Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was one of the most pure exercises in blockbuster form we had seen in ages when it came out – a true four-quadrant film, packing real sincerity and heart inside its absolutely thrilling spectacle. It didn’t hurt that Del Toro is one of our absolute finest directors, and Pacific Rim is stuffed to the brim with his sensibilities: elaborately detailed production design, color-coded lighting applied to different characters, action rooted in character and theme. It may have been a more “shallow” film, especially when compared to his other works, but it had no delusions of grandeur: to quote Del Toro himself, “I don’t think I’m making The Cherry Orchard with robots here.” It strives to be perfect popcorn entertainment, and it fulfills its goals to a ‘t’.
Which is why I can’t bring myself to be particularly angry about the quality of the sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising. It’s without a doubt an inferior film, but despite major missteps, it doesn’t particularly ruin anything about its predecessor. It may not be as successful in reaching similar crowd-pleasing goals, but it’s fun where it counts, and introduces a solid new cast that could be fun to watch in sequels depending on the Chinese box office.
Uprising starts ten years after the events of the first film, where Jake Pentacost (John Boyega), son of the famed and beloved Stacker Pentacost (played in the first film by Idris Elba), is squatting in the remains of Santa Monica, California, trading on the streets to make a living. However, after happening upon teenage orphan Amara Namari (Cailee Spaeny) and her homemade Jaeger, the two are quickly picked up by the Pan-Pacific Defense Force in order to start (or continue, in Jake’s case) their training as pilots. With old feuds renewed and new feuds beginning, how is anyone supposed to act rationally when a rogue Jaeger shows up to make things more difficult for everyone?
As stated before, the greatest strength of Uprising is the cast. John Boyega proves his status as a bonafide movie star, filling Jake Pentacost with rogue-ish charisma and providing a welcome emotional depth to him as well. Cailee Spaeny proves to be an exciting discovery, giving an absolutely wonderful performance as Amara. Of the main three new cast members, Scott Eastwood’s blandly handsome Nate Lambert is the obvious weak link, but I’ll give Eastwood credit for realizing that trying to be the new Paul Walker is a much more interesting career path than trying to be his father. As for the adults, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman all get welcome returns as their characters from the first film, and though Kikuchi unfortunately doesn’t get very much to do as fan favorite Mako Mori, Gorman is awarded a lot more screentime and does a hell of a lot with it, and Day gets an opportunity to go hog wild that he is clearly relishing.
It also succeeds on a tonal level, as well. While the first film is fairly lighthearted, Uprising is clearly inspired by and aping the standard tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And while the humor can sometimes come out of nowhere (more about that later), it’s generally well-handled and works more often than not.
However, this is where the problems start. The film feels like it’s been edited just above barebones. Scenes are not given any room to breathe, especially comedic and emotional beats that needed just a little more time in order to reach their full potential. Three different editors worked on this movie (including Oscar-winner Zach Staenberg, who edited every Wachowski project from Bound to Speed Racer) and it is easy to tell, the attempts to speed up the pacing just end up making it feel somewhat disjointed.
The action also feels like a mark down from the original. While Guillermo Del Toro opted to make his Jaegers big, hulking lugs of metal that destroyed their enemies through pure weight, director Steven S. DeKnight (in his directorial debut on a feature film) opted to streamline the Jaeger designs, increasing their agility and (to borrow some sports terms) making them more comparable to wide receivers rather than the offensive linemen of GdT’s film. While this is an understandable decision, this ends up making the Jaegers feel more human rather than machine, which makes the Jaegers feel more of a piece with Optimus Prime rather than anything in the previous film. Another thing that hampers the action is how the Jaegers are framed. The decision to shoot a giant robot movie in anamorphic widescreen is already slightly baffling, considering that one would theoretically want to show off the height of these creations with a taller frame, but it’s something that has been done before and has been shown to work. But DeKnight’s inexperience shows here, as he decides to spend about half of the fights shooting the Jaegers mid-profile, only serving to lessen the scale and make the Jaegers feel even more human by shooting them as such. The action is not bad: it’s clearly shot, it’s well-paced and choreographed, and the climax has quite a few really fun moments. But when taken as a whole, it rarely rises above average.
Pacific Rim Uprising is one of those movies that should feel more bizarre than it actually does. There are a couple plot turns that are absolutely wild, and Day’s completely unrestrained performance is the stuff that dreams are made of. But at the same time, it’s trying to chase the pure blockbuster thrills of the first film, and it doesn’t entirely hit those goals. A movie featuring a scene where characters listen to Eduard Khil’s famous “Trololo” song in order to relax should not feel this conventional. However, with all that said, it’s inoffensive, its got a great cast, and it’s fun in spurts. It almost feels like the animated series that would have ran for two seasons in between films that we would have gotten if the first film was a hit in the 1990’s. If that sounds like a fun time to you, go ahead and see it.