When people were anxiously awaiting the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s giant robot movie Pacific Rim (2013), I didn’t know what exactly they were hoping for in terms of story content. Sure, del Toro is an excellent director and was able to expunge a lot from a relatively simple premise, but kaiju movies are essentially one-trick ponies. They rely on a rather specific formula, and it already wasn’t going to be easy to write a follow-up to a story that ended with so much emotional and physical finality. Whatever chance there was for a worthy successor was diminished by behind-the-scenes corporate wheeling and dealing, which halted production for so long that directing duties were passed off to Steven S. DeKnight and the script was re-written by three other people. The story feels very barebones and simple as a result, but DeKnight still manages to inject enough B-movie-influenced fun to make Pacific Rim: Uprising a decent enough experience.
The story takes place ten years after the events of the first film, when Stacker Pentecost’s (Idris Elba) son Jake (John Boyega) enjoys a carefree lifestyle now that the kaiju invasion has been stopped. However, he lives off of stealing and selling parts of old jaeger’s on the black market, and during a heist he finds the workshop of 15-year-old Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who is building her own jaeger. I was filled with dread when this child came on screen. Children are annoying, annoying children are especially annoying, and Amara is an annoying child. The performance DeKnight has Spaeny deliver is so obnoxious, it’s baffling. Any B-movie charm the film has (this all happening in the first 15 minutes or so) is quickly replaced with the more on-the-nose charm of a Saturday morning cartoon or a Disney Channel original film. Once Amara starts piloting her self-built jaeger to escape the military, which apparently has the ability to not only be piloted by one person but also roll up into a ball, while bantering with Boyega’s Jake I knew that this film was on a whole other level of not taking itself seriously. They completely drop the emotional core of the first film – the concept of “drifting” with someone to pilot a jaeger – in favor of getting Boyega to the jaeger defense force to kick off the plot (and the action) as fast as possible. Even when the story attempts to ground itself with a corporation that teams up with Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day) to build pilotless drone-commentary jaegers, you get scenes of Geiszler mindf**king kaiju brains and exchanging one liners with Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman).
Without giving too much away, the story for Pacific Rim: Uprising is essentially a “stop the villain of the week from destroying Earth” story. While there is some interesting world-building that establishes how things changed after the events of the first film, everything else about the writing is very two-dimensional and lacks tension. It’s not that this is a sequel that chooses not to just copy the first film; they completely drop the character development they establish in the first act and just give everybody stock character roles and motivations so they can cram the movie full of plot. It feels very standard action movie – think the kinds of movie plots to which Kingsmen pays homage – fused with kaiju movie influence. It’s one-half ‘find out who the bad guy is and stop him’ thriller and one-half vacuous over-the-top youth drama crap that struggles to establish character traits and relationships that never amount to anything worthwhile. So much of the dialogue is cheesy and often undercuts any serious drama with a joke, once again reinforcing the idea that this film is meant to be taken as seriously as a cartoon or an anime, making Pacific Rim: Uprising more like Gundam crossed with Sonic: DX or the original Transformers cartoon.
Admittedly, the action is very fun and exciting but it doesn’t carry the same epic weight as the fights in the first film. The first Pacific Rim has a palpable feeling of scale in every sense and establishes the world-saving stakes from the get-go. By building up to a mystery threat, Uprising loses the anticipation that comes from a jaeger squaring up against a kaiju, and since there are no more kaijus around, that void gets filled with jaeger-on-jaeger skirmishes that cannot be taken as seriously. Uprising feels like an attempt to franchise-build considering how much they focus on all the different varieties of jaegers, and the fact that they are no longer big and lumbering but small and agile, with bad-ass moves and weapons.
I’d say that this material is beneath John Boyega, but if anyone can make sci-fi camp feel fun and enjoyable, it’s him. Plus, even if this film is more cartoonish than the first film that doesn’t necessarily make Uprising not worth seeing. The shows and movies like this, mostly ‘80s and ‘90s Japanese imports of our youth, made us see the first Pacific Rim in the first place, so you’re guaranteed at least some fun from such a blatant recreation. And even though the execution is a tad too extra, there’s still so much (or so little) in this film that makes Uprising a modern day B-movie worth seeing for the schlock value alone. Thanks to the foreign markets, there’s a good chance that we will see another Pacific Rim movie in our future, and whether they get better or worse I’m all in for the dumb giant robot action.
Pacific Rim Uprising is full of much more B-movie camp than its predecessor, but in being so it ends up executing a sequel far more akin to a Saturday morning cartoon than to a Godzilla film, or even Beyond Thunderdome and Robot Jox. While you’re more than certain to have fun while watching, you should not expect a bigger and more epic sequel.