I don’t tend to set the bar very high for movies about giant robots battling giant monsters. It’s the sort of conceptual idea that tells me filmmakers are getting a chance to live out the joys of their childhood in new and much more substantial ways. 2013’s Pacific Rim was a fun escape for Guillermo del Toro, as he took some of his pleasures and found a way to make a big budget summer flick that combined his penchant for the weird with some boilerplate storytelling. Pacific Rim Uprising lacks the flare that del Toro brought to his film, but still has a level of enjoyment fit for a larger-than-life Saturday morning cartoon.
Set ten years after the now deceased Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) helped cancel the apocalypse, his son Jake (John Boyega) takes center stage as the rebellious young man that washed out of his Jaeger training. His life as a partying scavenger comes to an end, however, once he meets a young, aspiring Jaeger pilot, Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who built her own robot. Due to a series of events, the two are brought into the Jaeger program for training. While things have seemed peaceful since closing the alien breach in the Pacific Ocean, the choice to develop Jaeger drones is met with strange results, as a rogue Jaeger begins causing havoc for everyone. Soon enough, new Kaiju find their way onto Earth once again.
If Pacific Rim worked as a kid-friendly riff on the plot of Top Gun, Uprising falls more in line with a multi-episode arc of Gundam. Four episodes to be exact and the last two are superior. There’s an expanded cast and lots of plot to go over, not to mention some setup for a possible sequel. It’s the sort of follow-up film that complicates itself for the sake of being bigger but ends up losing a lot of what made the first film work in the first place.
I’m not oblivious to the fact that many people look at Pacific Rim as one of del Toro’s lesser efforts, but my praise comes from both the goofy joy I got from seeing that sort of mythic spectacle on display and the efforts del Toro put into building that world with his very personal sensibilities. It was great to see a film that respected the level of scale that came with battles between giants (until the unfortunate decision to remove that aspect by heading to the bottom of the ocean in the final fight). At the same time, watching that film really go for something as far as the horrors of a kaiju destroying a city through the eyes of a young Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, who returns briefly for the sequel), provided enough to show how provocative aspects of this premise could be.
Steven S. DeKnight (TV’s Spartacus and Daredevil) has taken up directorial duties this time (del Toro remained as a producer and visual consultant), and the difference is immediately noticeable. The sort of care to emphasize how impressive these giant Jaegers are is taken for granted this time around. I suppose that’s fair, as we already know what a Pacific Rim movie is capable of, but normalizing the concept takes away the unique ability to cherish the times when audiences can see live-action giant robot battles. It ends up providing the same sort of bland feeling I get when hearing about a cinematic universe designed for Transformers.
So as it stands, we get a good amount of giant robot action in Uprising, and there was a conscious choice to keep things in the daylight this time around. I tend to scoff at those blindly misremembering the first film as not being a colorful display, even while set during the night, but sure, the budget is also on screen with this film (and CG technology has likely improved). There is even a sense of weight to the giant robots as they tear through cities, though I sigh at the level of urban destruction while acknowledging the efforts to show people getting to safety. It doesn’t hurt that the Jaegers all have enough distinction to make for a great toy collection.
I can also note how Pacific Rim was famously saved at the box office by the international market, which shows as far as the look and casting for this film. Of course, this series has always been rooted in Asian culture, which was thankfully saved for this film to both continue in its homage to various properties and allow the film’s world to have a distinctive visual style. The action may not pop in the same way, but enough is going on in the production design.
The cast is a bit of a mixed bag here. I’ve been happy to support John Boyega since Attack the Block, and he continues to be an exciting young actor to watch. Regardless of the story around him, he’s injecting a lot of much-needed personality in a way that brings to mind other heroic adventure movie leads that don’t shy away from being silly and are not given nearly as much credit for doing so (think Brendan Fraser). The positive notion of casting a black man in the lead of a spectacle film like this has not gone unnoticed either. On the other hand, Scott Eastwood is another new addition and appears to have the job of sucking a lot of energy out of the room. A better film would find a way to mock the various character archetypes on display. Instead, it’s mostly about having fun with the few characters that either get the movie they are in or can’t control their mugging.
Charlie Day gets the movie that he’s in. Burn Gorman is mugging his way through it. These two are back and have some expanded parts to play that contribute to the weirder side of things. It’s more interesting than the escalating corporate espionage that Kikuchi and Jing Tian are required to deal with. There’s also Spaeny and all the younger characters playing the cadets, who are more or less defined by how much attitude or spunkiness they may have. The Pacific Rim films aren’t about in-depth characterization, so it’s coming down to whether or not one is having fun with how wild things get around them.
That’s really what there is to look at here. Uprising has a problem making the stakes feel substantial. However, when it’s time to see some Jaegers throw down, I wasn’t uninterested in what was taking place on screen. Thankfully not overlong, the pacing of a film like this doesn’t feel slowed down for the sake of over-explaining everything. Coming in at under two hours, the film gets to the point fairly quickly, which is more than I can say for any of Michael Bay’s Transformer films. Of course, those films have an auteur working to realize his giant robots in a way that feels uniquely his vision. Uprising comes up short in this regard.
Still, for all its faults, Uprising is a big-budget film about robots smashing stuff that satisfies. It delivers on its concept in a kid-friendly way. This may be a somewhat vapid sequel, but it has its share of fun in providing an enjoyable showcase for spirited giant robot battles.