SHANGHAI FORTRESS (2019) review

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Based on a 2009 novel by Jiang Nan, Teng Hua Tao’s Shanghai Fortress had been in the works for more than five years, and seemed to arrive at the perfect moment for a resounding success, being the first big-budget Chinese science-fiction film since the triumph of Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth. Instead, Teng’s film was released to a derisive reception from critics and the public, and quickly crashed at the box-office, grossing less than 3% of what Gwo’s film did at the beginning of the year. It is set in the year 2035: the great cities of the world are now powered by Xianteng, an super-energy alien material brought back to Earth by a Chinese spaceship. However, this has made our planet a target for a powerful alien race, dubbed “Annihilators” by those who fight them. Unleashing legions of deadly drones from a titanic mothership onto the major cities of the world, the Annihilators have reduced New York, Moscow, Tokyo and more to a pile of ashes; now, the last metropolis standing is Shanghai, where the leaders of 97 nations have culled their last remaining resources for the final fight. Trained and led by commander Lin (Shu Qi), the elite Grey Eagle Squad is being assigned to the AV-38, a new type of fighting jet; among them, the most promising is Jiang Yang (Lu Han), who’s secretly in love with Lin.

Shanghai Fortress benefits from sleek metallic cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson, coupled with Lee Dong Jun’s unsubtle but gloriously bombastic score, and solid production design by Joseph Nemec III (Terminator 2: Judgement Day): a suitably awe-inspiring alien mothership and deadly arachnid-like killer drones don’t reinvent the wheel but are on par with what most mainstream Hollywood sci-fi has to offer. And the sight of a colossal cannon emerging from the Huangpu river is indeed a novel and memorable one. The film’s problems lie everywhere else. Conceptually, it’s too ill-defined to engage: the alien race is never even glimpsed, reduced to neverending swarms of drones, the inner workings of Earth’s resistance are glossed over with voice-over and a few token scenes of headquarters palaver, and key moments such as the evacuation of Shanghai’s three dozen million inhabitants are a mere afterthought.

Structurally, it’s a numbing alternation of action scenes – either unintelligible CGI dogfights, or slightly more engaging battles on the ground, passably orchestrated by Zhang Peng (director of last year’s box-office disaster Asura) with a welcome sense of fluidity in the camera moves – and trite, passionless melodrama. Despite Godfrey Gao and Shi Liang being omnipresent, stern presences, the focus lies squarely on the Grey Eagle Squad, a quartet of charisma-free, crushingly boring millenials. Two of them, Wang Seng and Kid Young are so interchangeable and bland that it’s hard to notice them, let alone tell them apart; and Sun Jialing as the only female member is a marvel of tone-deaf acting. But Lu Han is the film’s true weak link, or rather, the weakest of its weak links.

The idea that this scrawny, effeminate pop star plays the role of a brilliant military commander is hilarious in theory, but deadening within the context of the film: it’s not that he’s a bad actor (he can be fine in boyish roles, such as in The Witness or Time Raiders), but the level of miscasting here sucks the film into a black hole, as Lu is in every scene, looking like a 16-year old belieber. And he shares the least convincing romantic subplot we’ve ever seen with a vacant-eyed Shu Qi (who’s also somewhat miscast as a stern commander, but at least is charismatic and gorgeous): it’s not the fourteen-year age difference that jars – it’s actually a welcome reversal of the usual ‘older man with younger female’ trope – but the absolute lack of chemistry between the two, and the absurd idea, affirmed in a mid-end credits scene, that Lu’s love for Shu is somewhat requited. Now there’s a true, novel sci-fi concept.

Long Story Short: Despite solid visuals, Shanghai Fortress is sunk by derivative concepts, repetitive action, trite melodrama and the dire miscasting of Lu Han as a brilliant military commander. *1/2

 

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2 Comments

  1. ” *1/2″ So this wasn’t the Macross adaptation I was hoping for. :(

    Reply
    • I had to google ‘Macross’, of course. Anyway, this is nothing like whatever you might hope for in any context hahaha.

      Reply

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