets a second chance with a different Marvel character.

Jordan starred in Coogler’s earlier films Fruitvale Station and Creed, reuniting with the director as the main villain Killmonger. Killmonger is a Wakandan exile who became an American black-ops soldier, and believes that the Wakandan throne is rightfully his. Jordan described the character as “somebody you guys can root for,” calling him “a revolutionary.” Jordan repeated the adage that the villain believes he’s the hero of his own story. “If you can kind of get [the audience] to see that other point of view, I think the battle’s won,” Jordan remarked. Having already played a boxer in Creed, Jordan brought some of that physicality to Killmonger, saying that Coogler’s action scenes “tell a story with each punch”. Jordan also had to learn how to be handy with guns – “the weapons training is a totally different muscle,” he said.

#3: NAKIA (Lupita Nyong’o)

Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, a Wakandan intelligence operative and the ex-girlfriend of T’Challa. As a ‘war dog’, Nakia goes undercover on foreign soil, risking her life for the safety of her country. Nakia is one of several memorable female characters featured in the film. Nyong’o describes Nakia, who hails from Wakanda’s River Tribe, as “determined and methodical” and having “a quiet power”. Nyong’o asserts that Nakia is “she’s not your average love interest,” and that she and T’Challa have “a complicated past.”

“Wakanda is where we could be, where women are occupying their space in the future of a nation, they’re contributing equally and they’re allowed to realize their full potential and a woman’s power does not diminish a man’s,” Nyong’o observed. Nyong’o signed on without even reading the script, having admired Coogler’s previous work. After reading the script, she said she “couldn’t even believe it was a Marvel film, because it was so poignant, so politically and socially awake and aware.” The character’s fighting style is informed by judo, jiu-jitsu, silat and Filipino martial arts. She also learnt Korean for a scene set in Busan.

#4: OKOYE (Danai Gurira)

Danai Gurira, best known as silent badass Michonne on The Walking Dead, plays yet another commanding character: Okoye, the leader of the elite Dora Milaje bodyguard corps. Gurira was drawn to “the idea of protecting the leadership of this nation, the sovereignty of this nation, even if you don’t like what’s happening,” of putting country before personal politics – a dilemma that Okoye finds herself in.

Gurira describes Okoye as a traditionalist, saying “She has a pride and a patriotism about her nation. It goes beyond patriotism; it’s something even deeper.” Gurira spoke about travelling to Zimbabwe and seeing how excited the people there were about Black Panther. Musing on the impact the film will have on children of African descent all over the world, Gurira said “they’re in the centre of the screen, their faces are what you’re seeing. Their perspectives, their struggles, their stories, their characters, their destinies. That’s what we’re focused on, and their heroism.”

#5: SHURI (Letitia Wright)

Many reviews have noted Shuri, T’Challa’s little sister, as the scene-stealer of the film. Shuri is a 16-year-old genius scientist and inventor, who has devised cutting-edge technology to aid her brother’s crime-fighting efforts. Chief of these is a new suit which can harness and redistribute kinetic energy from strikes, and which fits into a necklace. In the comics, Shuri assumes the mantle of the Black Panther after her brother is grievously wounded in combat. Coogler says that Shuri’s genius is “on par with Tony Stark”.

Letitia Wright, who is being called the film’s breakout star, was recently seen in the fourth season of Black Mirror and will next be seen in Ready Player One. Wright was inspired to become an actress after watching the 2006 film Akeelah and the Bee. While she describes herself as being “obsessed” with acting, faith was ultimately where she found her centre. “I don’t really consider myself religious. I view it more as a relationship,” she said, adding that she doesn’t mind if anyone finds that “weird”.  Wright says Shuri has “an innovative spirit and an innovative mind,” and as the embodiment of the future of Wakanda, “wants to take Wakanda to a new place”.

#6: RAMONDA (Angela Bassett)

The regal Ramonda, Queen Mother of Wakanda, is played by Angela Bassett. She too is reeling from the death of T’Chaka, her husband, but always appears calm and composed. In addition to being his mother, Ramonda is also one of T’Challa’s most trusted advisors. “It’s a lot of strength and balance and beauty and I’m just thrilled by getting to work with Danai and Lupita and actresses and brand new faces across the diaspora, it was beautifully cast,” Bassett said, adding that “it’s going to be quite a sight and I think it’s going to be magnetic.” Bassett played Amanda Waller in Green Lantern, and turned down the role of Storm in X-Men. This knowledge is wont to make one feel a little weird, since Storm and T’Challa ended up getting married in the comics.

#7: ULYSSES KLAUE (Andy Serkis)

Andy Serkis reprises his role from Avengers: Age of Ultron as the cutthroat South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue. Serkis’ company The Imaginarium was working with James Spader and Mark Ruffalo for the motion capture work, when director Joss Whedon invited Serkis to play the role of Klaue.

When we last saw him, Klaue had his arm cut off by Ultron, and it’s now been replaced with a Vibranium cannon. “He’s got a humorous side to him, he’s got a sense of humour. But he’s equally very deadly and he’s quite mercurial and transitions emotionally very quickly,” Serkis said. Audiences are more used to seeing Serkis portray characters via performance capture, so this is the rare blockbuster in which he gets to show his real face.

#8: EVERETT K. ROSS (Martin Freeman)

CIA agent Everett K. Ross first appeared in Captain America: Civil War, helping to capture the film’s villain Zemo. Martin Freeman reprises the role here. Ross crosses path with T’Challa in Korea, and winds up travelling to Wakanda himself, where he finds himself in the thick of the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Freeman and Serkis are the only two white actors in the main cast. “Making the film, it’s not lost on you. You think, ‘right, this is what black actors feel like all the time.’ And Andy wasn’t there often, so I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the white guy. And I’m the English white guy’,” Freeman recalled. Freeman reunited with Serkis, whom he worked with on the Hobbit movies in which Freeman played Bilbo opposite Serkis’ Gollum/Smeagol.

 

 

Black Panther movie review

For inSing

BLACK PANTHER

Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast : Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Sterling K. Brown
Genre : Action / Drama / Science Fiction
Run Time : 2h 14mins
Opens : 14 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

After making his debut on the big screen in Captain America: Civil War, T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) returns to Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. His ascension to the throne will not go too smoothly, otherwise this wouldn’t be a very interesting movie.

After the death of his father King T’Chaka (John Kani), T’Challa arrives home for his coronation. It is a bittersweet affair for T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). T’Challa is welcomed by elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri (Forest Whitaker), the leader of the Dora Milaje bodyguard corps General Okoye (Danai Gurira), and his ex-girlfriend and undercover Wakandan intelligence operative Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s claim to the crown is challenged by Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a hardened American black-ops soldier with an enigmatic link back to Wakandan royalty. Erik has allied himself with Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), the arms dealer who pillaged Wakanda’s valuable supply of Vibranium some 20 years ago. While tracking down Klaue, T’Challa runs into CIA agent Everett K. Ross (Martin Freeman), who finds himself along for the ride as Wakanda wages a battle for the nation’s very soul.

“Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved,” Shuri tells her brother. Black Panther takes these words to heart, taking something that works – the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and improving on it. The MCU is now in its 10th year, and while it’s generated far more hits than misses, one still hears murmurs about ‘superhero movie fatigue’. The MCU movies have found an effective formula, but we want something different, something more.

Director Ryan Coogler, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole, delivers that. The world-building in Black Panther is dazzling, with wonders waiting around every corner in Wakanda. The politics of the country are portrayed in an engaging manner, and Shakespearean palace intrigue is melded with the whiz-bang Afrofuturism of hovering vehicles and suits of armour that emanate from necklaces. Hannah Beachler’s production design and Ruth E. Carter’s costume design contribute to a visually captivating world brimming with texture.

Said world is populated by beautifully-realised characters – this is yet another MCU movie which boasts a cast stacked with talent. Boseman made an impression in Civil War with the stern dignity and undercurrent of vulnerability so crucial to T’Challa. The character continues to be noble but never boring, idealistic and principled without being naïve. T’Challa treats the throne with awe and respect as he mourns his father’s death. Boseman is thoroughly convincing as a steadfast leader.

Michael B. Jordan, who starred in director Coogler’s two previous films Creed and Fruitvale Station, brings swagger and contemptuous arrogance to the role of Erik. Erik’s Golden Jaguar suit means this is yet another solo MCU movie in which the hero fights an ‘evil inversion’ of himself – see Iron Man vs. Iron Monger or Ant-Man vs. Yellowjacket.

However, there’s more to Erik than your bog-standard MCU villain. Erik has one of the best motivations for an MCU villain yet, and while his tragic back-story has hints of melodrama to it, it’s also compelling and it’s easy for the audience to see his point of view. His rage and hunger for power make us root against him, but his righteous indignation and inner turmoil come from a genuine place.

Black Panther introduces some of the MCU’s best female characters yet. Danai Gurira, best known as Michonne on The Walking Dead, is a kickass right-hand woman to T’Challa who’s handy with a spear and doesn’t suffer fools. Nyong’o, who always exudes warmth and quiet intelligence, serves as a foil to Okoye while being formidable in her own right.

Letitia Wright steals the show as Shuri. Anyone who’s ever had a little sister will recognise the sometimes-annoying, sometimes-endearing traits the character displays. It’s also fun to see Shuri’s eyes light up when she talks effusively about her various mind-boggling inventions, including a new suit of armour for her brother. Executive producer Nate Moore has said that Shuri is even smarter than Tony Stark, and Wright seems to be having as much fun in the role as Robert Downey Jr. has with his.

Andy Serkis, probably grateful that audiences are getting to see his actual face instead of a computer-generated character with his expressions, reprises the role of Klaue from Avengers: Age of Ultron. He bites into the South African accent with relish and is wild, ruthless and entertaining.

Angela Bassett is suitably regal as the Queen Mother Ramonda – we wish she had more to do, but there’s already so much going on in the story. Whitaker’s Zuri is pretty much the Obi-Wan Kenobi of the film – Whitaker himself has said as much. Cleverly enough, Freeman’s Everett Ross plays an important role without overshadowing any of the leads.

Black Panther makes a further case for the cinematic universe as a sandbox for the vision of a talented filmmaker. It never feels like Coogler was curtailed or hampered by corporate higher-ups, and yet this feels of a piece with the existing MCU canon.

Black Panther boldly steps into territory that the MCU hasn’t quite trodden before. While there are the expected superhero origin story tropes, the film’s rich tapestry of culture, technology and action spectacle gives it a welcome freshness. The world of Wakanda is one you’ll want to dive into, and there’s potential for its further exploration in sequels to come.

Hang around for a mid-credits scene, and a second post-credits stinger.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Maze Runner: The Death Cure movie review

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MAZE RUNNER: THE DEATH CURE

Director : Wes Ball
Cast : Dylan O’Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Dexter Darden, Ki Hong Lee, Giancarlo Esposito, Rosa Salazar, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper
Genre : Sci-fi/Action
Run Time : 2 h 22 min
Opens : 25 January 2018
Rating : PG13

Every movie franchise based on a series of Young Adult novels must come to an end – unless, of course, we get prequels. The Maze Runner trilogy closes out with its longest and most explosive entry yet, but are audiences still inclined to care?

Picking up where the previous film The Scorch Trials left off, the crew of surviving Gladers continue their battle for survival. Thomas (Dylan O’Brien), Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and Frypan (Dexter Darden) are the last of the original gang. They are supported by resistance fighters Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito) and Brenda (Rosa Salazar). The trio sets out on a dangerous mission to rescue their fellow Glader Minho (Ki Hong Lee), against the order of the Right Arm resistance movement’s new leader Vince (Barry Pepper).

Minho is being held at WCKD headquarters in the fabled ‘Last City’, where he is being experimented on by WCKD scientists desperately devising a cure for the Flare Virus. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario), the only female Glader, has aligned herself with WCKD boss Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson). Paige’s right-hand man Janson (Aidan Gillen) is viciously pursuing Thomas and his cohorts, since they escaped his grasp earlier on. With the help of an unexpected ally, Thomas, Newt and Frypan must infiltrate WCKD to rescue Minho and topple the regime.

It feels like it’s longer than it’s actually been since the Hunger Games films were huge. The sub-Hunger Games Divergent franchise has already fizzled out, with the adaptation of the final book needing to decamp to TV because of poor box office results. The Maze Runner series is hanging on, despite several setbacks including star O’Brien’s near-fatal accident on the set of this film. The Death Cure dutifully rounds things out, and is a marked improvement on the second instalment, which was mostly treading water. However, only the series’ most loyal adherents are likely to get invested in this film.

Director Wes Ball has no other feature film credits to his name other than the three Maze Runner films. Taking this into account, his efforts are worthy of some admiration. The Death Cure features several ambitious action sequences, including a fun train heist opening and numerous shootouts. However, the film’s numerous influences are all too apparent, and it can become a game of ‘spot the reference’: Mad Max, Resident Evil, I Am Legend, Terminator: Salvation and of course The Hunger Games, among others, are liberally sampled. Unoriginality is an easy sin to forgive if the results are entertaining. The Death Cure isn’t as entertaining as it ought to be.

If one is attached to the characters from the previous movies, the dramatic occurrences will matter more. Otherwise, several key deaths come across as perfunctory rather than emotional. Because the world has been opened up wider than in the previous two films, the ‘boy’s own adventure’ quotient of the Gladers sticking together in the face of adversity is somewhat diluted.

The character dynamics are pushed further forward – the brotherhood between Thomas and Newt is tested, and Thomas must eventually confront Teresa, whom he views as a traitor. O’Brien is a serviceable action hero and Brodie-Sangster is endearing if not especially convincing when Newt must be tough.

Gillen’s sneering Janson just isn’t that intimidating a villain, especially since he’s consistently outsmarted by teenagers. He spends most of the film pursuing our heroes about, almost catching them. Clarkson’s understated turn works better than if she went all moustache-twirling villainess (not that too many villainesses have moustaches), but she seems bored at times.

The always-watchable Walton Goggins pops up as the enigmatic, horribly disfigured Lawrence. Unfortunately, the film underuses Esposito and Pepper, and there might be one too many rousing speeches made to the disenfranchised rebels locked out of the city walls.

The Death Cure is a mildly satisfying conclusion to the trilogy, but its excessive length and derivative action and visuals hold it back. It doesn’t patch up the most glaring plot holes or justify its villains’ stupidity, but our heroes are likeable enough to root for and the spectacle is competently staged. By the time the film reaches its fiery, chaotic conclusion, if feels like things should have ended a fair bit earlier – but end things do, and there are worse notes to go out on than this.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong