There are moments of supreme stupidity sprinkled throughout Pacific Rim Uprising. Moments when you can disengage all higher brain function and wallow in the juvenile schlock that’s exploding from the screen. Sitting through the rest of Pacific Rim Uprising to find those fleeting moments of fun, however, is an endurance test that only the most incurable Kaiju fanatic could tolerate.
Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 passion project about big lumbering robots fighting big lumbering monsters, was the stuff of adolescent fantasy, a delight for little boys who slammed action figures together until their little plastic surrogates finally lose the will to live. It was good harmless fun, and while it was a box office disappointment in America, grossing just over $100 million, it more than tripled that total in foreign markets (including China, where it exceeded $110 million).
For this reason, Pacific Rim Uprising is the sequel that nobody really wants. Director Steven S. DeKnight must have understood the ambivalence he would face from American audiences when he took the reins from del Toro. It’s the sort of thankless mission that often emboldens artistic risk-taking. DeKnight was poised to pull the pin and let fly with an all-out orgy of monster v. robot mayhem.
Instead, it’s as if he just fell on the grenade and started sobbing.
Guardian Bravo, Titan Redeemer, Saber Athena, and Gipsy Avenger. No, it’s not the tag team undercard at Wrestlemania 35; it’s the four Jaegers tasked with protecting the planet from alien Kaiju. Jaegers, you’ll recall (or perhaps not), are robots that stand over 200′ tall and require two human co-pilots to literally meld minds in order to control the damn thing. This melding, or ‘drifting’ as it’s called, remains the franchise’s only cool invention, with memories and emotional hot buttons exploding into the consciousness of both pilots when they meld minds. It’s like condensing 20 years of therapy into 20 seconds, which should greatly reduce the cost of their insurance co-pays.
With nearly all of the characters from Pacific Rim either dead or too boring to continue, Pacific Rim Uprising creates new boring characters. John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost; a disgraced Jaeger ranger whose father, Idris Elba (as ‘Idris Elba’), sacrificed his life to seal the ocean rift overrun by Kaiju. Ten years of peace and prosperity have followed, though not prosperous enough, apparently, to build more than four Jaegers. Because we all know that military superpowers would never stockpile such advanced weaponry for future dustups. Right?
They haven’t been shy about finagling Kaiju tech, however, which enables Jake to make a meager living stealing Kaiju technology and selling it to the highest bidder. This malfeasance brings him into contact with a plucky amateur Jaeger builder named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) and Nate (Scott Eastwood), the rugged Jaeger ranger with whom he has a prior beef. There are a few cadets in training at the Jaeger academy (to become Jaeger-meisters?), along with a super corporation that wants to replace Jaegers with remotely-controlled drones, because that has very little chance of backfiring and ending in catastrophic loss of life. Things happen very slowly as characters learn to trust one another, allowing a lackluster villain the time he needs to implement the exact same plan that didn’t work in Iron Man 2.
If the description of this plot seems, well… plodding, that’s only because it is. Pacific Rim Uprising has a veritable ton of plot, which seems odd for a movie that’s main selling point is robots and monsters punching each other. There are double-crosses, red herrings, corporate shenanigans, and a Kaiju brain in a bottle that looks like the Time Folders in David Lynch’s Dune. We need all of this intrigue and nonsense like a Kaiju needs tennis shoes.
Speaking of Kaiju… where the hell are they? Folks who got upset about the lack of lightsaber battles in Star Wars: The Last Jedi will be positively apoplectic about the paltry number of Kaiju battles in Pacific Rim Uprising. The battles that do occur are suitably impressive, boasting the spectacle we’ve come to expect from big budget sci-fi actioners, but they suffer from a serious lack of dramatic buildup. Instead of building tension toward the inevitable clash, DeKnight (making his directorial debut) gets lost in the weeds of his own plot.
On a positive note, Boyega is good here. His Han Solo-like charm can turn deadly serious with the mere wrinkle of an eyebrow. He can be the star of the show, if Hollywood gives him a chance to shine in better material. Burn Gorman, one of the few holdovers from Pacific Rim, is infinitely watchable as a bumbling scientist tasked with harnessing Kaiju guts for rocket fuel. His equally bumbling sidekick, Newt (Charlie Day), is far less compelling. The harder Day tries to channel his inner Sam Rockwell, the more you appreciate how easy Rockwell makes it look.
Their seems to be some momentum for future installments of this franchise, but it’s hard to imagine Pacific Rim Uprising garnering more support in America than its middling predecessor. This is a sequel at odds with its own identity, fighting to avoid the schlocky excesses that it needs to be successful. By the time the fun finally arrives, all the little boys have taken their action figures and gone home.