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Category: Reviews Page 3 of 7

REVIEW Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

“It was Independence Day: Resurgence,” my flatmate said, as we started to leave our seats and head for the foyer.

After we saw the Independence Day sequel together back in 2016 (a lifetime ago in terms of blockbuster film releases), we had spent a large amount of time discussing the fact that it was essentially the same film as the original: scientists make puzzling discoveries in the first act, the aliens reveal themselves and move against humans in the second act, leading to a final confrontation for the survival of humanity in the third, complete with humans trying to escape the mothership.

Resurgence didn’t bring anything new to the Independence Day franchise. Nor does Pacific Rim: Uprising really offer anything new to its franchise; this film isn’t giving us anything that the original did not.

To be clear, I’m not saying it is as bad as Resurgence. The Independence Day sequel was monumentally bad, a misstep – and a somewhat unexpected one at that – that surely brought a swift end to any further plans they had for it.

Uprising isn’t that bad. It’s just unoriginal.

We start with a quick recap of the events of the first film, followed by a quick rush through the next decade: the kaiju (the giant monsters) haven’t returned (yet) and society is rebuilding, though some coastal areas are still devastated – including the home of Jake Pentecost (played by the energetic John Boyega), the son of war hero Stacker, who is living in a half-destroyed beachfront mansion and working as a thief, specialising in high-end parts from decommissioned jaegers (the giant robots).

It doesn’t take long for Jake to get caught red-handed and dragged back into the PPDC by his big sister Mako (first season returnee Rinko Kikuchi), where he is immediately given his former rank (Ranger) and put in charge of training the new batch of cadets. After a scene or two, Jake – and his former pilot partner Lambert (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint), flying their jaeger the Gypsy Avenger – is assigned as the honour guard for Mako, now the head of the PPDC, who is going to a world council vote on whether to switch from manual jaegers to automated drone jaegers.

That is where the fun begins: the council vote is interrupted by a rogue jaeger, assigned the name Obsidian Fury, leading to the activation of the drones, a rogue element in the drone company, a surprise bad guy, an attack on the PPDC base and the re-emergence of the kaiju themselves.

If it sounds like a lot, it is; Pacific Rim: Uprising is a fast paced film that never really rests on its laurels for long – a lot happens in around two hours, as the world expands to include all manner of crazy science, and then retracts again until it becomes the simple giant robots-vs-giant monsters film that audiences will be heading to the theatre to see.

Yet for all the plot the film burns through – the drones and the thieving and the voting and the rogue jaegers – it doesn’t ever really feel like it offers anything new, it’s more like a remix of what worked the first time. In fact, I’m kind of reminded of the last couple of Metallica albums: I know they’re different songs but they kind of just sound the same.

It isn’t all bad. I like Boyega and I thought he made a fine lead, even if the sheer amount of things that happened in this film made the few moments of levity – as he looked back on the legacy of his father – seem rushed and out of place. There was some very cool world-building going on in the background: the idea of rogue jaegers built from robots scrapped during the war is an interesting one that would lend itself to further exploration, and a later scene that showed some of the precautions taken by cities to ensure the safety of citizens in the event of another kaiju attack was intriguing.

And the robot-vs-robot action in the early going is fun, but totally outdone by the eventual robot-vs-monster action in the conclusion of the film. This is a massive spoiler, but the final battle in Japan – with the four remaining jaegers fighting against three kaiju was exciting, especially when the three kaiju combined into one humongous mega-kaiju. Though at some point, it all stopped looking real: the sheer amount of CGI meant that the final battle eventually turned into a cartoon.

It was all in good fun, though. Unoriginal though it may be, Pacific Rim: Uprising was at least entertaining. Just go in with low expectations and high amounts of popcorn, and you’ll be fine.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is directed by Steven S DeKnight, from a script by DeKnight, Emil Carmichael, Kira Snyder and TS Nowlin, and stars John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Jing Tian, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Adria Arjona. It is distributed locally by Universal Pictures, and is in cinemas as of March 22.

MOVIE REVIEW Annihilation (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

There are two things that stick in my craw about this film, and both detract from how good it is.

Okay, so Annihilation is a pretty great science-fiction/horror movie; the latest film written and directed by Alex Garland – who was behind the incredible Ex Machina – and based on a book series by Jeff VanderMeer, the film stars Natalie Portman as Lena, a biologist who is recruited to a rescue mission into a mysterious (and otherworldly) area called The Shimmer, the same area where her recently-returned husband also went missing a year earlier.

Accompanied by a team of scientists – played by a stellar cast of women: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny – Lena ventures further into The Shimmer to discover its origins and find out what happened to her husband (who, as mentioned earlier, returned) and the rest of his team (who did not).

The mission leads Lena to a lighthouse, where The Shimmer was first observed, and she discovers that the phenomenon is being caused by an extraterrestrial being – but not before losing the rest of her team, encountering an alligator with shark teeth, fending off a bear-crocodile-human hybrid, and watching one of her teammates turn into a plant.

Honestly, you need to watch this film to get the full effect – Annihilation is one of the most inventive science fiction stories I’ve seen in a while, and boasts a fantastic cast and a truly visionary director with an eye for dramatic, unique visuals (as well as a vibrant and engrossing score, courtesy of Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury). And the good news is that if you have Netflix, you can watch it right now because they released the film on Netflix.

Well, except for in the USA. For some reason – and this is the first thing that sticks in my craw – Paramount Pictures commissioned the film with a not-small-but-also-not-big budget of around $50 million (USD), then held test screenings that showed it may be “too intellectual”, then a Paramount financier, David Ellison, demanded changes from the production team (including changing the ending), at which point they were met with a “hell no” since producer Scott Rudin held final cut approval and backed director Garland.

In response, Paramount Pictures announced in early December that they had sold the international distribution rights to Netflix, who released the film everywhere (except for in the USA) on March 12. If you think this sounds like the movie-making equivalent of throwing your toys out of the cot, you’re not wrong.

“But, Chris,” you may be saying, “this is all business, why do you care where it’s released? You got to see it!”

Well, for two reasons. First, and least importantly, I would’ve loved to see this on the big screen. It seems like a great number of the years biggest upcoming films have a science-fiction bent – just in the next three months, Avengers: Infinity War will surely traverse the galaxy, Solo: A Star Wars Story will delve into the Star Wars universe, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom promises more genetically-enhanced dinosaurs than you can shake a lysine supplement at.

But very few films released into cinemas could be described as thought-provoking, smart science-fiction. Annihilation is that rare film which offers visual spectacle on the level of any of those films and a storyline that actually dares to be profound.

And secondly – and this is the second thing that sticks in my craw – the cast is insane. Natalie Portman is great in the lead role, Jennifer Jason Leigh is in the middle of a renaissance following her supporting turn in The Hateful Eight, Gina Rodriguez is an award-winner for her role on Jane The Virgin, and Tessa Thompson is having a moment thanks to roles in Creed, Thor: Ragnarok and TV’s Westworld.

And in the era of #metoo, why wouldn’t Paramount Pictures wide-release a smart, thoughtful movie with a cast led by incredible women, that totally bucks the trend of everything Hollywood is accused of being?

It astounds me that Paramount cut their losses and allowed a bad test screening or two to determine how they handled this film. And in doing so, they missed the chance to be ahead of the curve, to be talked about as a a dynamic and diverse studio that is one of the first to embrace the direction of New Hollywood.

Annihilation is an astounding film. It just bugs me that nobody releasing it seemed to see that.

Annihilation is written and directed by Alex Garland, based on the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, and stars Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny, Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong. It is available to view on Netflix now.

REVIEW Black Panther (2018)

Fair warning: considerable spoilers follow – read after watching.

As a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I consider Black Panther a triumph, one of the best origin stories the film series has produced, packed with engaging and enjoyable characters, and boasting a story that deftly balances comic-book action and political machinations to create something wholly unique in the MCU.

As a fan of the comic books on which it is based, and particularly the most recent run by Ta-Nehisi Coates, I consider Black Panther a triumph on every level, utilising what I love best about the character – his internal conflict between what is best for his people and what is best for the world, and his shoot-last approach; see more on that below – to bring him to life in a way that very few of the other MCU films have managed.

But most of all, I consider Black Panther a triumph because this is a film that isn’t for me.

Not necessarily, at least. And I feel a little uncomfortable even venturing into the territory of race because of what it means, on all sides. I’m just trying to say that I was proud to go into a theatre, and watch, and love – LOVE – a film that was made to celebrate a man, a people, a race, that does not look like me.

Or to put it another way: this film obviously means much more to people of colour than I could ever understand. Last night, I went into a sold-out movie theatre, packed to the brim with Maori and Pacific Island men, women and children. And they cheered and clapped all the way through the film. They saw themselves on screen, portrayed in a way that people of colour are so rarely shown, celebrating culture in a way that is so rarely shown.

I mean, I’ve never cheered at a white superhero. I guess I’m kind of blaise about them by now.

None of that is to say that I felt discluded or left out. To the contrary. And this is the thing that I notice about films that are truly representative: when you go and see a film that is primarily about white people, they are invariably middle-upper class, and invariably having white people problems. Even characters that are not white are having the same issues. They are reduced to the social norms of the white people in the film.

But you go to a see a film that offers true social representation, that is about an ethnic or racial group that is not white – those films are always about something much more resonant, much more universal.

I don’t know what it is like to be oppressed in the way that black people have been, and are, racially oppressed in the United States, but I can start to understand and I can empathise. I haven’t been forced to persevere through anything like what black people – or, really, any racial group that has suffered through slavery or colonisation – have been through, but I get it. I understand, even if just in the smallest of ways. I can empathise.

It seems a contentious thing to say, but white people do enjoy a position of privilege. And you can’t always see it clearly in today’s society. We’ve deluded ourselves into believing it doesn’t really exist. “I have friends who are Maori, and I work with a Fijian, I’m not better off than them.”

But I’ve nevered cheered for a white superhero simply because one finally exists.

Black Panther is a triumph on so many levels. It is a pitch-perfect adaptation of the comics, particularly the Christopher Priest run on the character from 1998 to 2003. Ryan Coogler gets T’Challa in the same way I do: this is a man who values culture and tradition first, who is a politician before anything else, who approaches violence as a last resort, and who is trying to be a good man – and you really get that in both Coogler’s writing and Chadwick Boseman’s performance. This is a very nuanced character who appears fully-formed on the screen.

T’Challa comes up against an antagonist who is almost as complete as he is. Michael B Jordan takes Erik Killmonger and makes him sympathetic in a way that few Marvel Cinematic Universe villains have managed. Sure, a lot of that is possible because we’re so well versed in how this universe works. But a lot of credit, again, goes to Coogler: the character of Killmonger is complex, but easy to understand, and you kind of start to side with him a litttle bit.

I also have to give a shout-out to the supporting cast, too. Andy Serkis does some great work as Ulysses Klaue – last seen  during Avengers: Age Of Ultron – but the real stars here are Letitia Wright and Danai Gurira, who play T’Challa’s younger sister Shuri and the head of the Dora Milaje, Okoye, respectively. These two steal every scene they are in, and I can’t wait to see them explored further in Avengers: Infinity War and beyond.

Oh, and stay till the end of the credits for a well-earned cameo.

All in all, Black Panther is a true success in blockbuster film-making – and, I hope, a financial success that starts to swing the tide in Hollywood. And I can’t wait to see it again.

Black Panther is directed by Ryan Coogler, from a script by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Andy Serkis. It is in cinemas now.

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