Pacific Rim: Uprising leaves out almost all of what made the first film special.
Guillermo Del Toro’s 2013 fantasy Pacific Rim was an imperfect film, but one forgave its flaws in light of pulling off such a unique vision within the paradigm of a big budget studio blockbuster. Seeing an artist like Del Toro impose his authorial voice on a summer tentpole was a spectacle all its own, with his visual idiosyncrasies more than masking screenwriter Travis Beacham’s narrative inadequacies. But this sequel, helmed by television producer Steven S. DeKnight from a script with four credited scribes, is considerably more paint-by-numbers. It’s still a good time, but that fun comes at the expense of the original’s sincerity and heart.
Taking place 10 years after the previous film’s conclusion, the war with the kaiju from another dimension has been over for a decade and the world is still rebuilding from all the damage. But there’s still jaegers, giant robots piloted by a pair of soldiers for whenever the kaiju inevitably return. In peacetime, there’s no conflict, save for the one between the jaeger-piloting rangers and the Shao Corporation looking to put them out of business with their new drones. The film centers around the days leading up to the transition to the drones and the mysterious rogue jaeger that begins wreaking havoc on the scene. This shift in tone moves away from the “robots vs. monsters” set-up of the original for something that more closely resembles an anime adaptation of Top Gun. For some, that may sound enticing, but for fans of the first film, it’s a bit of a letdown.
One major element of the first film was its cast, and how every single supporting player vastly outshone Charlie Hunnam as bland leading man Raleigh Becket. Pacific Rim: Uprising inverts that imbalance, focusing its tale around John Boyega’s Jake, the son of Idris Elba’s fallen Major Stacker Pentecost. Where his father was a war hero who literally saved the world, Jake is a petty thief who freeloads in abandoned mansions, trading jaeger scraps for junk food. An encounter with the law leads his big sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, wasted in the last film) to make him re-enlist, brought aboard to train a new generation of jaeger pilots.
Boyega is a delight, flexing the leading man charisma he’s been building upon since Attack the Block, immediately endearing himself to the audience on pure charm. Everyone else? Not so much. Other than Mako, Charlie Day’s Newt and Burn Gorman’s Hermann, the cast has been replaced with newcomers who are nearly impossible to like or care about. The young, diverse cadets are all loose sketches of archetypes, each designed to lend a sense of awe to this world, but they’re just grating. And if you thought Hunnam was a bore, wait till you get a load of Scott Eastwood, a man who makes Sam Worthington look like Clark Gable.
The uninspired casting is indicative of all the other downgrades on board. DeKnight, as a director, brings a clarity to the jaeger fights that is admirable for a first time helmer, but is otherwise a massive step down from Del Toro as a visual stylist. The script trades in the bombast and over the top pulp of Beacham’s original for a sprightly structured nothingburger of a story that’s only a few degrees removed from Michael Bay’s Transformers films. Lorne Balfe’s score is atrocious. The product design leaves a lot to be desired. All told, this feels less like a movie sequel and more an oversized television spinoff pilot.
Pacific Rim: Uprising leaves out almost all of what made the first film special in exchange for a brutally efficient actioner the studio thought would connect better with mainstream audiences. Maybe they’re right. Perhaps viewers would rather a straightforward blockbuster that doesn’t get bogged down by arty weirdness, but it’s hard to imagine someone who hated the first film loving this follow-up. It’s a fine delivery system for robot fights, but there’s so little under the hood that it’s a little depressing. This nascent franchise’s biggest strength was its ambition. Take that away and you’re left with this.