Shanghai Fortress

shanghai1Hot on the heels of the utterly bonkers The Wandering Earth comes China’s version of Independence Day, the alien invasion thriller Shanghai Fortress, complete with your obligatory blitzkrieg of CGI aliens, aerial dogfights, explosions and collapsing skyscrapers. Some of the visuals are very good, and there is some fine imagery, but unfortunately they forgot to include a script. The Wandering Earth made little sense; this one makes no sense at all.

Unsurprisingly, all the eye candy in the world cannot save a genuinely bad film, and Shanghai Fortress flopped in spectacular fashion last month in its home territory, so much so that the director Teng Huatao issued a formal apology (they do things differently in China- imagine if Michael Bay had the decency to apologise for his Transformers films). Remarkably the film has already turned up on Netflix for veterans of The Wandering Earth to give Chinese sci-fi another go. Unfortunately as its theatrical box-office would suggest, Shanghai Express is a pretty poor, incoherent film full of plot-holes – at first I thought it might be down to bad subtitles/translation but its soon evident that the film really is just plain bad. The Wandering Earth was daft but kind of fun in its excess, this is just very dull.

The confusing plot involves an alien power source being discovered by Chinese astronauts on a (deep space?) mission that solves the worlds energy problems. Unfortunately, several years later some pissed-off aliens in a gigantic mothership arrive apparently looking to claim its power source back and promptly lays waste to any major city using it. Millions of humans are killed and every major population centre is turned to rubble, and Shanghai is, as the film begins, next on the list.

Now listen, just do yourself a favour and don’t think too hard about any of that. You might be perplexed that humanity has major energy problems but manages to send a ship on a deep space mission and not only manages alien contact but also steals a new power source from said aliens. The film in no way elaborates on who the aliens are or where they are from or how we stole the power source from them, its all just a perfunctory prologue awkwardly shown in a news bulletin before the CGI carnage ensues. It doesn’t mean anything, its all just an elaborate set-up to establish that there is an alien invasion in the offing and that the good people of Shanghai are our only hope. Mind, the people of the city are a fairly resilient lot, living under a protective energy shield they go on about their daily lives shopping and working and go to nightclubs in the evening, generally acting like Earth isn’t being invaded or that millions or even billions of humans haven’t died. Its all very odd. At least in Independence Day the American citizens knew it was time to get worried.

shanghai2.jpegThe cast do what they can with the underwritten and hackneyed characters, but the main lead, ace videogame pilot Jiang Yang (Lu Han, apparently a pop star rather than a ‘proper’ actor) has a cringe-worthy unrequited love affair with his beautiful military trainer Lin Lan (the very beautiful Shu Qi who is twenty years his senior and shares zero chemistry with him). The love affair seems to revolve around texting (stalking?) her and a flower that he hasn’t the nerve to give her. Its basically as complex as a student having a crush on his ‘hot’ teacher.

The odd thing is that towards the end of the film our heroes all start dying in CGI explosions, sacrificing themselves for the public good and its clear from the epic music score that we are meant to care but of course we can’t, they never feel like real people. Even our romantic leads don’t get the emotional pay-off we think they are going to get. One of them suddenly gets buried under a city of rubble (to maintain some sense of tension for any prospective viewers I won’t reveal which one) and that’s that, end of love affair and a subdued celebration when the aliens are thwarted. Except that Shanghai is such a submerged ruin at this point you have to wonder, did the aliens really lose?

Oh well. This Chinese sci-fi stuff is really weird and hopelessly juvenile. I never realised that Independence Day was so sophisticated.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

ok kids, saddle up- time to save the world!

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was a film that I quite enjoyed– while quite flawed it remained a fun geeky love-letter to KIng Kong, Godzilla and giant mecha/robot stuff like Neon Genesis Evangelion. Thanks to del Toro’s canny eye it bettered the Transformers films that it sometimes seemed to be imitating, with a genuine sense of size and scale that beggared belief.  I haven’t seen it for a few years, surprisingly- quite shocked to learn it dates back to 2013.

I suppose the fact that this sequel is somewhat belated is a clue to how it eventually turned out. Pacific Rim was a success but a modest one, so that when a sequel was finally greenlit it came with a few caveats from the studio. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but there’s no smoke without fire, as they say, and there’s a clear indication with Pacific Rim: Uprising that some retooling to the possible franchise was done in the giant robot garage.

More light. More fun. More kids. Oh God, more kids. You know it’s time to run for the hills when you learn that one of the protagonists is a teenage girl who was orphaned in the post-Pacific Rim ruins of a city where she spends her time building her own giant robot suit (a jäger in the parlance of the film). This is as irritating as the kids saving the day in Ready Player One. She should be dirty, starving and emigrating to some place safe where she can be fed and kept warm but instead she’s set up a garage/workshop and demonstrating formidable engineering and mechanical skills that a post-Grad would envy.  Of course she becomes a jäger pilot who with her other classmates at pilot-school save the day when all the adults get massacred (was this plot for the aborted Star Fleet Academy by any chance?).

Okay, I still got a kick from some of the giant robots/monsters decimating another city in eye-popping visual effects but this one clearly lacks the credentials of the original- not quite as bad as that infernal Independence Day sequel but not too off. This isn’t the first time, of course, that a sequel is made that suffers from studio-mandated tinkering. A similar thing happened decades ago when the rather adult Conan The Barbarian was reformatted into a PG-13 kiddie cringefest in Conan the Destroyer and we all remember how well Superman turned into increasingly lightweight fare in Superman III. Look at how well Justice League turned out when Warner had a panic attack after Batman v Superman. 

Which is really spending too much time thinking about this very average and misguided effort. That it ends with our street-urchin having a happy snowball fight with John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, son of the original film’s hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) for a bit of light-hearted, life-affirming nonsense as if it was the close of an episode of a 1960s Star Trek, says everything. Its like two films in, someone’s pressed the franchise’s  reset button already. Weird, and demonstrates a clear lack of faith. So no, this not Pacific Rim 2, not really. Its something else. I suppose its fun and light-hearted…