Movie Review: Pacific Rim Uprising.
This monster bashing sequel manages to tell a credible story and introduce new characters in a charming and effective manner.
I’m a fan of giant monster movies. From classic Godzilla brawlers to subversive indie flicks like Colossal, I think these movies have as much to say as any overanalyzed vampire or werewolf story. The original Pacific Rim was a cool love letter to both giant monster movies and Lucha Libre wrestling flicks, dripping with Guillermo Del Toro’s childhood nostalgia. It was a cool idea, but it was going to need more than just fond memories of Power Rangers and Voltron to sustain a franchise.
Walking into Uprising, I figured we were going to get some dumb fun: the trailer looked bright and glossy, filled with new heroes, mecha’s, and monsters – but not a lot of brains. The final product was surprisingly interesting. For all of the big monster fighting sequences, what I was most impressed by was the narrative. Yup, in a movie about giant robots fighting space monsters, I was here for the story.
Pacific Rim Uprising (2018).
Jake Pentecost is living on the margins of society, trying to escape the ghost of his father: Stacker Pentecost, famous Jaeger pilot and the man who sacrificed his life to end the war against the monstrous kaiju who were invading Earth. He meets a kindred spirit in Amara, a teen haunted by the loss of her family to the kaiju who is also trying to deny her past. The two are forcibly recruited into the Jaeger pilot program to become the next wave of robot piloting heroes. Despite advances in Earth’s defenses, the world is in greater danger as the supposedly defeated monsters prepare to return in force.
The tone of Pacific Rim Uprising is less grim than the first movie. Partly this is due to the energy of the cast: John Boyega is consistently roguish and charming as Jake, Cailee Spaney is a spitfire as Amara, and Scott Eastwood is earnestly likable as Ranger Lambert, the hardcase who tries to keep these two in line. Partly it is due to the change of atmosphere: whereas Pacific Rim was set in dark and forbidding locations during foul weather, the sequel is generally out in the sunshine for its big set pieces. The shift in tone might suggest a more frivolous affair, but it generally left the impression of a film that was confident in its story and visuals and that was eager to show off its chops.
Pacific Rim Uprising feels like the quintessential modern blockbuster, for good and ill. It has big glossy visuals, breezy star power, and a jet-setting agenda. It also is less than subtle about what audience it is trying to court and stops just shy of completely pandering to the global box office that you know the studio has its eye on. There are several bits you can tell were just inserted to appeal to a mass audience, from a mostly Chinese Jaeger defense force (with the requisite recruits from major markets like Russia and India) to a silly promo for Sriracha. This is nothing new for a blockbuster, hell Superman threw his enemies through a giant Coke sign in 1978! In an ideal world it would be seamless, but at least Pacific Rim Uprising manages to keep it from taking over your attention.
Ground to Cover.
I must say I had low expectations for how this film would build off of the first one. They sealed the rift in the first one, effectively ending the threat, and the hero from the first film wasn’t returning for the sequel. Not good omens. Luckily, director Steven DeKnight does an admirable job of turning a one-off film into a property worthy of a franchise. Suitable time is taken to introduce the new cast and get you comfortable with them while maintaining a narrative arc that has some action. It’s not as brilliant an introduction as Del Toro created for the first one, with our first time meeting our hero resulting in watching him barely survive a kaiju at great personal cost. While it doesn’t create a sense of high stakes, it does do the world building that Del Toro mostly left to the imagination.
The story itself is quite ingenious. It makes you wonder if the trailer lied to you with its promise of “more of the same monster versus robots, but bigger!” Instead, we get new villains and a new threat for an hour before the script winks at us and ties it into the promotional material. I enjoyed this head fake, not only because it offered something new but because it deftly defused the major problem of sequels for stand alone films: are we just doing the same thing over again, but with a bigger budget? This film takes the series into a wider world in a plausible and exciting way, much like John Wick 2.
Go Go Jaeger Rangers!
At the end of the day, your willingness to get down with the premise of giant robots versus giant monsters is going to determine how much you enjoy this product. While it does some creative things with a fresh cast, it still boils down to the monster mash. It has a cheesiness, like Power Rangers or Godzilla, that you’re either going to find charming or insufferable. All of the silly kung-fu, body slams, and ludicrous action of the genre is on display. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it does update it.
Pacific Rim Uprising feels like its cut from the same cloth as the original, but is looking to expand its scope. Many of the issues of the first film are still there: the other robots are just fodder to raise the stakes for our hero and his mech, the supporting cast doesn’t get to do much, and while this world is bigger it doesn’t yet feel completely fleshed out. If you didn’t like the first one, or the mechs versus monster genre in general, I don’t know if Pacific Rim Uprising can make you a fan. If you’re even a little bit interested in the premise, I think it does a solid job of paying you out with cool visuals, a fun cast, and a creative story.