‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ Review: A Promising Franchise Drifts Away
This is probably nitpicking, but I’m not entirely sure there’s an uprising in Pacific Rim Uprising. I guess technically giant kaiju monsters literally rise up from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. (At the very least, the other two-thirds of the title are definitely accurate.) But the dictionary definition of “uprising” doesn’t really apply; there’s no armed rebellion to speak of, unless we’re meant to root for the kaiju in their attempt to overthrow humanity and destroy our world. I tend to assume the humans are the good guys in any movie fight between people and 500-foot-tall laser-spewing hellbeasts from beyond the stars, but hey, maybe this film is more subversive than I initially gave it credit for.
Or maybe it’s just not very smart, and they picked a title that sounded kind of cool without really thinking things through. Given Pacific Rim Uprising’s general level of quality, that would not shock me. It picks up the story from the first film 10 years after a brave group of humans piloting giant robots called “jaegers” shut down a kaiju invasion. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is the miscreant son one of the kaiju war’s heroes, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, who is not in this movie), who sacrificed himself to save the world. Jake tried to become a jaeger pilot, but eventually quit the training program to scrounge for jaeger junk he sells for exotic future dystopian luxuries like Oreo cookies and sriracha hot sauce.
Jake gets caught busting into a jaegar scrapyard, where he meets plucky Amara (Cailee Spaeny), another orphan of the kaiju invasion. She’s built her own jaeger, so instead of getting sent to prison, the pair are shipped off to the “Shatterdome,” the base where new jaeger pilots are taught to “drift” (the term for the Vulcan mind meld that enables them to control the big robots as a team). There Jake learns of a plan by a Chinese scientist (Jing Tian) to replace the jaegars with remote-piloted drones, and reconnects with his old drift buddy Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, who makes you pine for the raw charisma of Charlie Hunnam, which is really saying something.)
The first half of the film setting up the characters’ meager backstories and conflicts is boring. The second half is livelier but dumber, with the kaiju rising yet again from the depths of the Pacific to rampage through some extremely computer-generated cityscapes. There isn’t a single second where anything involving the jaegers or the kaiju looks real. I suppose it’s easier to wave away the thousands upon thousands of people who would be killed in Sydney during a big jaeger fight when it is very clearly not actually Sydney. A cartoonish visual style probably allows you to disassociate from reality and just enjoy the carnage.
But isn’t part of the thrill of these Pacific Rim movies supposed to be that they take something that’s only existed in cartoons like Voltron and old phony-looking analog monster movies like the Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla and makes it believable? Even with the tens of millions of dollars at its disposal, Pacific Rim Uprising looks just as hokey as its inspirations. During the climactic battle between the kaiju and jaegers, there is a moment of transformation that is supposed to invoke awe in the viewer. But at that exact moment a big cloud of rust-brown dirt fills the entire frame, obscuring everything. At its worst, Pacific Rim had frenetic DayGlo imagery. Pacific Rim Uprising is drab and ugly.
The improvements to the jaegers in this sequel (including one that requires three pilots to shoot down into the robot’s belly to operate a giant cannon) add nothing, but at least Boyega is a major upgrade in the lead role. He radiates charm, and has a nicely grumpy rapport with Spaeny, although the script (by no less than four underachieving writers) gives him very little to work with. No movie where people repeatedly scream about “Rare earth minerals!” can be all bad, but this one comes pretty close; even Boyega’s big “We are canceling the apocalypse!”-style speech to his fellow troops is a dud.
The first Pacific Rim was directed, produced, and co-written by Guillermo del Toro. He’s still a credited producer on Uprising, but he’s clearly drifted away from this franchise; the finished product bears almost none of his distinctive personality, or the weird touches that made the original film at least an interesting mess. Even with a slightly upgraded cast, the sequel is boring enough to make you wish del Toro would rise up and get the rights to the material back so that no one but him could make another one of these.
-Although Hunnam and Elba are no-shows, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, and Charlie Day all return from the first Pacific Rim. Day, at least, looks like he’s having some fun in one of the few sequences in the picture that’s genuinely surprising.
-The fact that Scott Eastwood is so unbelievably handsome and so unbelievably uninteresting to look at is quite a paradox.
-The award for the Most Completely Useless Movie Character of 2018 may go to Jules, played by poor Adria Arjona, a jaeger pilot (or mechanic? It’s not clear) whose entire role consists of occasionally walking up to Jake and Nate, giving them whatever exposition they require at that given moment, and then wandering off. Both men seem to think they’re both in a relationship with her, but that can’t be true since neither one shares a single scene or even a meaningful line of dialogue with her. I have to assume the character’s entire role was left on the cutting room floor.