Fun but dumb.
It would have been a pleasant surprise if Pacific Rim Uprising had used the opportunity of a sequel to scratch under the surface of the pulpy universe set up in the original. Done well, it might have revealed deeper reasons to care whether humans in giant robot suits could again defeat invading interdimensional monsters, beyond satisfying an appetite for its breathlessly fun fight scenes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. Instead, it leans heavily on the charming shoulders of Star Wars star John Boyega at the expense of developing the rest of a youthful, spirited new cast.
Uprising picks up 10 years after the original left off, in a world only half rebuilt from the destruction. Kudos must be given to production designer Stefan Dechant here, because Uprising’s cities are all either fully fleshed-out hubs of dust and skeletal remains of past battles, or vast, neon playgrounds at the cutting edge of futuristic rebuilding. This is a cohesive world that’s recognisable as our own, just a little out of reach – more Tokyo than Tokyo.
After a thrilling opening, it’s in the ashen remains of one of these forgotten towns that we are properly introduced to Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of fallen Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), and Amara (Cailee Spaeny). A pilot turned petty thief and a Jaeger-building wunderkind, the pair of street rats are soon enlisted by Jake’s sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) into the reformed Pan-Pacific Defence Corps to aid in their defensive efforts against a potential renewed threat from Pacific Rim’s hellmouth-born aliens, the Kaiju.
Once in the PPDC’s Shatterdome, the impressively huge submarine station that houses Uprising’s giant Jaegers, we’re introduced to pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood) and mechanic Jules (Adria Arjona), characters Uprising insists are important but are really just foils for Boyega. It’s a shame that this pair is so relegated to the sidelines; Eastwood shows real comedic chops as the straighter-than-straight man, and Arjona’s Jules is insultingly underwritten as little more than a slight suggestion of a love interest.
No, this is the Boyega show, and director Steven DeKnight seems happy to let him hungrily chew upon B-movie dialogue ad nauseam. With so much screen time it’s fortunate that Boyega is likeable; even when he stretches a gag out for a little too long – a certain dessert scene springs to mind – he has enough laddish charm to get away with it.
Spaeny’s Amara doesn’t experience quite the same good time as her male counterpart, but she does get the more sincere and interesting storyline. Thrust into a group of Jaeger pilots in training, she must learn to ‘drift’ with others in a fairly obvious metaphor, but Spaeny sells Amara’s struggles to connect. Considering the important role these cadets play later on in Uprising, I would have loved to have learned more about them, especially haunted tomboy Vik (Ivanna Sakhno) whose rivalry with Amara never reaches a satisfying conclusion.
Such half-baked characterisation can be attributed to a screenplay that feels as if DeKnight and his co-writers wrote two drafts and then decided to inelegantly squash them together. On the one hand there’s Amara, Jake, and their plethora of co-stars in the Shatterdome; on the other there’s returning character Newt (Charlie Day) and his plotline working against his sinister boss Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), also featuring a plethora of co-stars (including the marginalised but always entertaining Burn Gorman as Hermann). There’s just not enough room for these characters to grow, and through Day and Jing bring the requisite skittishness and gravitas, respectively, their motivations are roughly sketched.
This is true of Uprising as a whole. Its most interesting new ideas are left by the wayside – the ‘Kaiju worshipping’ mentioned at the beginning is barely explored, and giant leaps of logic are made in order to propel a bursting-at-the-seams plot forward at a breakneck pace. Some of these are forgivable – Uprising is meant to be pulpy fun after all – but others scream of deleted scenes and half-formed thoughts.
Still, if all you’re here for is to watch the Kaiju fight the Jaegers, there’s plenty to enjoy in Uprising. Fights are faster this time around – the story’s justification for more nimble, human-like movements is upgraded Jaeger tech – but the fluidity doesn’t take away from viscerality; this still feels like steel against flesh. It’s hard not to wince in sympathy as these beautiful creations take a beating, with Kaiju sending them flying through rock and ice and their expensive-looking parts breaking off in teeth-clenching chunks.
Uprising refuses to play it safe in these scenes, and every swing of a fist or slice of a chainsword ups the ante. As the bad guys reveal a hidden trick to a panting, broken Jaeger, stumbling to stay upright, it evokes a wonderful sense of “that’s not a knife, this is a knife” anticipation. It’s in these battles that Uprising is at its most gleeful.