Five years ago revered filmmaker Guillermo del Toro added one of the weirdest additions to his already strange and eclectic filmography. The movie was “Pacific Rim”, a big-budget sci-fi monster mashup that drew comparisons from Transformers to Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Sporting a whopper of a budget, the movie didn’t exactly burn up the box office, but it did gain a cult following and was successful enough to encourage a sequel. But that doesn’t mean we needed one.
“Pacific Rim: Uprising” had only a slightly smaller budget but made significantly less money. Not a good sign for fans of the aspiring franchise. Aside from a producer credit, del Toro is out of the picture. And while his first installment was far from pure greatness, it did a number of things this sequel just doesn’t pull off.
As you recall, giant monsters known as Kaiju emerged from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat these city-leveling threats mankind constructed huge mech-like machines called Jaegers. “Uprising” takes place ten years after the events of the first film. John Boyega plays Jake, an ex-Jaeger pilot and son of inspirational Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba’s character from the first picture). Jake shuns his father’s legacy instead choosing to sell Jaeger parts on the black market.
While scavenging Jake encounters a young teen and Jaeger admirer named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). As the two duke it out for a power core it draws the attention of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps who take them both into custody. Jake is given the choice of prison or returning to the corps as an instructor with his former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood). Amara is among the new cadets he is tasked with training.
But as you would expect things get bad. During a tech exercise in Sidney, Australia a rogue Jaeger attacks increasing calls to shelf the program and replace it with Shao Corporation’s drone technology. To make matters worse a new Kaiju threat surfaces thrusting Jake and his green recruits to the frontlines where the must save the world from enemies big and small.
First time feature-film director Steven S. DeKnight (mostly known for his television work on “Spartacus” and “Daredevil” among others) takes the helm and steers the ship the best he can. The visuals in “Uprising” can be stunning at times and it’s hard not to be impressed by the massive-scaled battle sequences between machine and monster. Even a guy like me who has grown a little numb to the CGI devastation of major world cities in movies found the battles sometimes exhilarating. And the film’s explosive ending is absurdly fun and entertaining.
Where “Uprising” stumbles is in its story and its characters. A team of four writers (including DeKnight) are credited with navigating the screenplay through a series of rewrites. Minus a handful of small twists, it’s really a basic story that has little to offer thematically. For example there is only a shell of the first film’s central theme of togetherness. The whole ‘drifting” and ‘neural handshake’ thing is still an intriguing idea but not much is done with it. And we are only given a perfunctory treatment of teamwork and camaraderie. It all feels so lightweight.
And the characters aren’t much better. So often the attempts at human moments are as mechanical as anything we see in Jaeger form. Boyega and Eastwood are the only remotely convincing as pilots but offer little else in terms of character. And other than Amara, the younger pilots are hard to buy into and utterly forgettable.
Guillermo del Toro’s movie was no masterpiece. I would even say it’s somewhat overrated. But it was fun and even a bit nostalgic. Also its message of coming together was effective even in its simplicity. “Uprising” doesn’t match its predecessor in any of those areas. It does have its moments most notably the giant-sized battle sequences. But with so little else to offer, it’s tough to embrace it as anything more than forgettable blockbuster fluff.