By Jack Dignan
Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monster smack down Pacific Rim was a surprise success. His film could’ve been terrible. It’s the makings of a very dumb, lifeless monster movie elevated and rejuvenated through del Toro’s knack for style, as well as one of the coolest motivational speeches in modern disaster movie history. While that story had a definitive ending, the idea of a sequel opened up infinite possibilities. It’s monsters vs. giant robots; you don’t need to make the next Moonlight. And yet Pacific Rim: Uprising doesn’t seem to work. It’s simultaneously the best film of 2018 and also the worst.
We follow the story of Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film. Jake struggled to follow in his father’s footsteps, winding up as somewhat of a criminal, but his past catches up to him. When arrested, he’s offered a get out of jail free card. He returns to the Jaegar academy to help train the new recruits and wipe his sentence clean. But not too long after returning to the world he hoped to leave behind, a new threat arises. It’s a threat unlike any before it. To take it down and save the world, Jake’s going to need to team up with former friend turned rival Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) and a new recruit whose path continues to intertwine with Jake, Amara (Cailee Spaeny).
Through his attempts at expanding del Toro’s world, director and co-writer Steven S. DeKnight (the man behind such shows as Daredevil and Spartacus) loses a lot of what made the first film so fun. Pacific Rim: Uprising is DeKnight’s first venture into the world of cinema, and while some may argue that television is becoming more cinematic than cinema currently is, this film stylistically feels very much as if made for the small screen. Some of it works during the more lighthearted, carefree sequences, but when the drama’s going down and the stakes are getting high, you just don’t care as much as you should. The sequel’s lost the visual appeal and cinematic beauty that the first one offered.
The action sequences are big, but even they feel lifeless. Some of them are a lot of fun, most notably an attack on their base and elements of the third act finale, but most is dull, weightless and generic. You just don’t care about anything that’s happening on screen. This isn’t a Transformers 5 situation where the action’s boring, I don’t recall ever being straight up bored, but it’s all just mindless CGI brutality with far too few giant monster battles. The main threat of the movie doesn’t really enter the picture until the third act, leaving us behind to watch robot on robot battles that aren’t nearly as cool or logically interwoven into the plot. As exciting as it was to see Sydney destroyed on the big screen (I’m from Sydney), its necessity to the plot is questionable.
However, if there’s one person who saves the day, making this at least somewhat enjoyable, it’s the always-charismatic king of sci-fi John Boyega. His real life persona shines through into Jake Pentacost, bringing with him the charm and cocky humour you need in a film as silly as this one. Whether he’s sprinkling never ending toppings onto ice cream or selling spare Jaeger parts during an anti-climactic opening sequence, Boyega’s audaciousness shines through the screen. He’s the only character you care about. Scott Eastwood is... fine, I guess, but you have nothing to latch onto when it comes to his character. A backstory between Boyega and Eastwood is hinted at, but never followed through with. Had they further explored that, the human characters would’ve been a lot more interesting.
On top of the new additions, a few characters from the first film find themselves returning. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman reprise their roles as wacky scientists with a neurological connection to these alien invaders, but holy shit, it takes a turn for the worst. Charlie Day is clearly having so much fun in this role, which is totally fair given what he has to do, but it doesn’t work for the film at all. I wouldn’t dare spoil what happens, but I physically felt my eyes rolling all the way back inside my head. It goes beyond the word awful. And as for Rinko Kikuchi... well... fans of the first film shouldn’t go in with high hopes. Her presence is pointless. She easily could’ve replaced Tian Jing’s character and made her tedious subplot at least somewhat more interesting.
But the thing is, even in the first film we don’t necessarily find ourselves attached to these characters. They’re all fine, but we come for the robot vs. monster fights, so when even they’re not as interesting or thrilling as they should’ve been, you know you have a problem. It’s sad to see this franchise in the hands of someone who isn’t Guillermo del Toro, but at the end of the day, his departure led to the creation of Shape of Water. So I think the world is definitely better off because of it.
2 1/2 Stars
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