23 March 2018

This Friday Only! Apocalypse Cancelled!

Today we have what's become a typical weekend. There is a middling yet high profile blockbuster release, a bunch of relatively unknown low profile crap, and it will all lose to Black Panther (2018) anyway. I couldn't believe that Tomb Raider (2018) failed to up-end Wakanda last week. I would have given that flick a better chance than Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018), our big-ticket item this weekend. With another week of demand burned off Black Panther...maybe? Although at this point I almost think Tomb Raider and Pac Rim 2 are going after pretty similar mid-ground action demographics here. Before we really sink into that, I should acknowledge that we won't be getting into Midnight Sun (2018), Sherlock Gnomes (2018), or Unsane (2018).

Well, maybe just really quick, because there's weird things about all of these. Check out how weird the fucking Midnight Sun trailer is. Is this a comedy? A Nicholas Sparks-style drama? Like, is it trying to be The Fault in Our Stars (2014)? What is Rob Riggle doing here? This kind of slapdashery is what 2018 Hollywood is all about. And Sherlock Gnomes, holy fuck. This is somehow a sequel to Gnomeo & Juliet (2011), which came out seven whopping years ago. It features...those characters interacting with a Sherlock Holmes thing? With Johnny Depp as the voice of Sherlock Gnomes? Listen, you can't have both Sherlock Gnomes and Gnomes Watson. Like, we need to do better at puns. These kind of throwaway animated features that exist solely to purge adults of their money are some of the worst forms of lazy entertainment. It's so rough.

Unsane is a relatively low release by Steven Soderbergh. This is the one he shot completely on his iPhone, but with a cast of Claire Foy, Jay Pharaoh, and Juno Temple, and some kind of #MeToo gaslighting hook it actually does look interesting and timely. Soderbergh does nothing if not continuously make unconventional films by unconventional means. I'm not super into the iPhone angle, but apparently it's okay. You can never count his work out quality-wise, but this will make little to no splash in our lives.

John Boyega's lifetime best movie and role may end
up being Attack the Block (2011).
For that matter, neither will Pac Rim Uprising. I was and still am a huge fan of the original Pacific
 (2013), which remains one of the better modern original sci-fi blockbusters. That's a less specific group than you might think when you consider Oblivion (2013), Elysium (2013), and After Earth (2013), which are all pretty damn shitty. Pacific Rim does such efficient worldbuilding and wears its coolness on one sleeve with its campiness on the other in equal pride. It's wholly unashamed of how ludicrous it is, and that's a rare thing that has everything to do with Academy Award-Winner Guillermo del Toro's bizarre unflinching monster love.

It's a film that has problems, but gets you on board enough that you hardly stop to think of them. It also grew this underground demented fanbase. There was always a sense that this flick was too weird, too ostentatious, too bold regarding its niche subject matter to be a real hit. And it wasn't. $100 million domestic isn't much, but another $300 million worldwide was enough to justify a sequel, albeit a somewhat bastardized one without any of its leads or director. Something about Ron Perlman showing up legitimized this so much as a del Toro favourite. There's an emptiness in Uprising.

Now, it'd be insane to think "This movie doesn't have Ron Perlman, it sucks" (wait...is that really insane?), but that's just an example. The original seemed to be in an exclusive modern American Kaiju club that we hadn't ever really seen before. Uprising looks like fucking Power Rangers (2017). That didn't turn out well. But why? There's a fine line there. By strict genre terms, Power Rangers are Kaiju films, they have giant monsters and robots and stuff. Why does this look shitty?

If you look at it, I think it comes down to the CGI and effects. Pacific Rim wisely hid itself in rain and night and at the bottom of the sea. It looks really good and obscured while also adding to its mood of darkness highlighted by the neon glow of Hong Kong and an early sunrise from outer space. Uprising pits everything in stark daylight, which not only gives away the effect, but makes us stylistically think of inferior works like Power Rangers. I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Generally, I'm also struck by the weight of everything. The original had everything move really momentously, a little slower by our perception, with control and heaviness befitting giant robots and monsters. It was a little more grounded (maybe a stretch) in its weaponry, proportions, environment effects, and changed world. Uprising looks far too quick and floaty. It gets away from the "guys in suits" aesthetics and into effects, creatures, and robots who look throw together rather than carefully built.

The original is also surprisingly full of real damage and consequences. Even though Raleigh Beckett remarks that Jaeger Pilots were rock stars and never lost, by the time the audience gets into the main story, these blokes are getting their asses kicked. Jaegers hardly ever last longer than a few seconds into a battle, and even when they do, it's with busted limbs and smashed up weapons. There's a real sense of reality here, which again I know is weird to say in this outrageous movie, but it all adds up. People get hurt, they kind of suck, their plans get ruined, they sacrifice and improvise. It's a fun ride. Maybe we'll see that in Uprising, but it moreover looks like it's a cartoon.

Then there's this weird Nega-Gipsy. What the hell is going on there? It might be cool. Alternate reality? I always thought a cool idea for a sequel would be like, aliens coming down and taking over Jaegers so humans re-open the breach and start controlling Kaiju brains. That's not implausible! Jaeger on Jaeger action is something we haven't really seen yet - is this a rogue pilot? Taken over by Kaiju? Aliens?! All three?! I've been disappointed in big blockbuster traitor stories lately. This might not suck.

Pew Pew Pew!!
And I should apologize, I shouldn't just compare this to the original and bitch about it. I do, however, want to articulate why I was really excited in 2013 and totally disillusioned by this new film. As always I should say that I never cheer for a film to be bad. Whether or not a film succeeds, though, depends on if it achieves what it's trying to do. Pacific Rim was trying to be a big modern-day fun beat 'em up monster movie. Uprising may be trying to do the same, but that's actually a hard line to nail. I suspect it shall fail.

And this is probably all Steven DeKnight's fault. He's a first-time director that somehow landed on this project once Guillermo left and started making Oscar-winners. DeKnight was a showrunner on Daredevil, which I generally hated, but to be fair, that was probably more to do with the show being stretched four or five episodes longer than it should have been. It does seem, however, that this is more a dude coming in and trying to show he can take direction and make a buck on a big budget film rather than a monster-loving maniac putting his dream on the screen. That's a big difference.

In the end, this is probably the most accurate review we're going to get, and it's something that I get at all the time. So much effort, so much energy, and time and talent just to end up in a discount DVD bin at the gas station. I picture like, John Boyega spending hours alone in his trailer trying to hone his character. Or the key grip getting all the camera set-ups just right. Or the editor making sure every punch lands with just enough oomph. They went to school for this stuff. Months of work so that I can flip through it on FX while hungover on a Sunday afternoon in between NFL commercials two years from now. I'm sorry, I meant XFL.

What do you think? I used to call these March attempts at big movies "Halfbusters." You ever feel like Buena Vista is the only studio that's even trying anymore?

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