REVIEW: “Pacific Rim: Uprising”


Five years ago revered filmmaker Guillermo del Toro added one of the weirdest additions to his already strange and eclectic filmography. The movie was “Pacific Rim”, a big-budget sci-fi monster mashup that drew comparisons from Transformers to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Sporting a whopper of a budget, the movie didn’t exactly burn up the box office, but it did gain a cult following and was successful enough to encourage a sequel. But that doesn’t mean we needed one.

“Pacific Rim: Uprising” had only a slightly smaller budget but made significantly less money. Not a good sign for fans of the aspiring franchise. Aside from a producer credit, del Toro is out of the picture. And while his first installment was far from pure greatness, it did a number of things this sequel just doesn’t pull off.

As you recall, giant monsters known as Kaiju emerged from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat these city-leveling threats mankind constructed huge mech-like machines called Jaegers. “Uprising” takes place ten years after the events of the first film. John Boyega plays Jake, an ex-Jaeger pilot and son of inspirational Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from the first picture). Jake shuns his father’s legacy instead choosing to sell Jaeger parts on the black market.


While scavenging Jake encounters a young teen and Jaeger admirer named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). As the two duke it out for a power core it draws the attention of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps who take them both into custody. Jake is given the choice of prison or returning to the corps as an instructor with his former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood). Amara is among the new cadets he is tasked with training.

But as you would expect things get bad. During a tech exercise in Sidney, Australia a rogue Jaeger attacks increasing calls to shelf the program and replace it with Shao Corporation’s drone technology. To make matters worse a new Kaiju threat surfaces thrusting Jake and his green recruits to the frontlines where the must save the world from enemies big and small.

First time feature-film director Steven S. DeKnight (mostly known for his television work on “Spartacus” and “Daredevil” among others) takes the helm and steers the ship the best he can. The visuals in “Uprising” can be stunning at times and it’s hard not to be impressed by the massive-scaled battle sequences between machine and monster. Even a guy like me who has grown a little numb to the CGI devastation of major world cities in movies found the battles sometimes exhilarating. And the film’s explosive ending is absurdly fun and entertaining.


Where “Uprising” stumbles is in its story and its characters. A team of four writers (including DeKnight) are credited with navigating the screenplay through a series of rewrites. Minus a handful of small twists, it’s really a basic story that has little to offer thematically. For example there is only a shell of the first film’s central theme of togetherness. The whole ‘drifting” and ‘neural handshake’ thing is still an intriguing idea but not much is done with it. And we are only given a perfunctory treatment of teamwork and camaraderie. It all feels so lightweight.

And the characters aren’t much better. So often the attempts at human moments are as mechanical as anything we see in Jaeger form. Boyega and Eastwood are the only remotely convincing as pilots but offer little else in terms of character. And other than Amara, the younger pilots are hard to buy into and utterly forgettable.

Guillermo del Toro’s movie was no masterpiece. I would even say it’s somewhat overrated. But it was fun and even a bit nostalgic. Also its message of coming together was effective even in its simplicity. “Uprising” doesn’t match its predecessor in any of those areas. It does have its moments most notably the giant-sized battle sequences. But with so little else to offer, it’s tough to embrace it as anything more than forgettable blockbuster fluff.



REVIEW: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”


Caution, concern, skepticism, uncertainty. These are just a few words to describe my feelings after hearing a new Star Wars movie was on the way. After all, we aren’t talking about making any old thing. J.J. Abrams was taking what is arguably the most popular brand of any entertainment form and bringing it back to the big screen. He was tinkering with a property known for having the most passionate, the most protective, the most dedicated, and the most outspoken fan base. He was tackling a franchise viewed as more than a simple series of movies by millions of people from practically every demographic. Abrams was making a new Star Wars movie. No pressure.

Let’s be honest, when Disney acquired the Star Wars brand from George Lucas for $4.06 billion there was reason for Star Wars junkies like myself to at least be cautious. The Disney-fication (my new word) of Star Wars worried me. Then J.J. Abrams was given the keys to the new film. Abrams, a guy I have always seen as hit-or-miss, is best known for rebooting the Star Trek film series. But he didn’t only reboot Star Trek. He completely altered the structure, tone, and feeling of the Star Trek universe replacing it with a hip new Hollywood version. That’s the last thing I want in a new Star Wars picture.


Abrams, a self-admitted Star Wars fanboy, has said all the right things when talking about the new film. He directs, co-writes, and co-produces “The Force Awakens”, which is essentially Episode VII. It is a film positioned as a conduit connecting the old to the new as well as an injection of fresh energy for a new generation. That sounds good, but can it deliver? Can this new era of Star Wars suck me in like the previous efforts. An answer was hinted at once John Williams’ score struck that glorious and familiar opening note.

I was able to avoid spoilers and all story details which made my viewing experience all the better. For that reason I’ll stay away from any semblance of a plot synopsis. But let’s just say the film starts with a bang and we are quickly introduced to the franchise’s new players. Abrams wants us to make early connections with these folks because they are clearly set to be key ingredients in this film and the franchise in general.

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On one side we meet the resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She’s the highlight of the new bunch – a strong independent sparkplug who is remarkably resourceful yet burdened by her past. We get the jittery, disillusioned Finn (John Boyega). He’s the film’s cowardly lion – a man with a conscience but who is too afraid to follow it. Boyega goes full throttle in every scene which isn’t always the best acting choice. And then there is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the best pilot in the galaxy. He’s a cool, rousing Han Solo type but with Luke Skywalker’s unwavering devotion to his cause. And then there is the little droid BB-8, an example of a cutesy character done right.


In the other corner we have The First Order, an evil Third Reich-ish force risen from the ashes of the Empire. They are led (or are they) by the volatile and dangerous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He is driven by an almost maniacal obsession to be the most feared person in the galaxy. There is the smug opportunist General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) whose lust for power rivals that of Kylo Ren. He operates a Nazi-like military force and flexes his murderous muscles at will. But there is also the shadowy enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we only see in a familiar grainy hologram form.

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And then you have the classic characters who Star Wars fans love. It has been roughly 30 years since the events of “Return of the Jedi” and names like Han, Luke, and Leia are spoken of by many in near mythical terms. Harrison Ford returns as Han and he gets the bigger chunk of screen time. He’s slower, grayer, but ever the cool space pirate. He and his howling compadre Chewbacca feel as if they haven’t missed a beat. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is focused on leading the resistance movement against The First Order. Luke (Mark Hamill) has disappeared after a particularly troubling event. And of course there is C3PO and R2D2. Seeing these characters again is exciting for any true fanboy. I do think there are moments between them that deserved a little more attention, but I’ll leave that one alone for now.

The real trick for Abrams is juggling all of these characters both old and new. To help he brought in writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan (who also worked on the scripts for “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). The script works mainly because the characters never get lost in a deluge of special effects. Each are given their own moments particularly the new faces who are well-developed and left with enough questions to be intriguing.

Speaking of the effects, there is a ton of CGI yet it never looks overused or blatantly obvious.  As good as the prequels often looked there were many instances where Lucas would visually overload his screen. Not here. Regardless of how fantastical things get, the special effects work to promote the setting, the characters, or the story. The new weapons, vehicles, and technology are fun, much of it based on blueprints from the original trilogy. Star Wars has always been known for its top-notch sound design. Here is no different. And Williams’ score is perfect sometimes feeling plucked right out the earliest films.

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Seasoned Star Wars fans will notice several nostalgic throwbacks, entertaining Easter eggs, and cool bits of fan service, but in a sense this contributes one of the film’s few problems. It plays it too safe specifically in the final act. Don’t get me wrong, I love the fan service. It struck a strong chord with me. But at the same time it kept the big ending on a relatively short leash. It was way too familiar down to certain details. Not bad by any means, but very familiar. It could be that Abrams feared alienating the tough-minded and vocal fan base. I can respect that. Now that he has expressed himself as a Star Wars loyalist I’m hoping the next installments will take us into some newer directions.

But enough of that. I am so happy to be able to stand up and tip my hat to J.J. Abrams. Talk about a bold and pressure-filled undertaking. Taking the reigns of the biggest entertainment franchise in the world was gutsy and the pressures to deliver a new yet faithful sequel were intense. But he does it. “The Force Awakens” is a fun, action-packed tablesetter for a new era of Star Wars. It has heart, emotion, and a childlike exuberance that should spark a flicker of excitement in even the most hardened person’s heart. But most importantly it FEELS LIKE a Star Wars movie. That may sound a bit silly to the more casual audience, but Star Wars fans know exactly what I mean and that may be J.J. Abrams’ single greatest accomplishment with this film.