Pacific Rim Uprising is All Flash, No Substance

I never thought I would see a sequel to Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monsters vs. robots epic. The movie cost a ton of money to make and met with a mixed critical reception and underwhelming box office numbers, making a sequel unlikely. But five years later, here we are, and a sequel is in theaters. And it’s…just okay.

I loved the first movie. A lot of people out there didn’t seem to like it, which is baffling to me because I enjoyed the hell out of it, and still do. It’s better than all five Transformers movies put together.

The first film had a sense of immediacy to it that made the story compelling. Mankind was on the brink of extinction, and the sense of imminent doom gave the movie dramatic heft because there was always something at stake. I also liked the characters and cared about what happened to them.
Neither of these are the case with the sequel.

Images: Universal Pictures/Legendary Pictures

The movie spends a long time spinning its wheels before the inevitable return of the kaiju, the building-sized monstrosities that were seemingly defeated in the first film. The plot of the sequel feels inconsequential, and there were several aspects of it that, as I drove home after the movie, I realized made absolutely no sense.

It’s no spoiler to say that the kaiju return in the sequel, since if they didn’t there would be no movie. But the way the writers engineered the reemergence of the great beasties was…kind of stupid. There were several moments as I watched the movie where I thought to myself, really? That’s how they chose to do it? It sounds weird to say that a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots jumped the shark, but it’s true. Pacific Rim Uprising jumps the shark in a major way.

I also didn’t care about the characters. The protagonist of the new film is Jake Pentecost, son of Stacker Pentecost, Idris Elba’s character from the first film, who famously cancelled the apocalypse.

I didn’t like Jake Pentecost.

He’s a stuck-up, obnoxious jackass. Pacific Rim Uprising suffers from what I like to call Jurassic World Syndrome, which is when characters in a movie repeatedly talk about how cool they are. Jake is so full of himself that he talks multiple times about how sexy he is. I’m not joking, he calls himself sexy on more than one occasion. It’s the worst. I really liked Raleigh Beckett, Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist in the first movie, but the protagonist of the second movie is a cocky jerk.

Jake is played by John Boyega, who is not a bad actor and looks and sounds quite a bit like Idris Elba, so I could buy him as the son of Elba’s character. But his character is badly written and not very likable. The supporting characters are more likable but not much more memorable. One of the other main characters is Jake’s friend who is played by Scott (son of Clint) Eastwood, who has his dad’s jawline but none of his screen presence. I don’t even remember his character’s name, I think it was Nate something. He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread stuck to a beige wall. He’s a black hole of charisma.

One of the only returning characters from the first movie is Mako Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi, and she’s barely in the movie. Only a few mentions are made of Charlie Hunnam’s character, and no reasons are given for his absence. Returning from the first movie are uber-nerds Dr. Herman Gottlieb and Newton Geiszler, who are quirky but not as funny or likable as they were previously.

Uprising was directed by Stephen S. DeKnight, whose background is mostly in television. This is his big-screen directorial debut, and the results are decidedly mixed. I’m a fan of some of DeKnight’s TV series, such as Starz’ Spartacus and Netflix’s Daredevil, but his direction of Pacific Rim Uprising is just okay. He does good work with the action sequences and special effects but the plot is crummy and the characters are boring. He also doesn’t have a great sense of spatial awareness, since during the film’s lengthy final battle I had a hard time keeping track of where the various robots were in relation to each other, and which characters were piloting which robot.

The movie does look good. The special effects are great and I liked the designs of the robots and monsters, and the city-destroying climactic battle is pretty fun, spatial awareness issues aside. The final battle takes place in Tokyo, which has been destroyed in countless Godzilla movies, and at one point three kaiju form together to create a MEGA KAIJU, which made my inner 12-year-old happy. But unlike the first movie, the special effects are all the new movie really has going for it. There’s no substance underneath and no reason to care about the people piloting the enormous ‘bots.

Pacific Rim Uprising is ultimately a disappointment. Its ending sets the stage for future sequels, but it’s hard to get excited about the prospect. Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much, since I went into the movie expecting some serious robot-on-monster action, and in that respect I was satisfied. But the unlikable protagonist, lack of characterization, and slow, nonsensical plot drag it down. The movie as a whole feels more commercialized and less personal than Del Toro’s original. It’s still better than most of the Transformers movies, and doesn’t have the unfunny racial humor and weird sexism that characterize those movies. In that sense at least it would make a better entertainment to take your kids to, but the lack of substance is just too bad.

Ah, well. Only about a month until Avengers: Infinity War!!

Tomb Raider 2018 is the Best VIdeo Game Movie Ever Made

The title of this post makes what might seem like a bold claim, but let’s be honest: the standards aren’t very high.

Even video game-based movies that I enjoy like the Resident Evil movies and the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies aren’t what I would call good movies. They’re mindless fun and I enjoy them for what I feel is their considerable entertainment value, but they’re all just as stupid as hell.

2018’s Tomb Raider is more of a gritty reboot in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy or the Daniel Craig Bond films. The new movie takes most of its cues from the 2013 Tomb Raider game, which itself was a gritty reboot of Lara Croft, a dark and violent tale that was one of my favorite games of that year. Its sequel, 2015’s Rise of the Tomb Raider, was arguably even better, and the new film combines story elements from both games. So if the names Yamatai, Himiko, and Trinity mean anything to you, then you probably have a good idea of what the movie’s plot will entail.

Images: Warner Bros./Square Enix

Lara is played this time around by Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning Swedish actress. We first meet Lara as she’s getting her butt kicked in an MMA match, which gives the viewer a good look at Vikander’s amazing abs. She got in incredible shape for the movie, and she gets plenty of opportunities to show off her toned physique. I hope I don’t sound like a pig for saying this, but sex appeal has always been a big part of the appeal of Tomb Raider, and Vikander is very sexy.

She’s also a damn good actress and gives a performance that gives Lara a lot of empathy and personality. In the games, she’s not just a sex symbol anymore, and this applies to the movie as well. At the beginning of the film, she’s making a meager living in London as a bike courier. She’s the heir to a large corporation, but she refuses to accept her inheritance because that would require her to declare her father legally dead, which she is not prepared to do. Her father disappeared years ago and she is determined to find out what happened to him, which is her main motivation throughout the film.

Her search lead her to discover her father’s hidden research into Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen who was said to have power over life and death. She finds a recording left by her father in which he instructs her to destroy his research, but of course she doesn’t, and follows his trail to Hong Kong. There she meets Lu Ren, a ship captain she convinces to take her to an island she believes to be the island her father was searching for. They are promptly shipwrecked and wind up in the clutches of Mathias Vogel, the leader of an expedition on the island to unearth Himiko’s tomb. It turns out Mathias knew Lara’s father, and his research was the final piece of the puzzle required to locate Himiko.

Lara has just brought him exactly what he needed. Remember in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, where Indy’s dad gets mad at him for bringing the Grail diary with him when the Nazis capture them? It’s like that. Tomb Raider may not be the most original movie. It’s a bit derivative, and much of the film’s final act is very reminiscent of the Last Crusade’s final act, where the bad guys force Indy to go on ahead and solve the puzzles leading to the Grail. Pretty much the exact same thing happens in Tomb Raider. But hey, if you’re going to steal from another movie, at least steal from a good movie.

I liked this new Tomb Raider quite a bit. The acting is solid, with Alicia Vikander making Lara into a likable and vulnerable character who is also a force to be reckoned with in the action scenes. Tomb Raider is one of the most visually faithful video game adaptations. Vikander looks almost exactly like the Lara of the recent games, and the clothes she wears and the weapons she uses (like the bow and the climbing axe) look like they came directly from the games.

Several of the action set pieces come directly from the games as well, like when Lara finds herself in a rusted-out old airplane dangling precariously over the edge of a waterfall. There is plenty of fan service for fans of the games such as myself, and the film’s ending shows Lara with her hair in its trademark braid and acquiring her famous dual pistols, as well as setting itself up for a sequel. Vikander wouldn’t have been my first choice for the role of Lara but she nails it, and if there are any sequels she’s the right woman for the job.

The rest of supporting cast is also good. The villainous Mathias is played by Walton Goggins (I love that name) who is good at playing slimy sleazeballs. Lara’s father Lord Richard Croft is played by Dominic West (I love that name too), an actor with a voice I could listen to all day. Lu Ren the ship captain is played by Daniel Wu, from the badass AMC TV series Into the Badlands, which is a show loaded with top-notch kung fu action.

It is, of course, not a perfect movie. The first act is a bit sluggish, since it takes about 45 minutes for Lara to reach the island, and the pacing lags a bit in the early going. There are some underused characters too. Lu Ren seems like a cool guy and Daniel Wu is a good actor but once when they reach the island he doesn’t get much to do, and Kristin Scott Thomas is a very capable actress who is barely in the movie, which is too bad. But there are a couple of fun cameos from Nick Frost and Sir Derek Jacobi of all people, which helps make up for it.

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Roar Uthaug (another great name) who does good work with the material. It’s not perfect and has gotten a mixed critical reception, but I feel it’s a genuinely good movie despite its flaws and I had a lot of fun with it. If you’re a fan of the games you’ll find a lot to like here and will appreciate the various callbacks to the games, but even if you’ve never picked up a controller you’ll still find a fun adventure movie, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

The Shape of Water is a Fairy Tale Like No Other

As a shy and introverted person, I always respond strongly to movies in which the protagonist doesn’t say much. One of the many reasons Mad Max: Fury Road is one of my favorite movies of all time is that Max has maybe a dozen lines throughout the film.

Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water features not one but two protagonists who never say a word.

Well, not counting the hissing noises.

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Shape of Water is a tender love story about the oddly beautiful relationship between a mute woman and an amphibious fishman. The woman’s name is Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins. She works at a government facility of some kind (its purpose is never fully explained), where she works as a janitor with her friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer. Elisa’s only other friend is her neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, a kind soul who is a closeted gay man.

Elisa’s life follows a routine until something very strange arrives at the facility in which she works. That strange something is the aforementioned fishman, played by veteran creature actor Doug Jones. I say “creature actor” because although you might not recognize his name, chances are pretty good you’ve seen Doug Jones in a movie at some point, since his IMDb page lists 161 acting credits. He’s been in several of Guillermo del Toro’s other films, including the similar fishman Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, as well as playing two creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth. He played two characters in that one, including the titular faun and the terrifying Pale Man, aka that skinny guy with his eyeballs in his hands who scared the bejesus out of literally everyone who saw Pan’s Labyrinth.

Bottom line, Jones is a pro. What Andy Serkis is to motion capture, Doug Jones is to acting in full-body makeup and prosthetics. I watched some of the movie’s special features, and in them Guillermo talks about how the creature’s facial expressions and body language needed to be expressive and readable in order for the audience to sympathize with the creature, and Doug Jones does incredible work in that regard. I immediately felt empathy for the creature, and was invested in the unconventional relationship between Elisa and the creature right from the start.

But as with any love story worth its salt, there are those who want to keep the lovebirds apart. The main villain of the story is Strickland, the agent who captured the creature in South America, where the locals worshipped it as a god, and transported it to the facility in Baltimore, where the film takes place. Strickland is in charge of finding out what makes the creature tick, and his methods for doing so involve generous use of a cattle prod.

Strickland is played by Michael Shannon, an actor who is probably a perfectly nice, normal human being but who scares the hell out of me in just about every movie I see him in. The guy is intense, and every one of his characters has this ferocity that is incredibly intimidating. Strickland sees the creature as an abomination, an affront to humanity. “We are made in the image of God,” he tells Elisa and Zelda. “God looks like us, not like that thing.”

Strickland feels no empathy for the creature whatsoever and seems to delight in its torment. He clearly sees himself as the hero of this story, and if this film had been made by anyone other than Guillermo del Toro, he might be. But as it is, Strickland is the monster of this story, not the fishman, or “The Asset,” as Strickland and other government brass refer to it. I hadn’t seen The Shape of Water when I wrote my posts about the villains of 2017, but if I had Strickland would have more than earned his place.

The movie looks gorgeous. It takes place some time in the 1950’s or 60’s. Although the exact year is never specified, it’s in the middle of the Cold War, which is important to the plot since one of the scientists in the facility is secretly a Russian agent. The movie has a retro look that I just loved, some scenes, like the ones in Strickland’s house, look like they could have come straight out of a TV commercial from that era. The movie also reminded me quite a bit of the video game Bioshock, which is a series I’m a big fan of. If only Guillermo had gotten to make a Bioshock movie, that would have been awesome. Oh, well. Still, The Shape of Water is a beautiful movie not just in terms of the visuals, but also the themes, story and performances.

I wish Sally Hawkins had won the Oscar for Best Actress. Her wordless performance in this film is spellbinding. She does an incredible job capturing Elisa’s emotions, so that the viewer understands her personality and motivations even without any spoken dialogue. In the similarly-wordless fishman, she finds a soulmate. Their relationship is developed with care and minute attention to detail, and the film’s ending is deeply moving. It feels like a logical fulfillment of their central relationship. I won’t spoil it because I really want people who haven’t seen it to see this movie as soon as possible, but by the time the end credits rolled there were some tears in my eyes. And they weren’t tears of sadness.

I’m a shy and reserved person, so seeing movies about people who have trouble expressing themselves is very meaningful for me. Elisa is a person with a lot going on beneath her placid surface. Once she falls in love with the fishman, it’s hard for her to express her feelings for him. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when she tells Giles via sign language what her relationship with the creature means to her, and he translates as she signs to him. “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me. Every time. Every day.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. The Shape of Water is a story about two people (technically, one person and one fishman, but you get the idea) who are perfect for each other, and I loved it for that.

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and I’m so happy The Shape of Water was such a success and won him all those Academy Awards. I fell in love with The Shape of Water, right from the opening scene. It’s a fairy tale for adults, made with love and care. I didn’t call it an adult fairy tale because that makes it sound like a porno, but seriously, this movie is not for kids. As with Guillermo’s other fairy tales like Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, he doesn’t shy away from occasional bursts of graphic violence, and there are one or two scenes in The Shape of Water that had me squirming. But the film is ultimately a beautiful one, the kind of movie that stays with you long after it’s over. It feels like a movie that no one other than Guillermo could have made, and I can’t wait to see it again.