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Film Title: Pacific Rim Uprising

John Boyega deserves better movies than the ones he’s been getting ever since his brilliant breakout in the fantastic Attack the Block. I mean, he’s certainly not suffering one bit as one of the stars of the Star Wars franchise and it’s very easy to see what interests anybody with the movies he’s been working on, so it’s not like he needs a new agent. But, I think just once he deserves a movie that matches his charismatic talents where they don’t need to be carrying the whole thing*.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is absolutely one such movie where the only joy in watching it as how Boyega takes the role of Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s character in the predecessor film), a young hotshot pilot with everything to prove in the face of the now-rebooted Kaiju monster attack on humanity. This is a hell of an upgrade from the block of wood that was Charlie Hunnam, to be honest. Boyega’s presence is the only thing that gives life to the most commonplace character traits a lead actor can be saddled with these days (though I also think it’s a stronger character for him to work with than Star Wars‘ Finn) and sells every inch of the scenario of Uprising‘s screenplay by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, director Steven S. DeKnight, and… oh god, The Maze Runner‘s runner T.S. Nowlin back to haunt my soul with over-labored storytelling and diminishing return. Which means Boyega’s had his work cut out for him with this movie.

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Suffice it to say four different writers means at least four different tangents on which Uprising wants to latch itself onto and none of them with any elegance: the training of a brand-new team of heroes by Jake and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), the re-introduction of a familiar face from the previous Pacific Rim as the new antagonist, the introduction of automated Jaeger drones as a possible replacement to the contingency, and the imminent return of the Kaiju threat long after Jake’s father Stacker and adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi getting treated dirty by this movie) thought they sealed that deal in the first movie. Actually, these are really subplots – many of them are supposed to feel like a thoroughline with one leading to the other and so on. DeKnight being a veteran of television with this being his feature film debut, he handles this with all the clumsiness of a television trying to pile on as many arcs for its imminent first season, calling attention to the clunkiness with which these plotlines collide over each other and their incompatibility in some places.

And I’m honestly having trouble remembering any performance except Boyega, Eastwood, and the first movie’s alumni (Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman), let alone thinking highly of them. Most of them are just muted underwhelming plays at the most common character types – Plucky young bloods with their own high schooler drama. Eastwood’s attempt at grizzled by-the-book disciplinarian (between this and The Fate of the Furious, I’m starting to feel like he just sucks the air out of any dramatic moment in popcorn cinema). Mako has no character to work with whatsoever and what the movie lands on her feels slightly contemptuous on the part of everything her character grew on. Day and Gorman are the only ones whose characters seem to have developed into a schism in their previous partnership in the wake of their dive in a psychic Kaiju brain.

This hardly matters, to be honest. Pacific Rim itself was not an examplar of great dramatic writing or character work, it was barely survivable in that area. Probably what sticks in my craw is more how much effort it appears that Uprising put into trying to develop its own new threat through complicated swims of Kaiju brainwaves and digging into the politics that it all turns into a slightly better (read: shorter) version of Independence Day: Resurgence.

No no no, what does matter in the end with Pacific Rim Uprising is what we’re here for: The visuals. Not particularly the production design which is much less revelatory this time around beyond a brief introduction of a man-made mini Jaeger and a chase through the remains of a demolished one (the cities especially are utterly disinteresting to look at after the cool glowing streets of Tokyo in the rain in Pacific Rim). I mean that sweet nectar of Mecha and Kaiju monster action. And thankfully, Uprising is not really short in that department, though the quantity of Jaeger and Kaiju setpieces does not factor against the lack of variety between them as they all just seem to be framed in a lazy manner not calling attention to the fact that these are HUGE GIANT ROBOTS dwarfing us, but more as though these robots were having a civil dialogue scene with sedate camera movement. Or the lack of poppy color and within them beyond one hella cool shot in red smoke as we witness a Kaiju’s evolution into something even more menacing, totally blanketed in crimsons**.

Or the ballsy but fatal mistake for them to set all the CGI battles in broad daylight, giving them a slight bit of flatness that makes it impossible to recognize these as more effects than physical beings of cold steel. Y’know, say what you will about Pacific Rim‘s decision to include shadows in its fight scenes but it gave these beings shape and visual power while Uprising resembles a rejected episode climax from an episode of Power Rangers. A more polished one and one that gets the job done in distracting me long enough to get through a very rushed button ending, but everything about Uprising in the end seems to feel like an obligatory attempt at continuing a franchise while leaving behind the beating heart that was at the center of the film that started it all.

*And I am definitely aware that this is an unpopular opinion, especially when it comes to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though I will concede they are the best of his post-Attack The Block movies with enough in favor of them.
**Although this shot may have won me for reminding me of another better monster movie, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake.

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Above the Rim

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Guillermo Del Toro has long been in the business of making movies for Guillermo Del Toro, who must be deep down inside still the monster-loving child he was at age 13. I think I acknowledged this the last time I reviewed one of his movies, in which I had to admit that The Shape of Water may have pleased many many people but I was not one. However, it is more often the case than not that the tastes Guillermo Del Toro and my own align with a click and I am very very happy to have the opportunity to talk about a film that illustrates that.

It is also the case that audiences have been very much on the way to devaluing Pacific Rim as a film since so quickly after its release in the summer of 2013, which is hilarious given that it was one of the few highlights of such a dire summer. Not even necessarily out of slim pickings, but in a summer where the biggest popcorn tentpoles included such consciously unsmiling fare as The Wolverine and Man of Steel, one can hardly be blamed for finding joy in one of the few non-animated wide releases to just be about looking cool and having fun while killing giant monsters in giant robots. But even beyond that retrospective of a timeframe I don’t think deserves one, there is of course several popular criticisms of Pacific Rim that I can’t help spending my time here shaking quickly off:

First, there is the shallowness with which it homages all the properties Del Toro yolked the concept from: beginning especially with the seminal anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion and moving down the line to Mobile Suit GundamGodzilla and the other Toho monster movies, Ultraman, and even a future noir influence out of a favorite of yours truly Blade Runner*. And certain of those influences – especially NGE – imply a sort of emotional and thematic severity that most popcorn films, let alone Pacific Rim, are even remotely interested in attending to. Pacific Rim never made any promises of being a 1:1 remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion and hardly needs to be an in-depth exploration of its protagonists depression and emptiness in a cruel world barreling towards their destruction.

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It just needs to be one thing: a vehicle for how we watch giant mechas called Jaegers, sanctioned by the united governments of a desperate world, fight and crush the sinister skin-cracked sea-emerging creatures called Kaiju that threaten humanity so. Which the screenplay by Del Toro and Travis Beacham knock right off the bat, establishing that the world is in this state, that the war between humanity and alien invaders is in media res here, and boom! In less time than it takes to make a turkey sandwich, the game is on. The combatants are goliath, the environments variable, everything else is pure theory.

The efficiency of the screenplay does not somehow mean that it is devoid of weaknesses, however. For the lack of depth with which we are introduced to characters we ride along with the Jaegers are of a cliché sort: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a former hotshot pilot, is being pulled out of a retirement originally brought on by the death of his co-pilot brother (it is established that the Jaegers require two compatible minds to operate and what better signifier of compatibility than fraternity). The grizzled no-nonsense General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is the one who pulls Beckett out and, after an assessment, pairs him up with Pentecost’s adoptive daughter and long-time aspiring Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). And then there’s so many other clichés surrounding them: namely the pair of wacky scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman or the eye in the sky brains of the operation played by Clifton Collins, Jr. (a famously Mexican actor, though the name Tendo Choi suggests the character is… Chinese?).

And of course, there is the surrounding friendly rival allies from different nations (minus the friendly in the case of Robert Kazinsky’s Chuck), portraying an international unity in our heroes efforts. It’s more than textual as each of the main Jaegers – Gipsy Danger, Cherno Alpha, Crimson Typhoon, and Striker Eureka – are distinguished within the design of Andrew Neskoromny & Carol Spier with worn-out colors that suggest national pride in the face of an apparently losing war (the Chinese Crimson Typhoon lives up to its name) and bodily structures that suggest the utilitarian focuses of their nations, such as how Cherno Alpha has a core that resembles a defensive plant. Or even just doing more for character than the script, given that Chuck is easily the most aggressive of all pilots and his Jaeger Striker Eureka comes with blades on its forearms (though there is “that’s so cool!” moment where we learn Striker is not the only Jaeger with that edge).

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The Jaegers are not the only place in which the design is inspired. To begin with, the Kaijus themselves are alive and crackled, the CGI giving their body that living feeling of movement that can’t be said for a lot of animation even in this day (look at the “zombies” of Rogue One). And we have here a world that recognizes the sort of social and aesthetical impact that the existence of Kaiju would have across a society: a religious shrine is made out of the bones of a dead Kaiju, jobs invented out of creating walls in a new defense economy, fallout shelters, black market interests, and the interior design of a Jaeger feeling like a mechanical brain. This isn’t world-building: the world is already built just beyond the corners of our eyes, it’s world exploring.

And again, rain-soaked night time neon metropolis backdrops are my personal catnip. That some of these Kaiju vs. Jaeger battles occurred in dark oceans with shafts of light above illuminating fragments or dark rainy cities, as though this obscures the giant beasts of metal and bone, doesn’t ruin the effects anymore than it did in Jurassic Park 20 years prior. It works, the goliaths have a sense of physicality and scale that the camera is barely able to hold onto in full and promises more than meets the eye, making the battles have punch and impact, earth-shaking popcorn movie spectacle that we rarely see these days. It’s absolutely hard to lose the joy Guillermo Del Toro had putting these battles together, complete with great “Oh snap!” moments within them.

Still storytelling through design and action does not hide two-dimensional storytelling in plot. The characters are mostly flat as a board beyond Elba showing you can’t keep him down with first draft writing (the rest of the cast sadly do not fare as well with Hunnam weakest and that just brings more attention to the flaws of the script). And yet, when I hear Transformers used as a ridiculous comparison, I have to say it doesn’t indulge in the weaknesses of that franchise: there are no real “idiot plot” characters, no racial caricatures, no garbage humor, the very last beat of Pacific Rim rejects the concept that Raleigh and Mako are anything beyond very fond friends without losing any of the heart behind their friendship. The only real elements of the writing that gnaw under my skin are the leaps of logic and misunderstandings of science or physics (including the much mocked line “Gipsy’s analog. Nuclear.” as a response to all Jaegers being digital) that barely hold together the concept of a series of nations deciding the best response to monsters is to punch them out to a hell of a lot of city damage in big mecha suits and I just need to shut that thought in my mind up with one response:

“Listen, motherfucker, do you want to see robots fight monsters or not? Eat your damn popcorn.”

*I will confess that while I was sold already from premise and filmmaker long before the trailer hit and blew my socks off, the moment that cemented that I was watching it the night of was the end of the trailer with a raining neon Tokyo backdrop and Ron Perlman wearing future suave gangster threads being told by Charlie Day “It is pretty cool.” Yes, it was.

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25 for 25 – Cage goes in the water, you go in the water. Shark’s in the water. Our Shark.

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We live in a good ol’ time 42 years later since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws‘ big successful splash of a release in 1975 that – together with George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars changed the whole game on American cinema, heralding the form from the New Hollywood Cinema that producers would adopt for their summer blockbusters. Somehow, Jaws has proven to be so damn good that every shark movie that existed since feels like an utter knock-off of the beach thriller, no matter how different the premise or how good the movie is (and honestly I think only one good shark movie has been made in all those 42 years since, last year’s The Shallows). That’s how big and wide its footprint is in American cinema history and while the Hollywood popcorn movie has mutated into something like Jurassic World or Independence Day: Resurgence as these past few years are any indication, I’ve never felt like it reflected poorly on Jaws‘ quality one bit. When a movement is so good it started from the top (and I know calling popcorn cinema a “movement” is a heinous crime worthy of disqualifying me of ever watching movies but it is merely in the absence of better words to use. Please rectify that in the comments), it’s hard not to peak early and Jaws was simply that.

I’ve never ever engaged in a count to find out what the movie I’ve watched the most times is, but I feel like the closest possibility to that title is Jaws. I’ve been watching it since I was a kid. I’ve been watching it as I went to college for film, with co-writer Carl Gottlieb’s The Jaws Log as a filmmaking bible for a while (Peter Benchley, the author of the original novel which Jaws is based on, was the other writer for this film). I’m still watching it as an adult and I can’t imagine myself ever stopping. For a movie somewhat dedicated in that low-key New Hollywood style of focus on characters (indeed, the town of Amity Island is part of what keeps me coming back, it’s like a less cynical Robert Altman picture) and spending half of its time with men sitting in a boat in the middle of the ocean, this is seriously an accessible film for anybody. My whole family unanimously loves the movie, it may be one of the few things we can all agree on. It helps that it was one of the movies that pulled in the high-concept that could be hooking an audience in from the very start: “shark attack” is all you really need to say to summarize and attract an audience. And well, the brilliant opening scene on a beach at nighttime beautifully illustrates it from its opening shot of a perspective stalking in the water like an angry slasher to his unseen consumption of a helpless teen (Susan Backline), bobbing into the water violently as she’s shoved back and forth before being silenced under the water, the camera only remaining distantly on the surface. An early reflection of the talent of legendary editor Verna Fields, who had early in the release received most of the acclaim over the then-green Spielberg, but now she’s been unfortunately forgotten mostly for Spielberg’s accomplishments. Let’s bring that back over because Fields is probably the biggest reason the movie works despite its mechanical shark famously breaking down, with her economy in showing the shark’s appearance and ability to give a moment like that attack its own shocking abrupt rhythm without being dissonant to John Williams’ forever iconic two-tone score. Go on, play it in your head. You know it’s already there, I ain’t gotta say nothing, those horns already are slowly running in your brain.

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But then that high-concept hook would be ignoring the richness of the characters on Amity Island (mostly provided by character actors in their subdued zone or natives of the movie’s filming location Martha’s Vineyard): including the source of the main conflict for the first half of the film, Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), new enough in town that he has to put effort into sounding like an islander, is attempting to close the beaches off due to the opening attack. This is resisted by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), who points out that Amity Island is essentially a summer tourist trap and closing the beaches will do harm to its main source of income. This power struggle only causes them to be ill-prepared when a young boy Alex Kintner (Jeffrey Voorhees) is himself killed and eaten, leading to a bounty for the shark’s capture that causes an amateur frenzy for the money (Benchley stated that had he known the ill effect his novel would have in fear-mongering towards sharks, he might not have written it, and dedicated his life after to shark preservation. I think the bounty hunting scene is his way of illustrating exactly how horrific and destructive mob frenzy can be). It ain’t enough for veteran hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) who demands $10,000 and it isn’t satisfying for Brody’s requested oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who quickly asserts that the tiger shark captured and displayed does not match the bite marks on the early teenager’s body, further infuriating Mayor Vaughn and getting them right back where they started and unable to help when another casualty happens in broad view of everyone. That last attack additionally puts Brody’s elder son (right in the proximity of the beast) in hospitalized shock, forcing him to take straight to the ocean after the animal with Quint and Hooper.

That all covers just the first hour of a movie a little over two hours and I’m sorry, I always forget how fast-paced Jaws is a-movin’ on a scene-by-scene basis (thanks again madly to Fields and Spielberg, for getting their storytelling skills focused on swift scenes like staircase steps, getting straight to the point and establishing how far along the town is to going crazy and how close Brody and the Mayor are to coming to blows). Nothing about it feels unearned or rushed and yet I simply feel almost as familiar with Amity Island as I would be the residents of Twin Peaks and it is enough to take up a whole feature film on its own, with Scheider and Dreyfuss (at his career pluckiest) as brilliant everyman anchors.

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And yet it’s all just in service of establishing the stakes of the sea adventure Jaws becomes in the second half where Spielberg, Fields, and cinematographer Bill Butler’s skill must truly come to the test: staying on one location – Quint’s Boat – the whole time and filling it with just as much momentum despite the limited setting and narrative beats. That also means the second half is where we spend the majority of our time with Shaw’s Quint and discover just how colorful and dangerous of a character he is, all crusty masculinity and insane Ahab-esque unpredictability. Quint is obviously the most memorable presence on-screen, but his being stuck in a boat with the practical Brody and hothead Hooper proves to be just as compelling an anti-buddy character study as anything in Amity Island (even a source of class conflicts with wealthy educated Hooper and rugged working-class Quint).

And that’s before the shark shows up in the famous moment that led to “You’re gonna need a bigger boat”, once the shark starts fighting on its turf things get much compact and heated and the movie goes to being an escalator of tension at this point. Before no time, the actual action takes place and… man, there’s literally no scene that gets my heart pounding as much as the calculated final showdown between the shark and the sinking wreck of a boat as Brody mutters “Smile, you son of a b–“. No matter how many times I watch this movie, knowing how it all turns out, I’m always at the edge of my seat.

Jaws is perfect. I won’t hear any of your complaints, sorry. I know there’s no movie that EVERYBODY loves, but the moment Jaws is dismissed from New Hollywood canon despite being no-less sophisticated or subdued or ambitious than any of the best of them, that’s when I just shut out all the movie’s dissenters. There’s not a frame or cut misplaced, there’s no performances that bother me, there’s nothing I can find bothering viewers beyond its successes that are absolutely not its fault except by way of quality. If I were Steven Spielberg, I’d be pretty full of myself for making such a success so early in my life (and of course there’s the famous “I can’t believe they picked Fellini over me” incident) because I can’t possibly find a way that a career so dedicated to popcorn cinema and summer movies can be improved upon after Jaws, no matter how good your movies are.

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