Posts Tagged ‘John Boyega’

Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be because it’s been less than six months since the last one (although the mixed response to last year’s offering may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we’re still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).

It’s nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn’t exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

The film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are also known as jaegers, as I’m sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.

There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?

Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it’s taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure (‘Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim’ – ‘Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast’), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn’t participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur movie, Rinko Kikuchi’s appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a ‘visual consultant’, presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.

In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is as director, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.

However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I’m not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender’s Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.

You don’t come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)

Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like ‘Activate plasma wrecking ball!’, anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man’s presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.

On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren’t present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there’s one scene concerned with a character’s personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.

Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there’s a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I’m inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success it deserves.

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Okay, we may as well get this out of the way before we go any further: most people’s point of reference for Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block is going to be Shaun of the Dead. It’s not as if the film even shies away from this much: ‘from the producers of…’ features prominently on the poster, Edgar Wright is involved, Nick Frost has a hefty cameo role and the film is, essentially, a similar kind of stylistic mash-up. But, and I’m being up front about this, if you go in expecting a film as deft and witty and smart as Shaun then you won’t be doing yourself, or Attack the Block, any favours, because where the 2004 movie felt like a brilliant discovery, this is more some sort of bizarre oddity.

The film opens with Sam (Jodie Whittaker), a young nurse, walking home one Bonfire Night. She lives in a tower block on a desolate London council estate and soon finds herself facing a fairly grim scenario as she is surrounded and mugged at knifepoint by a gang of youths. Then things become somewhat less predictable and rather more surprising as a ball of fire falls from the sky and disgorges a slavering, clawed, ferocious creature.

Sam runs and in a slightly queasy narrative lurch the gang of muggers become the protagonists, as they kill the thing and carry away its remains as a trophy. But it soon becomes apparent that the fireball was only the first of many, and more – containing considerably more dangerous luminously-toothed gorilla-wolves – are landing all over the neighbourhood. The gang aren’t about to let any bunch of extraterrestrial monsters muscle in on their turf and quickly tool themselves up as the aliens prepare to attack the block they live in…

Quite by chance I caught a showing of this movie with subtitles, and in retrospect this may have been a good thing as nearly all the characters are a generation younger than me and speak in a street patois I am not particularly fluent in. I have no way of being sure, but it certainly seemed to me that the movie was doing a good job of giving an authentic impression of the dead-end culture the main characters have grown up within. Having said that, this is clearly the work of someone quite well-versed in the SF genre – the gang reside in Wyndham Tower, overlooking Ballard Street (amongst others), and while the movie doesn’t directly reference either writer (except perhaps Ballard’s High Rise, and then only tangentially) it was a nice reference.

But most importantly, Joe Cornish definitely seems to have chops as a film director. I was startled, years ago, to hear he and Edgar Wright had been retained to write a script for Marvel Studios, but on the strength of this they should snap him up as a solo act – he has a sure eye for the kind of cinematic flourish that really makes Attack the Block look like it belongs on the big screen. Rather in the way that Richard Ayoade seems to have assimilated the sensibility of American indie and produced his own version of it, so Cornish has done the same with a more mainstream, action-oriented style.

Given Cornish’s background as a performer – not to mention the presence in this film of Nick Frost, who demonstrates his usual monumental ability to steal scenes – you might expect this to be a rather broader comedy than it is. There are a few laughs along the way, to be sure, but this is really a…

Uh, well, I may have to get back to you on that one, because… well, if this movie is primarily intended as an action movie, it has a serious problem practically from the first scene. This is because most of the main characters are initially introduced as violent muggers and as a result almost impossible to sympathise with or root for (for me, anyway). It may be the idea that as time goes by we’re intended to forget how we first met the gang, or that the circumstances of the alien incursion are sufficiently serious to justify our overlooking the fact they’re vicious thugs – but the film never quite pulls this trick off.

And I get the impression Cornish is aware of this and it’s something he’s done deliberately, almost as a challenge to the audience. It would, after all, be easy enough to have started the film differently, omitted the mugging, and avoided this whole problem. If it’s not deliberate then it’s a major mis-step on his part.

I suspect it was a calculated move, as when it’s not being a rather 2000AD-ish action movie Attack the Block seems to want to say serious things about gang culture and wasted young lives in British inner-cities. But exactly what these things are I couldn’t quite make out, beyond a few very obvious points hammered home without a great deal of subtlety – ‘Actions have consequences,’ someone says at one point, rather labouring the issue.

When it comes to youth gang members – ‘hoodies’, as we rather charmingly used to refer to them – most films either mindlessly glamourise them, reflexively demonise them, or treat them much more thoughtfully as damaged, broken people, the product of their environment. At various points Attack the Block does all three, which is a neat trick. Whether it serves the story or not is another matter.

John Boyega does a bang-up job of portraying Moses, leader of the gang, and does succeed in giving him depth as a character (some of the other young performers are ever so slightly am-dram). But you don’t go to a knockabout action movie about aliens to get soul-searching and social comment, just as you don’t go to see a drama about the awful lives of dead-end kids on council estates looking for action sequences with CGI nasties (if there’s a social metaphor involved in the alien incursion storyline, I can’t discern what it is). Cornish has succeeded in fusing together two genres with absolutely nothing in common in terms of tone or audience expectations.

Once again, it’s a neat trick, but I’m not sure who exactly is going to find this movie a completely satisfying experience. It’s an extremely well-made and well-directed film, and a major calling card for Joe Cornish, but to completely enjoy it I think you would have to identify with the central characters to a degree of which I’m simply not capable: and while that’s partly a simple issue of fact, it’s also a result of the script. I’m loath to describe any film as being too clever for its own good, but Attack the Block may be just that.

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