Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Jaeger bomb.

With a tag line that simply states ‘Go big or go extinct’ you’d be forgiven for thinking that Pacific Rim is the latest in a long line of hoo-rah America saves the world flicks from Michael Bay. But strangely, you’d be wrong.

All the signs are there especially in the first three minutes of the film as it delivers more explosive exposition than a closing Columbo monologue. Mankind is balls-deep in a war with alien lizards (nicknamed Kaiju) who have crawled through a deep-sea intergalactic portal. Initially, the military responds with a largely ineffective tank and fighter plane-led onslaught but as this becomes more and more pointless and the Kaiju become bigger, the world joins forces to build powerful, giant robotic warriors, the Jaegers.

Piloted by two mind-melded human pilots, these massive mechs do a good job of seeing off the toothy titans and make their pilots as famous as rock stars, until they eventually prove too ineffective against the relentless threat to mankind. Turning to massive sea defences rather than the offensive but costly Jaeger programme, the world prepares to dig in; that is until one man decides there’s one last mission left in the towering tin cans yet.

Let’s not beat around the bush, this film is essentially Godzilla’s extended family versus a team of armoured-up Power Rangers in a desperate battle for the planet, so what is it that makes this one stand out from your usual apocalyptic summer blockbuster?

First and foremost (and most intriguingly) it’s the choice of Guillermo del Toro as director. The auteur more renowned for taking on terrifying nightmarish art house horror like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone does brilliantly well combining story with spectacle, and the film is surprisingly pacy for such a considered director.

The cast is also pretty low key for a major studio release and punches well above its weight. Leads Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy, once of Byker Grove!) and Rinko Kikuchi (The Brothers Bloom) have only notched up 60-odd screen appearances between them and nothing of this scale, so it’s brave to have them piloting the movie. Of course, they’re more than ably assisted by Idris Elba’s spectacularly monikered Stacker Pentecost who adds humour alongside an upper lip so stiff you could rest your cutlery on it.

Sadly, numerous cliches do appear during the film. Burn Gorman’s nervy, stuttering scientist Gottlieb is the usual lazy blockbuster English stereotype whilst Charlie Day as Dr Newton Geiszler plays the kind of role that Rick Moranis was doing in his sleep 25 years ago, but the pair are still likeable enough to bring some decent comic relief to proceedings, especially during the latter’s interactions with a suitably madcap (long-time Del Toro collaborator) Ron ‘Hellboy‘ Perlman.

A couple of plot holes threaten to derail the movie, mainly when it comes to believing mankind’s been doing so well for years without using the most basic of tactics, and despite the vague ‘the aliens have been evolving’ excuse you can just about forgive the shaky logic long enough because THERE ARE GIANT ALIEN LIZARDS AND ROBOTS FIGHTING EACH OTHER.

Now, giant robots, that rings a bell…Pacific Rim will no doubt be compared to Transformers but whereas the latter drags out its kiddie-friendly scene setting and annoying moralising into three hours, Pacific Rim is all about the spectacle. The effects are dazzling, especially in 3D and on an IMAX screen and this is one film that uses the extra dimension subtly enough to truly immerse the viewer during a breathtaking 130 minutes. You’ll be rooted to your seat wondering if a tumbling tyrannosaur is going to fall into your lap.

The size and scale (ho ho) of this film is pretty much unmatched, and the dialogue is tongue in cheek enough to poke fun at itself without taking anything away from the seriousness of the situation the characters find themselves in.

Strangely, there’s an odd shoe/foot fetish throughout the film without a single toe appearing in the flesh. Whether it’s the numerous shots of the Jaeger pilot’s metal stormtrooper boots, Ron Perlman’s gold leaf brogues or the lost shoe of a young Kikuchi, Del Toro lobs the lost and found metaphor in there frequently to give the movie real sole.

Is this film predictable? Of course it is. Does the macho factor ramp up to at least 179? Damn right, soldier! But beneath all the bluster and ridiculousness, Pacific Rim does what few summer blockbusters can; chuck their all into being a dino-sized lump of epic filmmaking, that any audience from 12 to 120 is going to love for sheer spectacle and ambition.

Batman: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises

WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS

One of the best things to come out of the so-called ‘Noughties’ was the emergence of a new generation of film directors who, as fans of the medium, have taken on epic projects with fanboyish enthusiasm.

The trend arguably began with Peter Jackson, that cult splatter movie helmer, when he was given the green light to turn one of the world’s greatest texts into a multi-million dollar, three film, 10 hour masterpiece. But the impact of another auteur, Christopher Nolan, on today’s movie industry simply can’t be ignored.

A hot property in Hollywood despite having only directed 10 films and still only being 42 years old, Nolan instantly showed a gift for celluloid storytelling with his breakout film, Memento, and it wasn’t long before he was tapped up to relaunch one of the greatest superhero sagas of all time; that of the Dark Knight.

Batman Begins was a stunning introduction to a new, grittier, blacker than tar hero, set in a very real world, albeit populated by lunatics, thus staying faithful to the source material. Casting was nigh on perfect, with Christian Bale’s ‘proper actor’ chops gelling well with his ability to beef himself up and be believable in the more physical aspects of the role.

Although a very good film, the sequel, The Dark Knight was overshadowed, just as The Crow had been, by the death of one of its leads and so after a four-year break, everyone was desperate to see how Nolan would wrap up his trilogy of Gotham City tales.

The Dark Knight Rises is epic. Epic in scale. In ambition. In drawing together everything that had been laid out in the previous two films. It’s equally impressive in featuring over 70 mins of footage in IMAX; the most ever recorded in the format for a single movie. Yet this film isn’t a three-hour balls-out action blast; it’s a thoughtful, morally complicated tale and one which raises as many questions as it answers.

Picking up eight years after The Dark Knight, Batman has been absent from Gotham since taking the rap for the murder of Harvey ‘Two Face’ Dent. Bruce Wayne is similarly retired, hobbling around Wayne Manor with a walking stick, a recluse with his back turned on his former billionaire playboy ways.

When a body is washed out of Gotham’s sewers, Commissioner Gordon (a typically brilliant Gary Oldman) and the city’s police raid the underground maze, only to be attacked by a sinister masked villain who is planning something pretty  serious for the residents of Batman’s hometown.

The villain in question, Bane, is a terrifyingly real one in many ways. As a modern-day terrorist, gone is the comically weak Bane of (whisper it) Batman & Robin, replaced instead by Tom Hardy’s realistically muscled-up lunatic. His plan to destroy Gotham City via an atomic bomb fashioned from a Wayne Enterprises clean energy reactor is pretty standard of a big movie villain, but the way he cares little about his employees and his employers gives him a terrifying, maniacal edge. There were early questions about the clarity of Hardy’s dialogue whilst wearing the mask and on occasion you do have to work a little bit to pick out every last word, especially with the sometimes over-bearing musical score blasting at you. But largely the beast’s intentions are more than clear and his almost Vader-like utterances come across as brilliantly warped and dictatorial.

One thing this film simply doesn’t focus on is Batman’s detective work, instead leaving Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake, to lead much of the investigation. So when Bane has his first encounter with the Dark Knight pretty early on, the result is exceptionally brutal and punishing. Excellent fight choreography proves quickly just what Batman is up against but even so he doesn’t bother with gadgets and toys, feeling instead that matching strength with strength is the only way to go. And when the comic-book fan pleasing “breaking” occurs, it sends more than just a shiver down the audience’s spine too.

Nolan makes one key decision throughout this movie; despite the title, the film is not there to build towards a Hollywood-style resurrection crescendo. In fact on the two occasions when Batman does return from the brink, it is handled so simply and subtly you could blink and miss it. Wayne simply goes back to what he knows, his faith restored, slotting back into the piece effortlessly.

And then of course there’s Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman, Selina Kyle. Eyebrows were initially raised at that particular piece of casting, but Hathaway pulls off the morally ambiguous role brilliantly, showing just the right balance of sexuality and brutality, without being a ridiculously vamped-up nymph. Her goals are very clear even if her alliances are not, and not only does this work alongside the original comic book character, it also ties in nicely with the parade of shady types populating the film.

The dialogue between the lead characters is sparky and fresh, avoiding too much comic japery or ridiculous shoulder-crying. When Michael Caine’s Alfred talks to Bruce, you can see the passion in his eyes and when Wayne and Kyle meet you don’t instantly presume they’re going to get it on there and then but this doesn’t reduce the impact of their dynamic one iota.

Throwing in cameos from Cillian ‘Scarecrow’ Murphy and Liam ‘Ra’s Al Ghul’ Neeson also don’t distract from the main thrust of the film, they simply tie things up nicely as the plot thunders along. Even during the foreign prison-based exposition halfway through, the flow feels natural and the countdown to destruction more than real.

If there is going to be a criticism of this film it is that the ending could be seen as a little twee. It’s left relatively open to interpretation and the Internet is already a-buzz with opposing theories as to whether it is gloomy or euphoric, but that is the beauty of Nolan’s storytelling – it is up to the viewer to decide.

You could probably also get picky over why Wayne Enterprises crumbles, when it has been pretty obvious to the world that a giant masked terrorist happened to be in the Stock Exchange when it all went down. You might also wonder why Bats keeps up the husky voice even when Kyle knows his true identity, but these are minor and petty issues in a hugely enjoyable climatic spectacle.

The Dark Knight Rises is certainly more than a fitting way to conclude the Nolan/Bale era, and whoever throws on the cowl next certainly has their work cut out.

3D – The New Betamax?

If you’ve read more than one or two posts on this blog, you’ll be aware that I’m rather partial to a bit of technology and a nice new shiny gadget. Whether it’s the latest videogaming platform or a new electronic abacus, I like to keep abreast of what’s going on and I hate to miss out. This week though, I’ve found myself taking a bit of a step back to think about what exactly is the ‘next big thing’ in a world of ever expanding technological boundaries.

Having seen two 3D films in two days (Green Lantern and Transformers: Dark of the Moon), and with the imminent release of the world’s first 3D mobile, the LG Optimus 3D I’m really starting to wonder if this is one technology too far. Yes, the world in which we live is not as flat as the screens we are constantly watching and in movies, the 3D effect can sometimes add an extra layer of immersion, but 3D has already proven to have its drawbacks.

1) You end up looking like a bit of an idiot. Yes, that’s right, apart from the Nintendo 3DS and the aforementioned new LG handset, 3D is generally viewed using a pair of 3D specs, the likes of which wouldn’t have looked out of place in late 80s Star Trek. Sitting in your living room wearing these is always going to make you feel a little silly, especially when you forget to take them off to answer the door to the Avon lady.

2) Autostereoscopic 3D (the 3DS etc) has to be viewed from a very specific direction to actually work, and has been reported to cause a few headaches after prolonged exposure. I’m not one to support a scaremongering ‘technology’s bad’ story such as this usually, but surely this one can’t be good for our kids.

3) The 3D effect of movies, sports and TV is largely pointless. Having watched football in 3D, the general result was a headache, albeit with a few good camera shots of the crowd which added real depth. But who watches football to look at the crowd? Similarly, whenever a film tries to put extra effort into very obviously ‘directed for 3D’ scenes, the result often feels forced. The Final Destination, I’m looking at you.

4) It’s pricey. Not only do additional pairs of 3D glasses for home use cost in the region of £100, buying films in 3D and the TVs and Blu-ray players to view them on can soon put a major dent in the bank balance of us normal folk.

3D televisions will obviously come down in price and be more affordable to the average family in the next couple of years, and the PS3 offers a cut-price 3D media player, but is 3D the game-changer that people are predicting or could it go the way of Betmax and HD-DVD before it? It’s gotten to a stage now where roughly 60% of new film releases are also watchable in 3D, however appetite of the cinema-going public isn’t necessarily matching this growth, with box office takings for the 3D version of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean film accounting for only 38% of its total revenue in the US.

Don’t get me wrong, our viewing pleasure can be improved and HD was a revelation. The difference to anyone with even half decent eyesight was staggering, but 3D promises things will jump out at you to add even more to your optical experience and it isn’t always the case.

The clue to the success or failure of 3D could lie in its origins. Let’s not forget this is far from new technology, and indeed the first 3D film process was patented in the late 1890s. A 3D image of Queen Victoria was even on display at the Great Exhibition in 1851. So why haven’t things moved on that much in over 150 years?

One of the reasons could be the perception of 3D being a gimmick. I loved seeing comics and photos in red/green anaglyph 3D in the 80s but it didn’t mean I wanted to watch all of Jaws 3D bathed in a mysterious multicoloured glow. Similarly, I haven’t bought a 3D TV due to not wanting to give my cat something else to chew on.

The crux of the matter is this; 3D is only possible by in some way making our viewing less comfortable. Watching TV or a film is, and should always be effortless. You sit there passively watching a screen and things happen in front of you. Having to charge up your special specs beforehand just adds a level of complexity, and I’d argue it’s one that we don’t necessarily need. Here’s to the wireless.