Monsters and mechs have been a staple in pop culture since the 90s and in 2013 Guillermo Del Toro helped bring that mindless action onto the big screen with his monster vs. machine epic “Pacific Rim”. Five years later we get a sequel that nobody asked for, but also wasn’t exactly unwelcome as it promised to offer fans the same mindless action of the original as a form of pure cinematic escapism. With an expert director and interesting premise driving the first film to international success, many still wondered if the sequel, with first time director Steven DeKnight, would measure up. I’m here to give you my take. Is this movie of monsters and mayhem a worthy sequel, or just a Michael Bay-esqe collection of destruction scenes and “junkyard porn”? This is my review of “Pacific Rim: Uprising”
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
A few of the same characters from “Pacific Rim” return for the sequel which follows a new lead, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) who is the son of the general from the first film Stacker Pentecost. Ten years after the general lost his life in the Battle of the Breach at the end of the first film, normal members of society have taken to trying to build their own Jaegers while some, like Jake, make a living stealing and selling Jaeger parts. After he and a young thief and aspiring Jaeger pilot named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are apprehended operating an unauthorized Jaeger Jake, a former Jaeger pilot, faces prison time but instead offers to team with his former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood) to train new recruits. When a tech company comes forward with a proposal to use remote access pilots to operate Jaegers a new threat emerges when a rogue Jaeger attacks Hong Kong and Kaiju reappear. A shocking revelation forces Jake, Nate and their young trainees into battle to take on the dangerous threat as a plot to wipe humanity off the planet for good takes shape.
Well the acting in this film is…not great. It’s not completely horrible to be honest, but it’s clear this was not a film focused on giving you relatable and deep characters, but rather baddass robot pilots with just enough detail to make them more that your average man. John Boyega is the star of the show as Jake Pentecost and we get to actually enjoy his natural British accent as a result. It’s not his best work as he tries to bring the same charm and charisma of past roles like his character Finn in the “Star Wars” franchise to the big screen once again and sometimes he shines, other times he falls flat. The biggest problem with him is he never truly drives the scenes like he should and the irony here is that his character succeeds General Pentecost from the first movie, played by Idris Elba who makes a cameo in a flashback, and the two performances AND characters couldn’t be any different. Jake lacks the charisma and likability of his father and the same can be said for Boyega’s performance. It’s a step down from his predecessor lacking a lot of complexity beyond his daddy issues and shifting from party animal to confident warrior seemingly overnight. It’s not horrible and there is some charm, but it’s clearly over the top and not really a shining example of Boyega’s more subtle talents.
Beside Boyega is young actress Cailee Spaeny who portrays an aspiring Jaeger pilot named Amara. It almost seems like Spaeny’s character was put in the film just to be there at times, but she does play an important part in the plot even if her character arc serves more to support Jake’s than anything else. There are glimpses of something better with this character as her attempt to “drift” with other pilots allows us some forced examination of her backstory, but for the most part her character is put on the back burner until she is needed as a deus ex machina. That’s sad too because Spaeny is one of the better actors in this film especially when the rest of the young recruits she interacts with are presented as nothing more than glorified young-adult stereotypes for most of the film. Amara at least has some true personality and I wish we got to see more of it. Instead she just falls into the same ditch many other young female leads end up in with these kinds of film, you know the one Michael Bay pretty much founded with his “Transformers” movies. Spaeny does what she can with Amara and makes her a fun and confident person to watch all the same so I give her credit there.
Two other major players in the story are Scott Eastwood’s Nate Lambert and Charlie Day’s Dr. Newt Geiszler and honestly it’s a tale of two actors for me, both of which I never tend to enjoy anyway. Eastwood tries to play off of Boyega as his friends and co-pilot in the film, but there’s just no chemistry. Eastwood does have the vibrato and the personality to pull off his character, but not near enough to add anything to the film other than acting as an example of what Jake Pentecost could have been and a target for Jake’s many puns about physical male beauty. It’s a typical Eastwood performance laden with dry statement of masculinity and nobility in an attempt to be the resident badass. On the other hand there’s Charlie Day who I always seem to find obnoxious, but here he’s actually petty entertaining. His quirkiness is believable, and he seems to truly embrace his character’s return. He’s actually more memorable and fun to see than he was in the first movie and the fact that he plays a big part in the overall story and that his character’s eccentricities all come around to mean something deeper made me appreciate him more than I expected. So, while I’ve never been a big fan of his I can applaud Day for being one of the best part of this film.
I’ll say this about “Pacific Rim: Uprising”. It’s a lot of fun. Let’s face it, this film was built to be an escapist mechs versus monsters, mayhem driven story and it give you exactly what it promised. The robots are cool, the Kaiju are awesomely designed and we even get a surprise in the final battle that takes things up a notch to epic levels of destruction. If that’s what you’re expecting going in then you won’t be disappointed. In all honestly, I found this movie to be even more fun than the original. The battles are well choreographed, the robots are more powerful and designed with form AND function in mind instead of just to look cool and the final battle raises the stakes to satisfying levels. So, in a way, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is exactly what it wants to be and it’s hard to fault a movie for that even if it leans on familiar formulas and trades in substance for destruction-based thrills. Seeing the battles on screen was truly satisfying and reminded me of my own childhood fascination with this kind of combat on the big and small screen. So, to put it simply, the entertainment value is there in droves.
I did also enjoy the major twist of the film, which I won’t detail here because it’s too cool to spoil. At first I felt like the filmmakers jumped the shark but once you see things play out it all comes to a pretty awesome revelation that brings the story full circle. The overall conspiracy behind the new threat against the world was one of the few truly awesome aspects of the story outside of the combat action and the villain behind it all is unexpected and satisfying as well. The threat is real and the odds of the heroes winning seems truly bleak making this an edge of your seat confrontation where we know the strength, smarts, and capabilities of the bad guys and their plot seems truly insurmountable so seeing the heroes try to stop them feels genuinely epic. It gives the heroes a real struggle and tests the limits of the concept to the max. Somehow it all works, giving us a threat to the world far greater than before and an evil that promises to be around for many more (potential) sequels to come.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
Of course, this film is pure escapism so it’s not exactly art, but even then that doesn’t mean it has to be bland and when it comes to characters and story outside of the action that’s exactly what “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is. While it has absolutely no connection to Michael Bay this actually feels like something that the director would have cooked up and could easily be mistaken for his “Transformers” films not only in its satisfying robot battles, but also in it’s poor attempt at presenting its human characters. As I said in the acting portion of this review it’s not the best work for most of the cast, but even in terms of storytelling there’s very little substance to give the characters anything to do other than borrow from the book of clichés with epic speeches, stupid personal grudges and even a few insensitive and tone-deaf jokes here and there. It’s a bland script with bland characters and a bland underlying story that tries to put some heart into an otherwise no-holds-bared action sci-fi film. We all came for the robot battles, and those are truly fun and satisfying, but a little subtlety, personality and originality goes a long way to making the rest of the film just as watchable. Unfortunately, Director Steven DeKnight and his co-writers employ none of that leaving the human parts of this story falling flat or trying too hard to inject emotion and heart that, ironically, provides us with little emotional weight to appreciate even when characters inevitability die.
The pace of this film is also horrible. From the starting point where we get a forced recap of the first film to the rushed conclusion that basically cuts the film off immediately after all the action and then force-feeds us a hint as a sequel in a display reminiscent to the horrendousness of “Independence Day: Resurgence”, there’s no attempt to smooth out the edges on this movie. The saddest part of that is it’s not even done to speed things up to the next battle because there are scenes that drag on entirely too long in addition to ones that could probably have used a bit more time. Again, there was no real dedication to the human aspect of this movie and that’s the negative side of the filmmakers dedicating themselves to producing a sci-fi action flick. Just like the Roland Emerick and Michael Bay films of the past that seemingly inspired this films formula, all the focus is on making the action as cool as it can be and there’s little attention or commitment to adding anything deeper to the narrative. At least the first film seemed to have more of a heart and soul to it which is something this sequel really needed to be anything more than just another mayhem driven, robot themes sci-fi offering. We’ve seen all of this before, right down to the bland story, and after a while it gets old. You can only watch robots and monsters fight so many times before it all gets a bit repetitive.
Depending what you’re looking for “Pacific Rim: Uprising” can be a whole lot of fun or a humongous bore. It trades substance for action making is more muscle and brawn than it is brain but as a form of escapism I have to admit it’s a fun movie that offers exactly what it promises, monsters and mechs duking it out in epic showdowns that raise the stakes and create LOTS of destruction. As an action science fiction offering “Pacific Rim: Uprising” works, but it lacks much of the human touch needed to make it a deeper, more complex film that could stand out among the many similar products of the past and those still to come. The original had shades of this while still managing to give us the robot-based entertainment we all expected. With the sequel there’s less focus on emotional depth and more focus on the danger which helps it work in one way, but also makes it worse than its predecessor in another. The acting is also subpar and the pacing is way off which can make “Pacific Rim: Uprising” a chore even for those who just want to cut to the action. All-in-all it could have been worse. It doesn’t quite delve into the mediocrity of other similar projects from the past few years, but it also doesn’t really add anything new to the genre or revolutionize the concept enough to get a pass. It gives us the harmless entertainment we all expect, but in the end it’s a middle-of-the-road offering that doesn’t exactly excite me for the potential franchise Universal Pictures clearly wants to churn out in the years to come.