REVIEW: 'Pacific Rim Uprising' and how it stagnates a franchise

A new force of giant Jaeger robots assembles to fight off the monstrous Kaiju in P acific Rim: Uprising , directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

A new force of giant Jaeger robots assembles to fight off the monstrous Kaiju in Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.

I really struggled to write about Pacific Rim Uprising. Should I talk about the totally uninteresting characters? The copy-and-paste plot from the first movie? The dizzying CGI? After much consternation it totally dawned on me: there’s nothing to talk about.  

Okay, that’s a little harsh, but on a thematic and entertainment level the sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s delightful kaiju extravaganza barely registers. Del Toro was originally attached to the film when it was first known as Pacific Rim: Maelstrom, but after Legendary was sold to Wanda, things changed, and Del Toro ended up making The Shape of Water instead. Because Uprising turned out to be so mediocre, there’s a sense that Del Toro was really missed, but I don’t think anyone really could’ve turned this sequel into anything special.  

Directed by Steven S. DeKnight in his feature debut, the story follows former Jaeger pilot Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of legendary Jaeger pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and stepbrother of Pan-Pacific Defense Corps General Secretary Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), as he returns to the Shatterdome as an instructor. There, he rekindles his rivalry with his drift-compatible co-pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) while mentoring new recruit Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) and working with weirdo kaiju experts Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman).

(Pro tip: watching the first film is recommended to better understand the plot, but just keep in mind that after watching the first you’re better off not watching the second.)

John Boyega as Jake Pentecost and Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani.

John Boyega as Jake Pentecost and Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani.

Anyway, despite seemingly winning the war during the events of the first film, the kaiju – giant alien monsters – are back and threatening Earth yet again, just as the Jaegers – giant robots specifically made to kill the kaiju – are being phased out in favour of drone Jaegers.

(There’s your real-world tie-in into social issues! This film is going to be smart because it’s making a social commentary! Drone Jaegers… drone warfare! Do you get it?! You can tick that box off on your How to Make Pacific Rim A Competent But Unnecessary Film to-do list.)  

The story is pretty predictable after that: the drone Jaegers fail big time and the kaiju return with the biggest kaiju ever, and Jake and Nate have to learn how to put aside their differences and save the world as a team. It’s a near rip-off of the plot of the first film, where two characters who start off disliking each other end up being perfect for each other, and in fact, if Pacific Rim: Uprising was a romcom it could actually work.

Boyega, Gorman and Spaeny are all good, but the same can’t really be said for anyone else because either the acting was unintentionally hilarious or the subplots and character arcs are completely unbelievable. Even the CGI is a mixed bag: it looks great sometimes, but the colours and the composition don’t stand out as an art form, especially when compared to Del Toro’s neon-inspired party. And it’s so difficult to tell all the kaiju and Jaegers apart because they all look the same, and the action’s nearly unintelligible when they’re rolling around in dust.

Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) steps in to train Jaeger pilots.

Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) steps in to train Jaeger pilots.

It’s dawned on me, of course, that Pacific Rim really sounds like a stupid idea in the first place, and it is, if you have zero imagination and refuse to think that giant robots with cool weapons beating up alien monsters for the fate of the world can be a pretty cool premise. But Del Toro managed to make it cool for pretty much everyone, and that’s his ultimate strength – that he could really immerse you and make you buy into a world in which there’s a real sense of wonder and amazement but also real danger and tension and suspense. He did, after all, just make an Oscar-winning film about a woman and a fish dude falling in love.

So, when DeKnight’s film falls flat, it’s almost like he was set up to do so. He doesn’t have much to work with and it feels like Legendary went into a focus group and walked out with a list of things they needed to tick off to make it a passable film, which in itself is probably the biggest problem Hollywood has with its blockbusters right now. It ultimately hurts the film, and perhaps even DeKnight’s own vision, because the experience becomes very impersonal.

This is apparent even in the screenplay: in the first film, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has to overcome the death of his brother and finds an ally in Mako Mori, who has to overcome her parents’ death and the strict rules set by her demanding stepfather. They become stronger together and they defeat the kaiju. In the second film, Jake is a burnout who has to make amends with former co-pilot Nate to defeat the kaiju – which is fine, except that the most important events of their relationship are only spoken of, and only in the past tense, and it’s not even Nate who ends up being Jake’s co-pilot in the final battle. Who are we supposed to root for, really?

Pacific Rim: Uprising gets two stars out of four.