Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim landed on our screens back in 2013 and certainly had its fair share of detractors, as a brief trawl through the popular movie aggregators will attest. But while many laud Del Toro for his weightier works, some of us find his genre fare far more appealing. Sure, a melancholy tale of fish-man love will win you an Oscar, but does it have mind-melding robots punching the crap out of giant inter-dimensional monsters? And so with that, and a decent box office behind it, Pacific Rim: Uprising is here. With Steven S. DeKnight (Daredevil) taking over the helm and Del Toro relegated to producing duties, can it live up to the lunkheaded majesty of the original?
Set ten years after the events of the first movie, we are introduced to Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), black marketeer, Jaeger School drop-out and son of the legendary Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba in the first film). While out scavenging for parts, Jake meets young robot enthusiast Amara (Cailee Spaeny), and after getting into a spot of bother with the law, both are sent off to the Shatterdome to train as Jaeger pilots. No sooner do they arrive, than they come up against the Shao Corporation, who want to replace pilots with drones. After a rogue Jaeger and some genetically engineered Kaiju show up and start knocking them about, it’s up to Jake and his team of teenage cadets to get involved and save humanity.
Pacific Rim: Uprising does not, on the face of it, do a lot different to Pacific Rim, and yet it pales in comparison. While the principal concern of both was the robot/monster fighting, Guillermo del Toro’s picture was a universe builder, giving us context and backstory and memorable characters. Uprising gives us a pared down version of the original story, with earnest teens and corporate villains.
In the original, while monsters rampage through Hong Kong, we get immersed in the detail. We get a view from the ground up. We witness the scale of destruction first hand. Uprising implausibly tells us “everyone in the city has evacuated to underground bunkers”, so although we can forget about the people and enjoy a birds’ eye view of the destruction, it means there’s nothing at stake beyond property damage.
There was also an enjoyable pomposity to the original, with its charmingly bad accents, gloriously hokey dialogue (“I’ll drop you like a sack of kaiju shit”) and overwrought speeches. It was stuffed with manic secondary characters with a laundry list of wacky names (Raleigh Becket, Herc Hansen, Hannibal Chau). Uprising has a group of wide-eyed new recruits that more accurately resemble the cast of a teen drama than an action movie. The cynical among you will spot this straight away as gearing the series toward a younger audience. The sequel / spin-off potential looms larger than the Kaiju, and perhaps a Gatchaman or Voltron style defence team is the thing Uprising is aiming for, but as it stands the teens give off more of a bootleg Power Rangers vibe.
The main problem with Uprising is that it spends an unforgivable amount of its run time Kaiju-free. It’s a very confusing choice, since there’s no point saving the monsters for a third-act reveal, when the Kaiju were front and centre from the opening scene in the first movie. There’s no rationale for the Jaeger programme’s existence either. Considering it was about to be decommissioned in the first movie, even though there was a considerable Kaiju threat, it’s now a decade later with the breech to the other dimension well and truly closed. So why is a Jaeger program still running? Who are they fighting? What are they training for? This fundamental question goes unanswered, beyond Amara saying she thinks Kaiju will return one day.
On the plus side, the Kaiju designs are still great and the city fighting is pretty decent fun, despite the lack of consequence. There is also some deliciously warped business involving genetically engineered Kaiju brains and it’s just a shame it wasn’t better explored.
John Boyega is clearly having a good time, playing Jake with the same childlike enthusiasm he brought to Finn in Star Wars, and this definitely scores a few points. The excellent Rinko Kikuchi is sadly underused, but Charlie Day and Burn Gorman make a welcome return as Dr. Newton Geiszler and Dr. Herman Gottlieb, even if Gorman gives a much more subdued performance this time around. Gorman’s frenzied turn in the original was a deranged highlight, but in Uprising he’s less of a mad scientist and more of a moderately irked one.
In many ways, Uprising is a typical sequel. The original actors are absent, replaced with younger versions, and all of the best moments are re-trod story beats or jokes from the original. And while Uprising is not terrible by any stretch, you’ve seen it done before, and you’ve seen it done better. If you’ve really got a hankering for a modern monster movie then re-watch the original. Or better yet, investigate/re-watch Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ equally under-appreciated Kong: Skull Island from last year, which handles giant creature fisticuffs with significantly greater aplomb. Pacific Rim: Uprising might appear to be more of the same, but when you get right down to it, it’s much less of the same.