Pacific Rim Uprising is the follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s bonkers 2013 special effects extravaganza about giant robots battling giant interdimensional sea monsters. A good way to predict what you’ll think of this sequel is to take your feelings about the original movie and downshift them by about 30 percent. If you loved Pacific Rim, like I did, Uprising will seem like a slightly stale but enjoyable enough retread of the first movie. If the original didn’t do much for you, this one will probably be unbearable.
The most tedious thing about the movie is that it telegraphs to the audience a deep desire to become a franchise. More than that, its creators and studio want to fashion another – and here I have to suppress my gag reflex – Expanded Cinematic Universe. Uprising’s director, Steven S. DeKnight, has said as much in interviews. In fact, one of the movie’s four credited screenwriters, T.S. Nowlin, is involved in the so-called MonsterVerse. That’s the upcoming ECU involving crossovers between the baddies in monster movies like the 2014 reboot Godzilla and last summer’s Kong: Skull Island. So, why not get the giant monsters in Pacific Rim to battle King Kong in a spin-off movie?
Each attempt by studios and producers to copy the success of Marvel’s trailblazing ECU gets closer and closer to a bald marketing ploy. “The only way to enjoy our next movie is if you see all our other movies, no matter how tangentially they might be connected,” they seem to be saying. It’s enough to make a franchise weary critic hole up in his house and just watch Call Me by Your Name on an endless loop. But wait, director Luca Guadagnino has said he’s interested in making a trilogy out of that movie. Call Me by Your Name ECU, anyone*?
But enough about all that. Pacific Rim Uprising is set in the year 2030, ten years after the events of the first movie. The Battle of the Breach successfully ended the war between humans – fighting in enormous robots called Jaegers – and a race of aliens from another dimension called Precursors. This alien race sent colossal bioengineered monsters called Kaiju to wipe out humanity through a portal in Earth’s ocean floor. Now that this breach has been closed, Earth is at peace and humanity is slowly rebuilding from the destruction of the Kaiju.
Telling us all this in voice over is Jake Pentecost, the now grown son of Pacific Rim’s self-sacrificing hero, General Stacker Pentecost. Jake lets us know he doesn’t share his father’s noble instincts. He makes his living dealing in black market Jaeger parts, which the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps has made illegal for civilians to possess. Through a chance encounter, Jake gets arrested with a pint-sized criminal, the 14-year-old Amara Namani, who was stealing parts to build her own miniature Jaeger. Jake’s adoptive sister, PPDC General Secretary Mako Mori, intervenes in their case and allows them both to join the PPDC training program – Amara as a cadet, and Jake as an instructor – instead of going to prison.
The thing that made the first Pacific Rim so original and exhilarating was its director and co-screenwriter, Guillermo del Toro. He is a visionary storyteller and cinematic stylist who has a way of bringing you along with whatever madcap idea he wants to include in the distinctive worlds he creates. A perfect example is the concept of neural drift. The Jaegers are too big for one person to pilot, so teams of two must work in mental sync in order to get the hulking machines to move. In this process, the co-pilots end up sharing memories, feelings, and almost identities while drifting together. In his capable hands, the idea of neural drift seems plausible. But above and beyond that, del Toro’s vision makes it fun to watch.
In Uprising, DeKnight, along with his co-writers Nowlin, Emily Carmichael, and Kira Snyder, bring those elements from the first movie, but they don’t add anything interesting. Without getting into any more plot details, it’s probably not a huge surprise that events unfold in the movie so that Kaiju are once again a threat. Jake and Amara must rise to the occasion and help defend humanity from the attack. As a consequence, we get pretty much what we got the first time around. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. DeKnight makes the action sequences fairly exciting. He also never breaks any new ground, though, and that’s disappointing.
Visual style is something else at which del Toro excels, and his attention to detail is sorely missing from Uprising. The design of both the Kaiju and the Jaegers here are true to the original, but they feel like facsimiles more than anything else. DeKnight tries his best, but he’s never able to make Uprising as visually interesting as the first installment.
One way in which this new picture is as strong as its predecessor is in the casting, specifically John Boyega as Jake Pentecost. Boyega has an easy charm about him, and it’s on full display here. He’s an instantly likeable actor, so there’s never a hesitation in signing up for an adventure when he asks the audience to join him. It’s no simple task to follow the great Idris Elba. He played Stacker Pentecost in the first movie. Boyega is up to the challenge.
Somewhat less charming is Scott Eastwood as Nate Lambert, a fellow PPDC instructor who has a complicated history with Jake. That history is glossed over, and it feels more tacked on to the action than anything else. Eastwood doesn’t have the screen presence to carry a big-budget action movie on his own, but with Boyega along to help, he is adequate in the role. Cailee Spaeny, as Amara Namani, is in a similar position. Her acting abilities serve the character well, but her story arc is one we’ve seen countless times before. Namani is a scrappy survivor who becomes a fish-out-of-water when she joins the PPDC training program. She has a troubled past of her own, but the movie treats that arc and resolution as a throw-away; it’s clumsily handled in two or three scenes.
Pacific Rim Uprising is almost smart enough to know it can’t compete with the original’s rousing “cancel the apocalypse” climactic battle speech. Elba sells that thing with everything he’s got. Boyega’s version is, wisely, self-deprecating. Jake has a line in it where he says he’s not prone to give rally-the-troops style inspirational speeches. But then the movie goes ahead and tries to do it anyway. Jake builds from those words of not being any good at speeches to an all-out battle cry. Like the rest of the movie, it’s fun enough, but it pales in comparison to the original.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Pacific Rim Uprising is entertaining, but ultimately forgettable. If you just want to turn your brain off for a few hours, you could do a lot worse.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
* That comment is more sarcastic than it should be. I'm looking forward to the sequels Guadagnino has planned for this story. I think he is a filmmaker interested in exploring the layers of the characters, rather than just ringing the cash register.
- The Charlie Day character, Dr. Newt Geiszler, gets a pretty big twist here, but Day isn't allowed to be quite as nutty as he was in the first movie.
- Burn Gorman has to be one of the most unique looking actors working today. Any time he's on screen, my eyes are glued to him.
Close encounters with people who don't know how to act in a movie theater:
- This was a press/marketing screening, and the crowd seemed to really enjoy it. It was an IMAX presentation, which I enjoyed. I'm just glad they didn't also exhibit it in 3D.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- I'm a sucker for director Wes Anderson's highly stylized stories full of quirky characters. His movies have often been described as "twee." His new movie, Isle of Dogs, is his second to feature 100% stop-motion animation (Fantastic Mr. Fox being the first). It stars, among many others, Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, and Frances McDormand.