1.5 out of 5 stars.
Hey, do like watching giant monsters fight giant robots? Did you love the movie “Pacific Rim”? Then boy, is this not the movie for you.
It’s like Godzilla, but it isn’t quite Godzilla. It’s also like Transformers, but it’s not quite Transformers. Its style is derived somewhat from Japanese anime, but it doesn’t belong to a specific franchise. Under the guidance of Guillermo del Toro, 2013’s “Pacific Rim” turned out to be more than just a knockoff, resulting in an original film that had great characters, an intriguing story with some deeper themes, and a universe that had the potential to be expanded on in future movies. But five years after the release of that first movie, and after struggles to get a sequel off the ground that resulted in del Toro signing on to produce but not direct the film, we get the sad mess that is “Pacific Rim Uprising.”
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight in his feature directorial debut, “Uprising” is set ten years after the events of the first film. No Kaijus (giant monsters living in the ocean, in case you forgot) have been seen since the battle in which Stacker Pentecost (that was Idris Elba, in case you forgot) gave his life to save the world. Now his son Jake (John Boyega)—a former Jaeger pilot himself (and those are the giant robots, in case you forgot)—makes a living salvaging and selling parts from old Jaegers. When he is arrested for trying to steal a Jaeger power core, his adopted sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, reprising her role from the first film) gives him the choice between going to prison or rejoining the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps as a Jaeger pilot instructor. It seems a bit odd that so many pilots are still being trained when there hasn’t been a Kaiju attack in a decade, but we’ll run with it, because of course Jake hasn’t been back in the PPDC long before conflict arises.
Now, I bet you’re thinking that that conflict is the return of the Kaiju, but it’s not. In fact, we don’t see any Kaiju until the tail (and I mean the TAIL) end of the movie, not including one that halfway rises from the ocean and promptly dies. Instead, it’s a rogue Jaeger that puts the PPDC on alert and results in the approval of the use of drones created by the Shao Corporation. These drones are essentially remote-controlled Jaegers created by Dr. Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day). I don’t think I need to explain that these drones end up being a very bad idea.
This story is not just dull, but muddled and superficial. Story threads and characters are introduced early in the film, left unmentioned for long periods of time while the film places its focus elsewhere, and then suddenly picked up again as if they are more important than they are. One such thread is the character Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a teenager who is arrested alongside Jake and sent to train as a Jaeger pilot. She ends up being one of the film’s main characters, but there’s a good stretch in the middle of the film during which we don’t see or hear anything from her. Scott Eastwood continues his track record of appearing in really bad sequels to good movies by playing Jaeger pilot and trainer Nate Lambert, who apparently used to work with Jake and was really good friends with him and kind of dislikes him now but then suddenly likes him again, because reasons. They have a shared interest in Jules (Adria Arjona), a woman who also works at the PPDC but appears for all of five seconds when Jake first arrives at the base and isn’t seen again until toward the end of the film. Still, in that intervening time, Nate will constantly tell Jake to stop thinking so much about her—but we, and I’m assuming Jake, only met her for five seconds? Is she supposed to be important? Are we supposed to care?
It’s really sad to see this film spend such little time and effort cultivating the relationships between the characters, as that was a major aspect of the first film. Jaegers have to be piloted by two people, and those people have to be drift compatible—they have to be comfortable inside each other’s heads, and have to be close enough to work in unison. So much emphasis was placed on that in “Pacific Rim” and the development of Mako and Raleigh’s relationship (what happened to Raleigh, by the way?) so that their ability to work together felt real. In this film, it seems like anyone can drift with anyone else, and we barely get inside the characters’ heads. The one saving grace is Boyega, who exudes charm everywhere he goes and has decent chemistry with Spaeny and even Eastwood. But in the end that isn’t enough, and by the time we get those very cool scenes of all the different Jaegers working together to (finally) take down some Kaiju, the lack of an emotional connection to the humans controlling those Jaegers dulls the excitement.
I wish I could say that “Pacific Rim Uprising” has its moments, but it really doesn’t have any. The chaotic action scenes are diverting but ultimately nothing we haven’t seen in “Godzilla” or “Transformers” (and while in the first film del Toro made sure to erase any implication that innocent lives were lost in the Kaiju and Jaeger battles, in this film the Jaegers carelessly use buildings in a populated city as weapons to take down the baddies). Almost all attempts at humor fall flat, and the evolution of the new villain just felt strange. Fans of the first film will likely enjoy the references to that film (some of which are almost too meta) and there’s a scene where we get to watch John Boyega eat ice-cream that’s kind of nice. But rather than expanding on the first film and giving fans something new and exciting, it mostly just serves as a constant reminder that the first movie is so much more original.