Getting a sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s rock’em sock’em robot vs. monster movie Pacific Rim was pretty unlikely, but foreign box office carried us to present day and Pacific Rim Uprising. It’s inexplicable existence not withstanding, the film was already working with one major disadvantage, and that was having del Toro pass the directing reigns to Daredevil Season 1 showrunner Steven S. DeKnight while he went and tackled his Oscar winning film The Shape of Water. The movie certainly delivers on it’s promise of big jaeger and kaiju action, but without del Toro at the helm, it all feels a little more… normal, lacking the Mexican filmmakers flair, attitude, and skill when it comes to scaling big fantasy action.
Pacific Rim Uprising brings back a handful of actors who survived the first film, including Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the bickering Doctor duo and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, one of the heroes from the first film. Joining them are a bunch of new stars hoping to carry the franchise forward, including charisma-machine John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, and Cailee Spaeny. Mixing the cast from the original with that of the newest entry is a wise move, even if the old cast doesn’t get much to do save for one genuinely interesting twist late in the film.
Uprising picks up about a decade after the original, with the world still cleaning up after giant monsters rampaged through numerous coastal cities. Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s hero in the original, has rejected his name in favor of the life of a scoundrel and a thief. Once he and fellow streetwise thief Amara Namani run afoul of the Jaeger program, they’re roped back into service to prepare for a contingency if the monstrous Kaiju ever surface again. Several other plot elements come into play, the biggest of which includes the introduction of new Jaeger drones, which could potentially put the old Jaeger pilot program out of business. Needless to say, things go bad. A rogue Jaeger attacks the heroes, and they have to not only discover who is behind this new mysterious threat, but solve it before true disaster strikes yet again. Big action pushes the film forward, with several action sequences of Jaeger-on-Jaeger battle, as well as Jaeger-on-Kaiju that impress visually but lack that distinct attitude that made the original such a joy. For example, there’s nothing even close to the badassery of the original, when Jaegers used ships and clubs and had swords show up for optimal awesomeness.
The film might lack attitude in it’s action sequences, but it’s new lead star has it in spades. This is John Boyega’s film, and he hoists it on his shoulders with his charm alone. Boyega shows off his chops here, playing delinquent and sassy early on, only to give effective pre-battle speeches later. His character goes through the biggest arc, and the film is more about him than it is about the robots or monsters. Coming in a close second is Cailee Spaeny, whose street-smart engineer is another welcome addition. Scott Eastwood is a square jaw to play straight-man to Boyega’s charisma, but he manages to come out respectably as his by-the-book partner. Of the returning cast, both Gorman and Kikuchi are given the bare minimum to work with, with Kikuchi feeling particularly wasted in her return. Charlie Day, however, is given a bit more meat this time around, his character Dr. Newt Geiszler having found fame and fortune developing Jaeger drones for the possibly untrustworthy Shao Corperation. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast doesn’t register, mostly because the script doesn’t give them much opportunity to do so. Jing Tian registers zero impact as the head of Shao Corperation, and Ivanna Sakhno is the most memorable of a group of fairly unmemorable cadet pilots.
As mentioned previously, Uprising is at it’s biggest disadvantage by not having del Toro in the directors chair. For his first directing effort, DeKnight does an admirable job handling the bigger than life action in the film, although he could stand to pull his camera back a bit more. If you’re going to wow audience with giant monsters destroying cities, it’d be nice if you didn’t get so close to them that it just looks like pixelated carnage. Del Toro knew how to frame his monsters, giving us head to toe looks at his wonderful creatures. DeKnight shows flair in the early scenes, but others feature too much shaky-cam, too quick of editing to hold any impact. These monsters, both Jaeger and Kaiju, simply lack the personality that existed in the previous film. It’s almost mind boggling how it gets so much of the aesthetics right, while missing the special something inside that made the original so much fun.
His strength, however, comes in working with his actors, making them look like big time movie stars. The film is also surprisingly funny, with a few quips and one-liners that caught me off guard, many of which are delivered by Boyega. One particular line about Eastwood’s chin had the theater laughing heartily. The likeability of the cast and the scale of the battles never bring the movie higher than it’s script, which suffers from numerous plot holes and half-baked ideas that are cool, but unexplained. Apparently only Boyega’s character has an arc, with the others filling in archetypes. The twists, while surprising and innovative, lack explanation to give them heft. The origin of the massive kaiju featured in the films advertising is cool, for sure, but doesn’t make a lick of sense even amongst all the science fantasy going on.
There is good to be found in the script, though, even though it is small. Jake Pentecost is an interesting character, one that has rejected his heroic name and one who failed to live up to his father before his heroic sacrifice. There is something inherently interesting about the way Pentecost spends half the movie fighting his responsibility until things get more personal. Once that switch is flipped, you can see what makes him a Pentecost, carrying on his fathers tradition of strong leadership and badass speeches.
Likewise, without getting to much into spoilers, there some interesting mythology building at play in the film that at the very least makes for some inventive twists on what you think you know from the first film. Where the original film featured Jaegers and Kaiju, this one has not only those, but smaller jaegers built from scraps, rogue jaegers, and various hybrids that make for some unique problems.
Ultimately, however, Pacific Rim Uprising can be added to the list of sequels that are just not as good as the original. Despite that fact that it IS a better Power Rangers movie than the Power Rangers movie from 2017, it still lacks the distinct tone and attitude from Guillermo del Toro that infuses these giant monsters with a love that can’t be matched. A charming cast and a few decent action sequences aren’t enough to save the film from some incomplete storytelling and a stumble across the finish line with a big final battle that features tons of destruction without any weight. I would still like to visit the world of Pacific Rim, but it has to come back with more of that heart and attitude if it’s going to be successful.
The Final Pop
Pacific Rim Uprising features plenty of monster-sized destruction and a charismatic lead performance from John Boyega. However, its weak script, good but underdeveloped supporting characters, and sadly generic final battle keep it from reaching the heights of the original. Guillermo del Toro’s passion and attitude behind the camera is noticeable. It’s plenty of pure fun, but you can’t help but think something feels off about it all.