With Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro took an inherently goofy premise – humans strapping into giant robots to take out equally gargantuan monsters – and laid it all on the screen with a sense of day-glo, boyish wonder. The visuals were unapologetically garish, the script ripe, but del Toro’s enthusiasm was infectious, and the film was strangely adorable in its admiration for Japanese mecha and kaiju.
Alarm bells usually start ringing when sequels are greenlit with lower budgets and the original director’s nowhere to be seen. But while Pacific Rim Uprising offers broadly more of the same stuff as the first film on the face of it, the movie has an ace in the hole: John Boyega, an actor who has enough charisma and boyish wonder to carry the film almost by himself. Since he broke through with Attack The Block in 2011, and swiftly went on to even bigger things with Star Wars and a superb performance in Kathryn Bigelow’s gut-wrenching Detroit, there’s the sense that Boyega’s enjoying every bit of his fame and stardom; and like del Toro’s love of robots, his enjoyment is infectious.
First, though, the plot: years after we narrowly defeated the giant monsters from another dimension, Earth is rebuilding its devastated cities. Reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps, Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s Stacker “Cancelling the apocalypse” Pentecost) has dropped out of Giant Robot Academy and is instead plying a trade in purloined giant robots (or Jaeger) parts. That is, until he’s arrested, along with a young tearaway, Amara (Cailee Spaeny), and pressed back into service as the trainer of young Jaeger cadets.
Like Transformers: The Last Knight, Pacific Rim Uprising appears to be trying to court a slightly younger audience here – as with Michael Bay’s last mecha slug-fest, Uprising introduces a Precocious Shouty Kid who’s headstrong, good at mechanics and has her own pet robot. When the action moves to the Pan Pacific Defence Corps headquarters, it’s initially a wonder why the story doesn’t spend more time with John Boyega, cracking jokes and eating ice cream, rather than Precocious Shouty Kid and her attempts to fit in with the other kids in mecha combat school.
Then, just when it feels as though Uprising’s going to go all Ender’s Game – the last film we can think of where kids fought a war against aliens – director Steven S DeKnight (TV’s Spartacus, Daredevil) breaks out his first big action scene, which involves a helicopter, a collapsing building and a rogue kaiju. From there, the movie starts to find its footing, striking a tone between breezy comedy-adventure and the crash-happy combat we saw in the old Pacific Rim. A rogue Jaeger of uncertain origin is on the loose, and it’s up to Boyega and the rest of the heroes to figure out what it’s up to before more evil giant monsters come roaring up through a dimensional rift in the Pacific.
DeKnight doesn’t have del Toro’s eye for world-building and oddly beautiful compositions (like the first film’s city built in the spine of a fallen kaiju), but he still brings plenty of colour – and more importantly clarity – to the action. Uprising also manages to ramp up the eccentricity with each passing set-piece, with the final act taking in a weird dervish of creatures of varying sizes. (As an aside: DeKnight also rings the changes by setting all his action sequences in broad daylight.)
Your mileage may vary when it comes to the dramatic bits, which include a love-hate relationship between Pentecost and a colleague, Nate (Scott Eastwood, who’s a poncho and a matchstick away from turning into his dad) and the increasingly caffeinated antics of Newt and Hermann, the two scientists from the last movie. Also along for the ride are Rinko Kikuchi, who’s largely sidelined after a pretty major role five years ago, and a Chinese firm called Shao Industries, whose drone-based robots are threatening to take over the human-piloted Jaegers that won the last war.
What Pacific Rim Uprising does have going for it, though, is all that crunchy, amiably daft action – not to mention the same humanistic sentiment that Pacific Rim memorably brought to the screen. The tech that underpins the Jaegers is absurd in a sci-fi sense: the robots are apparently so large that they require two drivers to form a psychic connection (or ‘Drift’) to operate them. But as a metaphor, it’s wonderful: by putting our fears aside and joining forces with our friends, we can defeat even the largest monsters.
Pacific Rim Uprising is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd March.