Reviews

Monster Sync (‘The World’s End’, ‘Pacific Rim’, ‘Monsters University’)

The World's End

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Little over a month since the US comedy cabal of Rogen, Franco and McBride tried to appease a vengeful God in This is the End, Brit director Edgar Wright and his Cornetto muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost dip their toes into the lake of sulphur for The World’s End, adopting a wildly different course of action to correct the apocalypse. Whereas our stateside cousins vied for redemption, veiling their sinful lifestyles with a falsely ashamed guise of civility, the cynical British attitude embodied in Pegg and co. put their middle fingers up to the judgemental eye of the Almighty, choosing to run ever quicker to their destination instead of holing up, whimpering and confessing regret. At the World’s End – the final pub on the film’s central 12-stop pub crawl, and the literal end of the line for the human race – our gutsy albeit inebriated barflies avert not quite the apocalypse, but its worse alternative of a synchronised, spiritless species living in dullard harmony, and they reject it by the simplest of means: Fuck off, buddy.

They stand in defiance of what seems to be an extra-terrestrial blue light, one that’s turned the townsfolk of their old stomping ground, Newton Haven, into a swarm of gawping ‘robots’ – or ‘blanks’, as they’re referred to. The pub crawlers – Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddie Marsan, arriving with readymade chemistry – begin to notice at around the third stop of their escapade a disturbing trait shared by those they once recognised, and who longer recognise them. Dead stares, blue blood and easily removable skulls are the standout oddities. The journey to The World’s End soon becomes less about five estranged school-friends resolving their differences, and more an escape from a movement of bodies with no difference between them aside physical appearance.

Let humans be humans, Wright says through the vessel of Pegg. Perfection is boring. It eliminates function, it removes the distance between who we are and what we want or need to be. If fast-tracked to an ideal version of himself, Pegg’s alcoholic Gary King would in fact be denied the chance to better himself of his own free will. The concept is not unlike that of A Clockwork Orange, if a thousand times more crude in its presentation. But if Edgar Wright does intend this to have some element of religious allegory to it then surely he must be aware that, even under religion, humans are nevertheless afforded free will. (Unless we’re talking Scient… I’ll stop now.) Maybe the triumph of that twelfth pint, bestowing upon its drinker a sense of euphoria and false assumption of life’s zenith, shares much in common with the promise of the faraway light in the sky.

The film is frequently amusing, if a little one-note, constantly obsessing over the overly emphasised animosity between Pegg’s Gary King and Frost’s Andy, a friendship gone sour from an accident that occurred long ago and referred to one too many times before its eventual reveal. Pegg overeggs his intentionally insufferable manchild – approaching everything with his arms wide open, expecting an embrace – and Frost repetitively sneers at his old friend, muttering variations of the same disdainful remark. If there’s one thing the film truly excels at, it’s the nicely choreographed action that makes good use of ultra-restricted locations, namely modest pubs and their even smaller toilets, in which these middle-aged men tear robots limb from limb. Wright’s carried over some of the sci-fi fizz from his Scott Pilgrim venture – another film that progresses through stages – shifting quaint British pub settings into raucous combat arenas, evolved from Shaun of the Dead’s scenes of the very same, and without an abrupt tonal shift.

Pacific Rim

Some of the best combat in the summer, however, is to be found in Pacific Rim. Some. In one excellent sequence from Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to Japanese mecha anime, a jaeger (robot) and a kaiju (alien) trade blows all over Hong Kong. Not such a familiar sight: we’ve seen this image a thousand times before, most recently in Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Man of Steel. But strangely enough, these two giant combatants spend so much time scrapping in the sea for much of the film’s first half, that to see them on land gives a sort of unanticipated relief; furthermore, the time spent in the water observing the mechanics of their combat also heavily attunes us, as removed spectators, to the weight and graft of these behemoths.

By the time they’re on land, we’ve become accustomed to the sheer force behind every punch and tackle. Unlike the pinball wizardry of Man of Steel, which saw Superman and Zod careen off successive buildings as if they were merely cushions, the sight of a human controlling the jaeger from the inside and using both their mental and physical resources to pull off a complex fight move translates to a very meaningful transference of power. When the kaiju falls into the side of the building, the crunch resounds. And as if the CGI doodles of Man of Steel looked worse enough, the hyper-detailed effects in Pacific Rim now make them seem like an episode of Reboot. The spray of water is the most noticeable, and boasted, of the effects, but again, the weight and power behind each manoeuvre has us appreciate the texture of what disintegrates before our eyes.

Del Toro isn’t content to simply excel at computer effects; just as with Hellboy II and its glorious Troll Market, Pacific Rim boasts a number of impressive practical marvels from set design to the collapsed corpse of a baby kaiju. I’d go so far as to say that it was because of its practical presentation that this body looked physically revolting. CGI just doesn’t provoke an equivocal repulsion.

And yet, in spite of these small specific aspects of admirable artistry in Del Toro’s films, the whole frequently underwhelms. Around the aforementioned Hong Kong sequence are a number of frankly tedious skirmishes, culminating in one utterly incoherent underwater jamboree featuring all the main jaegers and kaijus. And Charlie Hunnam is a poor talent to carry Raleigh Becket as protagonist for over 2 hours, even with the capable Idris Elba backing him up as a veteran fighter Stacker Pentecost. We often complain about our mechanical films lacking that crucial ‘human element’, and then when they come along in the form of Man of Steel and the far superior Pacific Rim, we need to decide whether the thinly drawn characters before us are worthy of final critical appraisal. For this outing, the daddy issues aren’t nearly tolerable enough. And when the pulse under the amour is weak, investment in the surface scraps suffers as a result.

Monsters University

The last and most peculiar of my recent blockbuster-catchup has been Monsters University, a slight treatise on the psychology of horror films wrapped up in the guise of a children’s film. Its prequel, Monsters Inc, was also, bizarre as it sounds, a film based around the concept of inflicting psychological abuse on young minds, though it contained that core Pixar sophistication and an overall affectionate sentiment to keep a cross-section of audiences happy. Its prequel is altogether more academic, as is befitting of its subject matter.

Mike Wazowski, the little green Cyclops that looks so suspiciously edible, befriends future best friend and co-worker James ‘Sully’ Sullivan at the eponymous Monsters University,  the former determined to work hard and the latter confident he’ll coast by due to nepotism, having descended from one of the greatest ‘scarers’ of all time. To cut a long story short – and include a number of spoilers – Mike and Sully are expelled following an act of inadvertent vandalism, and fight for re-entry by joining hopeless nerd fraternity Oozma Kappa in the Scare Games. What follows is a pale, less funny imitation of the Simpsons episode, ‘Homer Goes to College’, with added procedural.

Mike’s inevitable triumph spells out to younger viewers the power of self-belief, aspiration and, quite possibly, the inherent worthlessness of trawling through a college degree. But it’s in Mike and Sully’s final task that the little cyclops’ film-long determination is finally vindicated, and the viewer is given an alternative method of scaring from the constant ‘roar in their face’ technique exhibited throughout the franchise. Mike’s expert spooking of a group of human adults is largely done through a slow burn, a number of psychological teases built on his victims’ own ingrained fears from childhood. Unlike the rest of the monsters at the university who operate on a purely superficial, bestial level, Mike understands the theory behind scaring – not children, but the impenetrable minds of assumedly ‘adult’ adults.

It’s perplexing to find that this mini-lesson on the horror genre is found situated in the back end of a children’s movie. Pixar are often known, and distinguished from their Dreamworks peers, for implanting mature morals for adults and kids alike to take home with them. The Toy Story trilogy ruminates on childhood, adulthood and mortality respectively, and last year’s Brave was unfairly dismissed as a run-through of adventure tropes despite containing a far more important lesson about pride – addressed to both parents and their little ones. The layman’s horror theory of Monsters University is effective as an abstract, but within the larger, unfortunately dull progression of the rest of this film it seems wildly out of place, unable to reconcile itself with monsters and humans of all ages.

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