Movie Reviews: Isle of Dogs and Pacific Rim: Uprising

A stop-motion canine fable from Wes Anderson and the unrequested return of some silly giant robots.


The crowded little universe of Wes Anderson's latest movie is an amusing place to visit, if not necessarily a bucket-list destination. Isle of Dogs is the director's second stop-motion animated feature (after the 2009 Fantastic Mr. Fox), and it is both a sweet, uh, underdog story and a fond celebration of Japanese culture—the great movies (especially Kurosawa's), the wood-block designs, the mad taiko drumming. (The score, by Alexandre Desplat – back for another go-round in Wes World – is a really rousing synthesis of taiko tub-thumping and western instrumentation.) There's quite a bit of untranslated Japanese in the picture (it doesn't matter, you get the gist), but the many dogs on hand all speak English. Cute.

The movie begins, quite rightly, with a bit of dog history. "Centuries ago," we're told, "free dogs roamed the land." Then they "clashed with cat-loving people" and "bloody dog wars" ensued and "dogs became enslaved" (i.e., became pets). I'm prepared to believe that this is pretty much how that deal went down.

Then the story gets underway and we're transported to the fictitious city of Megasaki, 20 years in the future. It's an unhappy time: An epidemic of dog flu has begun spreading to the human populace, and shady Mayor Kobayashi has decreed that all of the city's dogs must be quarantined on Trash Island, a vast offshore dump. As a token of his egalitarian intentions, he packs off his own hound, Spots, first. This doesn't sit well with Kobayashi's ward, 12-year-old Atari, for whom Spots is both friend and protector. So Atari hijacks a propeller airplane, as any of us might, and flies to Trash Island to retrieve his quadrupedal pal. Who proves very hard to find.

The movie's pleasures revolve around Anderson's obsessively meticulous shot designs (there's a sushi-making scene that must rank fairly high on any list of classic Wes-iana) and some exceptionally charming voice work by a cast that includes Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray (of course), Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, Greta Gerwig, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and (whew) Liev Schreiber. Anderson's screenplay, crafted with input from Jason Schwartzman, Roman Coppola and Kunichi Nomura, is naturally structured as a quest. We follow Atari and a group of dogs who've befriended him as they make their way around Trash Island in search of the missing Spots. En route, we hear tell of a tribe of deadly cannibal dogs, share some tense moments with a trash compactor, and encounter a flashback to something called "The Secret Tooth." It's fun.

The dogs themselves—chief among them the sullen-but-noble Chief (Cranston) – have some droll lines. Acknowledging that he himself is a stray, Chief muses, "but aren't we all, in the final analysis?" On the other hand, in a moment of exasperation he berates his canine companions with a roar: "I've seen cats with more balls than you dogs!"

The movie sputters a bit whenever the action shifts back to Megasaki City, where we keep checking in on a subplot featuring an American high-school exchange student named Tracy (Gerwig), who's leading her schoolmates in a campaign to bring down the corrupt Kobayashi. I'm surprised Anderson thought it wise to suggest that the mild-mannered Japanese we see need to be saved by a fearless white person. Especially since he's already certain to be targeted with the usual bogus charges of "cultural appropriation." Stay tuned.

Pacific Rim: Uprising

Universal Pictures

The 2013 Pacific Rim was a fun movie—a blockbuster inflation of all those old Japanese kaiju cheapies featuring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and other rampaging beasties. Plus it had giant robots, and fanboy director Guillermo del Toro at the controls. There wasn't a lot not to like.

Pacific Rim did okay business in this country, but it really cleaned up in China—which I think explains why we're suddenly confronted with a five-years-later sequel that was partly filmed in China and is produced in part by a company, Legendary Pictures, that is now owned by a Chinese conglomerate. I mean, how many people were really asking for Pacific Rim: Uprising?

The movie has a couple things going for it. First there's John Boyega, who exudes even more star power here than he does in the Star Wars films. He plays Jake Pentecost, son of the late General Stacker Pentecost, who you'll recall was played by star-power supremo Idris Elba in the first movie. Jake is disgracing the family name as a low-life scavenger of parts from decommissioned Jaegers, as the good-guy robots are called. For reasons not worth going into, Jake finds himself recruited as a trainer with the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps, which prevailed over a nasty kaiju invasion through a breach in the ocean floor 10 years ago, and has remained on tippy-toe alert ever since.

At the PPDC home base in Sydney, Jake notes the unwelcome presence of an old antagonist, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, operating on cruise control throughout) and does his best to assist a teenage cadet named Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), who dreams of becoming a Jaeger pilot and kicking massive amounts of kaiju butt. There's also a designated babe named Jules (Adria Arjona), who's on hand to make vague love eyes at Jake and Nate in a movie that has no interest in love eyes at all. There are three returnees from the first film, too: Rinko Kikuchi as Jake's adoptive sister, Mako Mori, and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the comic-relief sci-guys Geiszler and Gottlieb (although Geiszler is no longer as comical as he once was). There's a new element, too—an evil industrial entity called the Shao Corporation, which is headed by the fabulously icy Jing Tian.

None of that really matters, though, once a new kaiju invasion commences, with flubbery monsters once again bursting up from the ocean floor and huge klankety Jaegers wading out to bat them around. This is the rest of the movie, basically: robots vs. monsters, monsters vs. robots, and acres of collapsing architecture at every turn. Over and over and over. I don't think there's a single shot in this movie that isn't cluttered with CGI—not just in the battle sequences, but even in non-battle moments when everybody's logged onto the sort of holographic computer technology that just hangs in the air in front of you. The movie suffocates your eyes.

Director Steven S. DeKnight is a TV guy and he does a serviceable job here. (Guillermo del Toro is only a producer on this film.) But the movie, especially in its later stages, is clamorously dull and oppressively repetitive. There's no point in wondering if some other director could have done it better when it's crystal clear there was no need for it to be done at all.

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  1. I thought Guillermo del Toro had directed this one, too. I won't bother then.

    Oh, and someone should mention that although del Toro got a great performance out of Charlie Day, Charlie Day once got a great performance out of Guillermo del Toro, too.

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  2. There's no point in wondering if some other director could have done it better when it's crystal clear there was no need for it to be done at all.

    Category 5 snark!

  3. I enjoyed the first Pacific Rim. Then someone decided to do a remake and despite the fact it had almost no Asian performers and even less anilingus than the original, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    This sequel, however, looks terrible.

  4. The premise of those Pacific Rim movies is patently absurd.

    The optimal way to defeat huge monsters is building giant robots to fight them like those old rock'em sock'em robot toys?

    Just call in the Air force with some F-15 strike eagles and A-10's to blast them.

    Problem solved.

    1. In this genre, that is tried, and fails miserably. Though Pacific Rim started much later than that in its universe's timeline.

      1. I never watched the original one except seeing bits and pieces of it on premium cable TV.

        I wonder what convoluted constructs they came up with as to why air strikes, artillery, etc, wouldn't kill the monsters and only building giant robots could work.

        1. I forgot what the in story justifications were,but the real reason is Rule of Cool.

          1. Because SPOILER ALERT the monsters were from a different dimension so the only thing that could stop them were robots manufactured using 3D printed parts.

        2. All that shit does kill them.

    2. "Just call in the Air force with some F-15 strike eagles and A-10's to blast them.

      Problem solved."

      They're fucking enormous and armored, that shit doesn't do shit.

      1. "They're fucking enormous and armored, that shit doesn't do shit."

        Uh huh.

        Tanks are enormous and armored too. We have missiles that can destroy them.

        And if that's not big enough, bunker buster bombs can do the job.

        1. A bunker buster might do it, but conventional bombs and artillery would be like spraying a Cape Buffalo with a MAC-10: painful, maybe even enough to cause exsanguination or disable the limbs if applied in sufficient quantity, but not capable of reaching the vitals for a "quick" kill.

          And if its skeleton or scales are made of some exotic strong material, like titanium or carbon nanotubes- which, if we're trying to hold to any kind of "realism" here, they would have to be, if only to support the thousands of tons something that big would weigh- then there's no conventional explosive or projectile that could penetrate its hide, skull, spinal cord or rib cage. It would have to be a nuke... and the kaiju in this universe "absorb" nuclear energy, IIRC.

          Of course, the main killing power of a nuke is actually the kinetic shockwave, which would be far more powerful than the one generated by a giant robot's fist, rather than the radiation or heat, but don't tell the filmmakers that. Their hearts couldn't take it, the poor little dears.

          1. "Of course, the main killing power of a nuke is actually the kinetic shockwave, which would be far more powerful than the one generated by a giant robot's fist,"

            So would the shockwave of a non nuclear fuel air bomb - or a direct hit from a MOAB.

            1. Actually, 100+ tons of steel swinging at 100+ miles per hour would probably equal a FAE/MOAB on pounds-per-square-inch basis, or exceed it.

              The problem, again, is that you're trying to break skin and bone that would, necessarily, be made of an exotic material capable of keeping an animal that weighs as much as a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier standing upright and moving spryly.

              Has anyone ever dropped a MOAB on a 10-foot thick skull made of an advanced alien titanium alloy, with 5-foot thick carbon nanotube weave for skin? Something tells me that would, at most, give the possessor of said skull a slight headache, optimistically.

              1. Well they can just call in the omnipotent alien Q from Star Trek to handle it.

                Q would just simply make them all instantly cease to exist.

                1. Now you're just being unrealistic.

                  1. No more so than the idea that a living thing is capable of growing metal body parts 🙂

                    1. You do get that without metal body parts its skeleton would collapse immediately, right? A metal skeleton, or skeleton of something as strong or stronger than metal, is a basic requirement for an animal that weighs 1000s of tons to exist in the first place.

                      Plus the Pacific Rim monsters are genetically engineered alien constructs, so they can be any damn thing E.T. The Friendly Extraterrestrial wants them to be.

                    2. There isn't any kind of genetic engineering that can grow metal.

                    3. But you could forge metal components and insert them into the genetically engineered flesh. Or "grow" some metal-equivalent substance humanity isn't advanced enough to know about yet.

                      Not, again, that it matters, since without a super-strong, metal-equivalent, bomb-and-shell-shrugging-off skeleton and skin, the creature cannot exist. There is no possible type of skeleton and epidermis that could support 1,000 tons of weight and allow it to lumber around on two legs, while remaining vulnerable to conventional explosives. Whether such a thing is possible is quite irrelevant to its being a sine qua non for any skyscraper-toppling beast.

  5. Pacific Rim required a sequel about as much as Highlander did.

    1. Actually, Highlander at least generated a lot of Fan excitement, fanfic, 'when is the sequel coming out', and so on. Structurally, a sequel was always going to fit like a Bauhaus addition on a Tudor Revival edifice, but there was a lot of interest.

      Not sure there was for Pacific Rim. I know that I read a lot of 'what little interest I may have had I lost when it was announced Del Toro wouldn't direct' comments. I also know I am a thousand times more interested in seeing a Del Toro AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS than I am in a PACIFIC RIM franchise. And I don't generally go to horror films and find Lovecraft depressing.

      1. "Actually, Highlander at least generated a lot of Fan excitement"

        And a spin off TV show.

  6. Is there some reason kaiju make beelines for cities? Are they programmed to want to nest upon a mass of what, to them, is a floor covered with sharp rocky spikes with even sharper spikes hidden inside them?

    They don't go after the people, they just wander around knocking down buildings until some other giant thing shows up to try to make them leave.

    You'd think they'd look for wide prairies, veldts or other open spaces. Huge meadows they can rest upon.

    And what do they eat? A handful of whales at a gulp?

    1. The kaijus are suicidal shock troops. Their job is to eliminate human infrastructure. It's an early part of an attack plan. Any other- dimensional monsters that plan to stay would come much later, presumably after Earth is more hospitable to them. What's the opposite of terraforming?

  7. "I'm surprised Anderson thought it wise to suggest that the mild-mannered Japanese we see need to be saved by a fearless white person. Especially since he's already certain to be targeted with the usual bogus charges of "cultural appropriation." Stay tuned."

    Probably figured that since he was going to get screeched at anyway he should invite them to sniff his butthole.

    "There's no point in wondering if some other director could have done it better when it's crystal clear there was no need for it to be done at all."

    Sadly, the last phrase of that line describes nine-tenths of all movies made in any era, and 99+% of the films the Hollywood Establishment Left has been proud of in the last three decades.

  8. "and the unrequested returnof some silly giant robots."

    Wrong, and fuck off.

  9. The first was one of the worst films I've ever seen. The writing was atrocious and the attempts by the actors at reciting their god-awful lines made me feel bad for them.

  10. If you're going to insist on reality, then the kaiju shouldn't even be able to move, due to the earth's gravity. But no one wants to see a movie in which kaiju lie helplessly on a beach, blubbing, as the sea-gulls peck at them.

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