Listen, I understand the inclination to make more movies of giant robots and giant space creatures duking it out to the death. All of the close calls and red herrings adding to the excitement. The original Pacific Rim may be, in my opinion, one of Guillermo del Toro’s worst films, but it is incredibly good at adding empathy and charisma to a concept that was serialized by the Godzilla features of old. The characters weren’t fountains of personality as much as they were thrust into a world of a decent amount of wonder. Everyone was committed to the genre mishmash and all of the crazy technobabble, and most of the pleasing moments came from genuinely fun tricks being thrown in during the big battles.
Pacific Rim: Uprising doesn’t have that same kind of moxie. Sure, it looks fine and was probably pre-designed within an inch of its life, but many of the quirks from the original are gone in place of a plot almost too noble to function. It’s no mistake that the reveal of the villain subscribes to the idea that some men play with big toys because of the imaginary sense of power it gives them, it’s its biggest flaw. Steven S. DeKnight’s feature directorial debut is like getting all your hands on the coolest toys in the sandbox only to be upset that there isn’t something cooler, more exciting, more high stakes to play with. So, you just end up treading over the same concepts ad infinitum until you remember “oh shit, I should probably plug hints to the sequel here before I completely lose the people’s interest!”
It’s been ten years since Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) sacrificed his life to close the rift between the human and kaiju realms. His son, Jake (John Boyega), has potential in him underneath all of the hotshot and juvenile tendencies he hides under. That is until he gets busted and sent to Jaeger (the giant robots) pilot academy to train new recruits. For what, exactly? Well, so the Jaegers can be efficient policing forces across the globe. After all, there’s no giant aliens to fight since the rift was closed.
Between a thread of plain old chosen one theory and a light bit of corporate espionage exists a gulf meant to be filled in by something. In del Toro’s case, that something was personality and dedication to straying from convention. In Pacific Rim: Uprising’s case, there is almost none of that. Even the touches of weird, like a character having a psychosexual relationship with a kaiju brain, get sanitized by listless battles and effects that even Michael Bay can do better. I’m sorry for saying this and please don’t throw bricks at me, but the Transformers films at least had spontaneity in direction and narrative. Here, we’re seeing a combination of the staid tactics from the J.J. Abrams canon and terrible misunderstandings of Spielberg’s pop attributes.
There’s a certain sequence in Pacific Rim: Uprising that’s been torturing me ever since I saw it. Jake has just returned to his old pilot quarters, where he was once ousted for trying to pilot a kaiju on his own and failing. It’s supposed to be this earned emotional moment, but then it cuts abruptly. And when I mean abrupt, I mean right into the mouth of a big effects shot. It’s the most jarring thing I can remember seeing as of late, but it provides an access point into the film that I’m sure isn’t supposed to be there. It’s not the kind of blockbuster that heaves responsibility onto its characters, but rather the kind that just wants to watch the aliens and robots fight. While that may be fair in other instances, you’re doing a disservice to your predecessor who clearly spent more time and effort on fleshing things out before big effects sequences.
Unfortunately for the talented cast, that laziness is transposed right into their dialogue. Many attempts at corny humor get swiped at by moments that are intended to be awe-inspiring. The in-jokes about boobs play even more sour when the subplot about the two main male characters vying for one woman’s affection gets more screen time than any other emotional thread. Boyega is doing his best with a work that shunts any emotional connection that’s supposed to be there. His character didn’t exist in the original and it glaringly shows here. Scott Eastwood gets to riff off of his father’s image in the macho hero role here, though. That’s a nice diversion. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny doesn’t get the platform she deserves as an up-and-coming pilot struggling to prove herself when she’s smarter than everyone else in the room.
Like most of these event movies, there’s a threat of more to come before the credits close. Let’s hope that someone with a good reason for returning to this universe gets attached to the project.