Thursday, April 12, 2018

Jaegermeisters – Pacific Rim: Uprising

Jaegers charge into battle in Pacific Rim: Uprising.

I have no cynicism in my heart for a film like Pacific Rim. Unlike most movies – even those that aren’t city-smashing kaiju-mecha blockbusters – it knows exactly what it is and what it aims to achieve, and does so with gleeful enthusiasm. It’s hard for that enthusiasm not to rub off on you as yet another one of Guillermo del Toro’s twisted fantasies splashes across the screen like a meteor of colour and violence, and even without del Toro’s direct involvement, a sequel set in the world he established in 2013 is a welcome addition to cineplexes trapped in the late-winter doldrums.

Directed by Steven S. DeKnight (who makes his feature-length debut with this film), Pacific Rim: Uprising is a competent sequel which is about as devoted to maintaining the excitement and exaggerated tone of its predecessor as many cinephiles will be to turning their nose up at it because it no longer bears del Toro’s name (except for a producer credit). Uprising is aggressively stupid, but in the same sort of lovable way that the Fast & Furious franchise is at its best – skipping through painfully clunky exposition and some stunningly bad performances on its way to its exuberant, brightly-lit action setpieces. I had a ton of fun watching Uprising, not least because amidst all its earnest, retriever-like joyfulness, there are some nuggets of genuinely interesting material.

It’s ten years after the “Kaiju War,” in which Jaeger pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) sacrificed his life to save humanity from the giant monsters sent from another dimension to destroy our world. Stacker’s son, Jake (John Boyega), is left to eke out a living in a post-Kaiju world, scavenging abandoned Jaegers for parts to sell on the black market so he can party in the stomped-out ruins of Los Angeles. He meets an orphaned tween named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who’s busy building her own mini-Jaeger, convinced the war’s not over and that she needs to prepare for the Kaiju to return. Construction of unlicensed Jaegers and theft of government property are not looked kindly upon by the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps, and so Jake and Amara are arrested and re-enlisted into the Corps as punishment – just in time, of course, for Amara’s doomsday-prepper suspicions to be proven correct.

Left to right: Mackenyu, Cailee Spaeny, John Boyega, and Scott Eastwood in Pacific Rim: Uprising.

Sans del Toro, Uprising is a film that has little personality of its own beyond a desire to cleave to the previous film’s established fictional canon, content to check the requisite boxes for a movie primarily about giant robots punching city-sized goop-monsters. There are, however, some creative new approaches to the material, which expands on this fiction in intriguing ways. All the sorts of things I would want to see in a sequel are present and accounted for, which is to DeKnight’s credit (along with that of his co-screenwriters T. S. Nowlin, Kira Snyder, and Emily Carmichael). We see Jaeger-on-Jaeger combat; we see custom home-brew Jaegers; we see Kaiju-Jaeger hybrids. We’re given insight into how the war orphaned huge numbers of young people, driving them to extremes in order to survive. The role of war hero is no longer solely the realm of grown-ups, as child pilots strap in for the first time. We learn the name and the motivation for the alien creators of the Kaiju, something the first film was content to leave out. We’re given a bait-and-switch villain who is already well-established, and who gets to cackle from the roof of a skyscraper as his Kaiju abominations fight below, a gender-swapped Rita Repulsa for a modern audience. We’re treated to more overt homoeroticism between Newt (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), which is sure to please the Tumblr crowd, along with anyone else who (like me) would enjoy seeing this sort of relationship more normalized in a Hollywood blockbuster context. There’s even some potential for thematic commentary on generational divides, and the disconnection between millennials and the ruined world their parents and grandparents left them. Unfortunately, while it’s happy to present all these ideas up-front, Uprising lacks follow-through, failing to resolve any of these interesting ideas in satisfying ways. The priority here is spectacle, and it washes over and drowns these concepts in its wake.

Thankfully, the action sequences are comprehensible and well-edited, and they’re carried by a mostly-engaged cast. Scott Eastwood, playing Jake’s former Jaeger co-pilot Nate Lambert, is like a black hole sucking all the charisma out of the movie – so thank Christ the film’s casting department landed John Boyega to balance it out, because that man can make up for ten Scott Eastwoods on the sheer force of his charisma and screen presence alone. One of Uprising’s chief mistakes is its underuse of Rinko Kikuchi (playing her character Mako Mori, a half-sister to Jake), but it introduces a fierce new character in Liwen Shao (played by Jing Tian, an actress making aggressive moves into the Hollywood realm with roles in The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island). Uprising is a film clearly split between markets, attempting to serve Chinese audiences as much as Western ones, but somehow DeKnight doesn’t allow this studio-mandated direction to derail the fast-paced fun of his movie.

If Pacific Rim is going to become a franchise with further sequels (something the film’s final line of dialogue would have you believe, which was unsuccessfully attempted in Independence Day: Resurgence but actually works in Uprising), then I’m here for it. I have no problem with original ideas and cool execution attaching themselves like remoras to the unstoppable great whites of blockbuster cinema. These are the cult favourites of tomorrow, like live-action anime that somehow wriggled their way into the mainstream: just as intense, just as lurid, just as quick to switch from one hyper-heightened tone to another, and just as much fun for those who can groove on the wavelength of awesome, dumb shit like Uprising.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

No comments:

Post a Comment