Friday, March 23, 2018

Pacific Rim Uprising: Deserves to drown

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) • View trailer 
One star. Rated PG-13, for relentlessly dumb and noisy sci-fi violence, and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Godzilla has a lot to answer for.

So does Guillermo del Toro, basking in the reflected glow of the Academy Awards now resting on his mantel.

When an entire squadron of giant robots goes berserk, only a handful of cadets — notably
Amara (Cailee Spaeny, and do note her wind-swept hair) and Jake (John Boyega) — are
in a position to prevent Earth's complete annihilation. Can they succeed, against such
overwhelming odds? Is there really any question?
Because we must remember that he brought us Pacific Rim, back in 2013. And if that film hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t now be suffering through its soulless, brain-dead sequel.

It’s important to note that del Toro always has had an affinity for grandiose monster movies, which he demonstrated with his two Hellboy entries, and even as far back as 1997’s Mimic. (Needless to say, The Shape of Water also is a monster movie.) Del Toro has a knack for finding — and somehow making credible — the emotional center of even the craziest premise; he also knows how to add just the right amount of humor to a formula that requires an equally precise blend of tragedy and triumph.

In short, we care about the characters in del Toro’s films, human or otherwise. We get involved.

Nothing — and nobody — in Pacific Rim Uprising elicits even a shred of interest. This isn’t a film; it’s a global commodity, assembled with calculated coldness by corporate bean-counters ticking all the little boxes.

Multi-national characters? Check. Disillusioned soldier who finds his inner hero? Check. Plucky young girl? Check. Eye-rollingly dumb dialog intended to facilitate bonding? Check. Jealousy in the ranks? Check. The destruction of vast cityscapes? Check.

First-time big-screen director Steven S. DeKnight can demand — and obtain — the most whoppingly, prodigiously colossal beasties and human-powered mechanical warriors that today’s special-effects money can buy, but the result has no more emotional significance than we got from watching two guys in rubber suits bash each other, while striding amid the balsa-wood cities of 1960s Godzilla flicks.

The reason? This film’s script — credited to DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin — is strictly from hunger. Not content merely to be a perfect example of the idiot plot — which lurches from one scene to the next, only because each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times — it also boasts some of the clunkiest, most laughably atrocious dialog ever conceived.

With only a few exceptions, the performances are stiff and unpersuasive, the line deliveries so wooden, they warp. And the landscape-devastating battle sequences go on, and on, and on, and on ... as if DeKnight hopes to win us over by sheer brute force.

It is to laugh. It’s like being strapped to a chair while the ol’ Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots go at each other for 111 minutes.

DeKnight has the sensibilities of a brick through a plate glass window.

The “story,” such as it is:

The year is 2035, a decade after the heroic soldiers of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) successfully deployed their giant Jaeger robot warriors to defeat massive alien kaiju monsters, which had invaded Earth via a dimensional breach at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The PPDC remains ever vigilant, lest the kaiju return, but a cynical younger generation has grown up amid the ruins left after that global-shattering skirmish.

One such individual is Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, integral to the revived Stars Wars series), who — unable to endure standing in the shadow of his legendary father, who died saving Earth in the first film — has become a low-level criminal and black marketer. Cue a silly skirmish with a rival gang, which serendipitously introduces Jake to 15-year-old Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a genius hacker and electronics whiz who has been building a functioning Jaeger in her spare time.

Hey, everybody needs a hobby.

Both get snatched for violating PPDC regulations; they’re given the choice of jail or joining the corps. Jake reluctantly agrees to help train young cadets at China’s Moyulan Shatterdome, alongside former friend and now rival, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Amara joins the team as the youngest new cadet.

But all is not happy at the Shatterdome. The veteran pilots and cadets feel threatened by a new program orchestrated by Shao Industries CEO Shao Liwen (Jing Tian), an arrogant bee-yatch whose hair is as tightly wound as the stick shoved up her fundament. Believing in the enhanced reliability of automation, she wants to replace the Jaeger’s human operators with “drones” controlled by ground-based desk jockeys.

Twenty-five-story, weapon-wielding robots controlled by drones. What could possibly go wrong?

Shao is trailed, at all times, by wisecracking American scientist and full-time toady Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day, nowhere near as funny as DeKnight wishes him to be). Geiszler gains solace by being reunited with good friend and excitable PPDC research colleague Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). The latter has a tendency to lapse into techno-babble right out of a bad Star Trek episode.

Elsewhere, Jake is pleased to be reunited with half-sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a PPDC director who has just learned of Something Highly Unusual. Before she has a chance to share this information, Shatterdome and the surrounding city are attacked by a sleek, larger-than-usual rogue Jaeger dubbed Obsidian Fury.

We pause for a moment.

Yes, all the Jaegers have silly names, just like all the morphing entities in the equally noisy and imbecilic Transformers train wrecks. Amara was working on Scrapper. Jake and Nate like to suit up in Gipsy Danger. Not to be confused with Gipsy Avenger. Which stands alongside Saber Athena.


And now, back to our regularly scheduled program:

You’ll be shocked ... shocked ... shocked to learn that all is not as it seems, within the ranks at Shao Industries. Or that Obsidian Fury is merely the first wave of a new threat orchestrated by the (ahem) alien Precursors that wish to extinguish all life on Earth, by terraforming the entire planet. Can Jake, Nate and their rag-tag new cadets save the day?

Do we care?

To give credit where due, Boyega has a lot of fun with his role; he’s the only actor able to put just the right spin on the film’s frequently inane dialog. He’s personable and amusing while navigating a reasonably persuasive character arc. Spaeny also wins our hearts and minds, as the spirited and resourceful Amara. That said, not even Spaeny can sell some of the dumber moments, such as history’s most badly timed snowball fight.

Amara’s fellow cadets aren’t defined by anything beyond their diverse origins: from China (Wesley Wong and Lily Ji, as Jinhai and Mei Lin); India (Karan Brar, as Suresh); Russia (Levi Meaden, as Ilya); Japan (Mackenyu Maeda, as Ryoichi); Australia (Rahart Adams, as Tahima); Cuba (Shyrley Rodriguez, as Renata); and the Ukraine (Ivanna Sakhno, as Vik).

Cultural distinctions aside, their dialog and performances are interchangeable, their characters given as much depth as a sheet of paper.

Elsewhere, one individual undergoes a positively amazing character transformation, just because she (literally) lets her hair down. We can but snicker.

Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang orchestrates truly stunning mayhem, particularly when Tokyo gets smashed, blasted and stomped into oblivion. (Poor Tokyo. Always getting the fuzzy end of the monster’s lollypop.) But all this havoc quickly ceases to resonate on any level; it’s no more involving than a pinball game.

It’s a true sign of DeKnight’s hack sensibilities — his utter failure to bring any level of suspense to these proceedings — that the film feels as if it’s over, at a point when we’re barely halfway in. But no, it’s just a “tease finale.” (Constant Companion and I checked our watches, glanced at each other, and muttered, “Oh, dear.”)

I can’t imagine why DeKnight was put in charge of such an immense production, when his only previous directorial credits are seven episodes of TV shows such as Angel, Dollhouse and Daredevil. Hardly the same scale.

The old cliché applies: He can’t direct traffic.

The other tech elements are top-notch, but granting Lorne Balfe credit for a so-called score is ludicrous; it sounds as if he spends the entire film slamming both palms on random sections of a synth keyboard, with the 10-level volume set at 13.

DeKnight and his co-scripters obviously put some effort into enhancing the Precursor/kaiju back-story — not that they have any sense of genuinely interesting sci-fi concepts — and this film ends on a note that clearly anticipates another follow-up.

Please, God: Let it not be so.

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