Pacific Rim Uprising, 2018.
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight.
Starring John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Jing Tian, Zhang Jin, Adria Arjona, Karan Brar, Ivanna Sakhno, Shyrley Rodríguez, Levi Meaden, Rahart Adams, Zhu Zhu, Wesley Wong, Lily Ji, and Mackenyu.
Jake Pentecost, son of Stacker Pentecost, reunites with Mako Mori to lead a new generation of Jaeger pilots, including rival Lambert and 15-year-old hacker Amara, against a new Kaiju threat.
During the final showdown (an extended sequence of citywide destruction with skyscraper buildings getting demolished left and right as towering humanoid robots known as Jaegers square off against Kaiju, even larger monstrosities drawn from Japanese inspiration and their classic monster movies), returning scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, whose cracked out joke machine persona is noticeably dialed back in favor of giving the comedian a role mostly against type yielding mixed results) sarcastically comments on the ensuing rumble over the fate of the world about its lack of originality.
Taken seriously or not, the statement is one difficult to debate, but really, this is another entry in the Pacific Rim franchise, something fans of the first have been clamoring for even as contracts between corporations got in the way, (prompting director Guillermo del Toro to frustratingly say screw it and go on to win Oscars for last year’s spellbinding masterpiece The Shape of Water), meaning that this bombastic spectacle will be gladly embraced with open arms. Doubly so considering that the colossal-sized beings are beating the living daylights out of each other once again framed with exquisite photography (another change to the production team and one that maintains the quality of its predecessor even though the metallic scuffles themselves are less creative this time around) and inside a narrative, that while nothing to write home about, is far more tolerable than the indefensible and juvenile nonsense Michael Bay conjures up for Transformers. Can this please be the massive mech series that is granted 1,000 sequels and reboots?
The point is, as an unabashed admirer of Pacific Rim, acknowledging that it is a guilty pleasure and easily the weakest film in del Toro’s filmography, the fact that after corporate shenanigans and mediocre domestic box office takings (most of the money was made from the Chinese market which thankfully was strong enough to finally push this second installment into production) Uprising‘s arrival is a cause for celebration in its own right, even if it is landing in theaters to the excitement of only a specific, niche audience. And while del Toro is still on board as a producer and visual consultant, this next chapter centered on a new generation of heroes (disappointingly, many major players in the first film are not present, and in most cases have quite bland counterparts) has been entrusted to Daredevil episodic writer and Spartacus showrunner Stephen S. DeKnight, who makes for a logical stand-in accounting for the impression that Jaegers vs. Kaiju is basically just a different form of gladiatorial combat.
Picking up slightly a decade later, the opening narration from John Boyega (Finn from the ongoing fresh trilogy of Star Wars movies continuing to make his mark on the blockbuster scene) catches newcomers up to speed on the mechanics of Jaegers (compressing the details, it requires two individuals that can function as a unit on the same mental wavelength, including their memories which usually involves past trauma), the general plot, and his own character Jake Pentecost who is the rebellious criminal son of the deceased Stacker (Idris Elba). Not long after a shady dealing of old Jaeger parts quickly goes south due to the interruption of a knowledgeable and headstrong teenager named Amara (Cailee Spaeny making her feature-length debut appearance) who lives in hiding as an independent scavenger having built her own mini-Jaeger fully functional by just one human, the two find themselves arrested and placed into the same defense program seen prior.
From there, Pacific Rim Uprising starts to go through the motions hitting quite a few familiar beats as the original; Amara struggles to get along with the other cadets (unrecognizable faces with little to no character definition beyond their nationality, retreading the same theme of unity in a Jaeger despite personal indifferences) and is unable to “drift” inside Jaegers because of her inability to face a past horrific encounter with the Kaiju, while Jake is repressing his self-worth content cracking awkward jokes about his good looks (Boyega has fine delivery, leaving the script to blame more than anything) instead of stepping out of his father’s shadow and living up to his world-saving legacy. They have more in common than they realize, paving the way for a predictable, but as satisfying as something so formulaic can reach, outcome.
Elsewhere is a rival Jaeger pilot played by Scott Eastwood, an element adding nothing of interest to the proceedings. Maybe it’s because Scott continues to be a vacuum for charisma or a script that gives him little material to work with, but his inclusion as an important character is highly questionable. The actor has so little presence on-screen that I quickly began wondering if he was a background fighter in the first movie given a larger role here or if he was a new addition to the series; coming across that forgettable is never a positive sign. More confounding is the aforementioned rivalry between him and Jake; what reason is there to care about an ongoing beef with next to no context?
This can be chalked up to the tight balancing act that the multiple writers piecing the project together have to perform, but the first film still had a natural flow and ambitiously realized imagination going for it alongside a host of soldiers and scientists each with their own minor story arc. There were underground black markets for Kaiju remains, vibrant personalities (the loss of Ron Perlman, Idris Elba, hell, even the relatable Charlie Hunnam, not to mention the iffy direction of Charlie Day’s brainiac character are sorely felt), and a go-for-broke scale to the battles that kept audiences guessing whether a Kaiju was almost dead or not. In one instance, del Toro pulled the rug out from underneath everyone with a stroke of brilliance involving offspring.
Also, back when Pacific Rim was released I chose to see it in a regular auditorium, but some of the shots (a Jaeger falling from the sky slicing apart a Kaiju), will be fondly remembered still, which is something that cannot be said here even though it is technically sound and was screened for Chicago critics in true IMAX. The action here feels less urgent and dangerous, and also more traditional with the majority of the chaos being these behemoths hurling each other through buildings. The only exception is a much short-lived trip to a mountainous Arctic terrain that makes for stunning scenery amidst the clanging and banging. Still, it must be stressed that the visual clarity and attention to detail, whether it be on the oversized beings themselves or the depth perception of each battleground, is impressive.
All things considered, the story is not exactly a strong point of the first film either, so nitpicking does feel unfair. Pacific Rim simply had more personality whereas Uprising delivers the same style of excitement, but filtered through a more generic Hollywood lens. Far from the worst that could happen when removing key ingredients such as Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim Uprising does honor the central appeal of giant robots battling giant monsters (even if it does take a while to get to that point), which is the bare minimum expectation. There is a promise of more to come, hopefully with more inspired storytelling and further exploration of both the Jaegers and Kaiju instead of repeating plot points and going THAT route with the villain.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com