At the end of 2013’s Pacific Rim, the world and the human race were battered but still standing following the colossal battle between the kaiju — otherworldly giant monsters from another dimension — and the Jaegers, titanic robot fighters piloted by pairs of humans against the invaders. The movie ended with the undersea portal between the worlds closed and humanity beginning to recover…although there was always the chance that the kaiju could try again.
At first it didn’t appear likely that would happen: despite its seemingly can’t-miss imagery of giant mechas and Lovecraftian beasts throwing each other through buildings — visuals steeped in nostalgia for classic Japanese movies starring the likes of Godzilla and King Ghidorah — and the enthusiastic guidance of director Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim was a flop in North America, barely clawing its way to $100 million at the domestic box office, hardly a monstrous figure for a big budget spectacle.
But Pacific Rim was a hit internationally, grossing more than $300 million around the world and some $114 million in China alone, making a continuation of the story a reality from a business standpoint. On the creative end of things, however, it soon became evident that Del Toro was unable to return behind the camera and star Charlie Hunnam would not reprise his role as Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket in front of it — leading to wholesale changes for a second film.
Now that film is here, five years later, with ex-Daredevil showrunner Steven S. DeKnight directing (and co-writing with three other screenwriters) and Star Wars favorite John Boyega leading the cast. Pacific Rim: Uprising does a couple of things better than its predecessor: Boyega is a far more charismatic lead than Hunnam could ever hope to be (to be fair, Hunnam has been very good in smaller films like The Lost City of Z, but he’s a blank in would-be tentpoles like Pacific Rim or King Arthur: Legend of the Sword) and brings all his charm and swagger to bear here. DeKnight, meanwhile, has dialed back on the first movie’s all-dark-all-raining-all-the-time mise-en-scene and incorporated lots of daylight and brighter colors into Uprising — although the end result arguably comes off a bit cartoony.
But let’s face it, the Pacific Rim pair really should not be analyzed on a higher level than that. This is, after all, a story about mountain-sized robots and monsters punching each other, with the pilots inside the machines making synchronized movements like they’re in the world’s biggest Dance Dance Revolution game. The whole premise was silly from the start, a wobbly artistic clash with Del Toro’s dark fairy tale mindset. There was a somber tone to Pacific Rim that would have been wildly out of place in, say, Godzilla vs. Megalon, a cruddy late entry in the Japanese kaiju series which had a robot named Jet Jaguar face off against the title enemy (the DNA of which is embedded in the Pacific Rim movies).
DeKnight wisely lightens things up in Uprising, opening with the Earth in rebuild mode 10 years after the Breach was closed and Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, the son of the first movie’s self-sacrificing hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), partying blithely away instead of following in his late dad’s footsteps and working with the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, where he was once a promising Jaeger pilot. Jake also scavenges for discarded Jaeger parts and sells them on a criminal black market — like Hunnam in the first movie, he inexplicably wants nothing to do with defending the planet.
A heist gone wrong, however, brings him back onto the radar of his old co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood, stiff and smug as usual) and Jake’s adopted half-sister Mako Mori (a noble Rinko Kikuchi), who have stayed with the PPDC and are dealing with the deployment of a new generation of Jaegers, including rival drones developed by mysterious Chinese industrialist Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) and her right-hand man, former PPDC kaiju expert Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day, as unbearably annoying here as in the first movie). Jake is brought back into the PPDC where he and Nate must lead a class of fresh young pilots — who will get their training on the job when a new kaiju invasion suddenly becomes imminent.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is fast-moving and moderately entertaining, and DeKnight pulls off an impressive amount of spectacular shots of destruction and mayhem once the fighting starts. But the movie also suffers from the same issue that plagued the first one: the sense that this whole thing is a generic remix of so much stuff we’ve seen before. Once you get past Boyega and Kikuchi, the new pilots are a diverse but interchangeable bunch, with even the young scavenger that Jake takes under his wing (newcomer Cailee Spaeny) not making much of an impression. The focus on them makes Uprising seem like more of a kids’ picture than the first one, despite some scenes that may be too intense for younger children.
But even the goodies that you’re really plunking down cash money to see — the Jaegers and the kaiju — fail to be memorable in a significant way. The Jaegers are just a bunch of big toys, distinguishable only by their weapons and maybe their paint jobs, but looking too much like Transformers too much of the time (my young daughter even saw a poster for this and asked if she could see “the new Transformers movie”). The kaiju, meanwhile, are as featureless and personality-free as they were in the first film, their amorphous designs a far cry from the instantly recognizable Godzillas, Mothras and Rodans of old. There’s a sameness to the teams on both sides that renders them bland after a while.
I can’t hate Pacific Rim: Uprising; on some level every genre fan likes watching monsters and cyborgs swinging skyscrapers at each other with abandon like tire irons. Certainly Boyega, Kikuchi, Tian, Burn Gorman (returning as tic-filled scientist Hermann Gottlieb) and even, God help me, Day give it some heart (although Ron Perlman is dearly missed from the first movie). Yet the whole thing evaporates into thin air once it’s over. Even during the movie, you start to wonder what the point of all this is. Maybe there is no point. Perhaps recreating the child-like glee of watching monsters vs. robots is all the producers are after…that, and another $114 million or more at the Chinese box office.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is out in theaters this Friday (March 23).