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PACIFIC RIM UPRISING

Producer: Mary Parent, Cale Boyter, Guillermo del Toro, John Boyega, Femi Oguns, Thomas Tull and Jon Jashni
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Writer: Steven S. DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin
Stars: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adriana Arjona, Max Zhang and Charlie Day
Studio: Universal Pictures

D

Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, Guillermo del Toro follows up his well-deserved Oscar winner “The Shape of Water” by acting as one of the producers of this laughable sequel to his bloated 2013 “Power Rangers”-meets-“Transformers” ripoff, “Pacific Rim.” His direct responsibility is minimal: the script was written by others, and he handed over directorial duties to feature neophyte (and co-writer) Steven S. DeKnight, whose earlier claim to fame rests on his contributions to television, including various incarnations of the Starz “Spartacus” series. DeKnight’s efforts are workmanlike, but he’s no del Toro—or even a Michael Bay.

And del Toro still bears the burden of having conceived the nutty premise in the first place. Of course, it can be argued that the premise to “Water” is no less nutty, perhaps even more so. Presumably the secret is all in the telling. If so, it’s not told especially well in this case.

The time is a decade after the battle between the alternate-dimension kaijus, giant lizards unleashed from breaches in the ocean floor, and the two-pilot giant robots, the jaegers, that humans build to defeat them, with ultimate success. A rogue jaeger appears in Australia just as a decision is taken by the Pan Pacific Defense Force to replace the pilot-bearing jaegers with drones controlled by overseers back in a control room, and the old jaegers must be called back into action. Eventually the lizards reappear as well, and city-destroying action is once again on the menu. The locus of the big finale is none other than Mount Fuji, which is a kaiju target for reasons that are explained in typical meaningless gobbledygook.

Within that larger context the script focuses on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of Stacker (played by Idris Elba in the previous film), one of the heroes in the first war (and an ex-pilot himself) who’s turned criminal. After a job gone wrong, he encounters a spunky orphan named Amara (Cailee Spaeny, irritatingly shrill) who’s rebuilt a jaeger she calls Scrapper, and after a skirmish with a larger robot the two of them are taken into custody by the authorities. To avoid jail he reluctantly joins the pilot force again, and she enthusiastically becomes a cadet.

The other cadets are a pretty colorless lot, but there is one other pilot of note: Nate (Scott Eastwood), Jake’s old partner, who urges him to recapture his old sense of duty. Naturally they will become comrades-in-jaeger again as the battle starts, while Amara, though at once point expelled for insubordination, will be recalled to service and ultimately prove central to victory.

But there is a serious issue about that rogue jaeger and the new breaches for the kaijus to come through. They suggest that there is a human traitor assisting the enemy. Who might it be? The imperious head of the Shao Corporation (Jing Tian), who’s implementing the drone program? Or her loud-mouth lackey Newt (Charlie Day), the right-hand man in its development? Certainly it couldn’t be Jake’s half-sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a stalwart of the defense force, or Jules (Adria Arjona), the pretty pilot both Jake and Nate look at longingly, or Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), chief PPDF scientist and a genius at coming up with innovations just when they’re needed. Or could it? If you don’t care for any of those choices, there are plenty of other suspects—pilots, cadets, commanders, politicians and corporate types—lurking in the background to choose from.

As it is, the movie reveals the culprit pretty early on, and while there will be no spoilers here, rest assured it isn’t Jake, whose transition from antihero to pure hero Boyega limns with lots of bluster but surprisingly little charisma. It’s not really his fault, though: Jake is the sort of fellow who proclaims that he’s not going to give a stem-winding speech to his fellow pilots before the life-or-death battle, but then does just that, and then closes his spiel with the words “Let’s do this!”—an injunction that by now should be banished from every screenwriter’s lexicon.

At that Boyega is still miles ahead of Eastwood, the second syllable of whose surname is all too apt, or Day, whose animated ranting grows tiresome after only a few minutes, or Gorman, whose mugging would have been out of place in the days of the silents. Jing’s icily officious corporate mogul is only one of the picture’s efforts to appeal to the huge China market, which was instrumental in the financial success of the first movie and will obviously be crucial this time around as well.

On the technical side the most notable aspect of “Uprising” is the ear-blasting mix of Lorne Balfe’s score and the sound design. Dan Mindel’s cinematography is okay, but blighted by an avalanche of CGI that’s frequently murky and, even at its best, distinctly second-rate. Then there’s the frenetic tempo, courtesy of a trio of editors—Zach Staenberg, Dylan Highsmith and Josh Schaeffer. At least they bring the thing in under two hours.

A postscript to the movie threatens another sequel. The returns from China, of course, will be decisive in determining whether that’s just another fantasy.

THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT

Producer: James Harris, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Mark Lane, Robert Jones and Ryan Kavanaugh
Director: Johannes Roberts
Writer: Bryan Bertino and Ben Katai
Stars: Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, Bailee Madison, Lewis Pullman, Emma Bellomy, Damian Maffei, Lea Enslin, Leah Roberts, Preston Sadleir, Gabriel A, Byrne and Sunny Dixit
Studio: Aviron Pictures

D

Director Johannes Roberts has tried his hand at some relatively quirky horror projects (“The Other Side of the Door,” “47 Meters Down”), but with this sequel to Bryan Bertino’s 2008 “The Strangers,” he simply takes a page out of the old slasher movie playbook. “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is in once sense a throwback to movies of the eighties, but it’s gorier and grosser, winding up as an exercise in pure sadism that feels all the more sordid because it’s quite efficiently made.

The targeted victims this time around aren’t a couple enjoying a forbidden tryst on a remote estate, but—befitting the low-rent character of a follow-up that’s been in the works for a decade—a squabbling middle-class family in a trailer park. The parents are Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson), who are driving their daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) to a boarding school because she’s been acting up with her equally troublesome friends; her older brother, straight-arrow Luke (Louis Pullman) is along for the ride. They plan a stopover at their Uncle Marvin’s trailer home.

For a long stretch early on, the movie concentrates on the problems within the group. Kinsey is constantly surly, chain-smoking (though she doesn’t inhale, Luke notes) and saying spiteful things; the others are understandably irritated. The purpose is presumably to flesh out the characters, but if so the effort goes unrewarded; none of the four develop any real personality. When they arrive at the park, Marvin is gone, leaving behind a note of welcome, and the rest of the place appears deserted except for a strange girl who knocks at the door asking for someone who doesn’t live there.

When Luke and Kinsey go off for a walk, they find a trailer with a badly brutalized corpse inside, and rush to tell their parents. We already know the cause, since a brief prologue has shown a sleeping woman being woken and confronted by the home invader with a sack over his head identified in the credits as the Man in the Mask (Damian Maffei). But as it turns out he has two helpers, Dollface (Emma Bellomy) and Pin-Up Girl (Lea Enslin), both of whom wear plastic masks similar to the one popularized in “V for Vendetta.” And using such tools as hatchets, knives and a battled old pick-up truck, they go after the newcomers, having apparently offed everyone else in the park.

The only matter in the story is the order in which our four potential victims are attacked, whether they survive and if so how, and how far the survivors will get before they’re attacked again. It’s a protracted game of cat and mouse in which, frankly, one’s concern for the fate of the prey, never very high to begin with, grows increasingly weak. The main center of attention in Kinsey, who takes on the Jamie Lee Curtis “Halloween” part of the intrepid damsel who escapes again and again until a final confrontation—or series of confrontations—with the Man in the Mask. (The comparison is particularly apt since Adrian Johnston’s score cribs fairly shamelessly from John Carpenter’s for his holiday-themed classic.)

Before then others in the family haven’t been so lucky, succumbing—or not—in showy run-ins with the killers staged as extravagant set-pieces. The most notable is certainly a struggle in a neon-lit swimming pool that must be in the park’s amusement area (who knew trailer parks had such lavish amenities?) that ends with the blood of a stabbing victim spreading out around the body in the water like a red halo in the blue water. It’s actually a pretty impressive effect, but no more than an effect, since the movie has built up no real interest in the person involved.

This is primarily a director’s movie, and Roberts shows that he knows his way around such basic material, and he works well with cameraman Ryan Samul and editor Martin Brinkler to achieve the desired result in individual scenes. Of the actors, Madison has the greatest amount of screen time, and is adequate though little more; the others go through the expected paces without making any substantial impact.

And for all its blood and gore, the movie doesn’t make much of a splash either. We’ve seen this sort of thing entirely too often in the past to be scared by what goes on here; “Prey at Night” is somewhat less grubby, in purely visual terms, than most of its predecessors, but that only means that the packaging, not the content, is better.

When, in the first picture, one of the intruders was asked why they’d chosen this house to break into, the response was the nonchalant “Because you were home.” This time around, the only words spoken by an intruder come in response to a query about why they’re killing people: “Why not?” It’s that sense of utter nihilism that apparently won the original “Strangers” the attention it got (especially in the ancillary markets), and it continues in this sequel.

But other horror movies have latched onto that attitude over the last decade, and to an ever-increasing degree. The more pertinent fact now is that a director like Roberts would probably answer “Why not?” if asked why he chose to make a movie as pointlessly repulsive as this one, and viewers who plunk down their money to see it would probably have much the same response if queried about why they’d want to see such a thing. In the end it’s what pictures like this say about the current state of our culture that’s the most important aspect of “The Strangers: Prey at Night.”