Review: PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING builds on the good and inherits the bad of the first film

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Review by Harper Harris

It’s only March and we’re already quickly heading into big blockbuster territory, with the sequel to Guillermo del Toro‘s 2013 Pacific Rim being perhaps the first giant monster flick to hit the screens in 2018. The original film was one that divided critics; sure, it was fun as hell and had everything you could want in a big, dumb action movie (colossal monsters and giant robots, I mean, come on), but it also was sorely lacking in character development, especially in its lead with Charlie Hunnam. With first time feature director Steven S. DeKnight at the helm, it wasn’t clear whether Pacific Rim: Uprising would fall flat without the guidance of the visionary del Toro, just become a Transformers-like toy commercial, or maybe, just maybe, do something interesting with the budding franchise. Luckily for fans of big things hitting other big things, Uprising manages to capitalize on what works in the first film in a big way, and actually is surprisingly unpredictable in a few of its major turns.

Uprising follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the apocalypse-cancelling Stacker Pentecost, who has abandoned his military duties in favor of living it up in one of the abandoned half-destroyed cities on the coast post-war. After a run in with the young Amara (Cailee Spaeny), an orphan who builds her own mini-jaeger with scrapped parts, the pair end up forcibly enrolled into military duty just in time for the first post-war attack, this time by a mysterious rogue jaeger.

One thing that most viewers agreed on with Pacific Rim was that it does a phenomenal job of building a world around its action figure smashing basic concept; there’s a whole economy built around walling up the coasts, and the exploits of the film’s scientists make interesting connections with the origins of the colossal kaiju. Uprising wisely adds to that mythos, creating a world where there’s a whole subculture of people living off the scraps of former jaeger complexes, squatting in deserted mansions. This plays nicely against the “kaiju groupies” in the first film, who have now graduated to kaiju worshippers. 

The other element that is really built up is a range of unique and interesting jaegers. The handful that are focused on in the first film are really cool, but are all essentially red shirts: within the first few minutes of their deployment, they are all sacrificed in the name of making sure you know how badass the kaiju really are. Here, mostly for the better, the film seems much more self-aware of its toy-collecting target audience. From the sleek, ninja-like Saber Athena to the bulky three pilot tank Titan Redeemer, we definitely get the coordinated teamwork of multiple unique jaegers battling it out in a way that the first film didn’t quite deliver.

Uprising also is shockingly unpredictable and doesn’t just copy/paste the first film with bigger monsters and bigger robots; instead, we get some very interesting blends between the two warring collosi, and in fact the kaiju aren’t seen in their usual form until the final act. Given that the breach that connected their world to ours was ostensibly sealed in the last film, Uprising does some pretty interesting things to keep that war going without resorting to the old, “the breach has opened again, and this time its even bigger!” There’s a big twist involving the villain of the film that I’d hate to spoil here, but let’s just say DeKnight and co. definitely pulled the rug out from under where I expected the blockbuster sequel to go.

All that said, you’ll notice I haven’t said much about any of the characters; unfortunately, this movie inherits that same problem from Pacific Rim. While Boyega’s Jake has personality and a handful of good lines, without his connection to Elba’s character his backstory would be nonexistent, and motivation minimal. The surrounding cast is pretty blah, including Jake’s drift partner Nate (Scott Eastwood) who could’ve had no lines and had about the same effect on the plot, and the bizarre inclusion of Jules (Adria Arjona), who literally exists only to have the faint murmurs of a romance that never matters even a little. Spaeny’s Amara has nearly the exact same backstory as Mako’s, which just takes arguably the best part of the first film and makes it into a Shyamalan-ian level character obstacle.

Then again, who really expects loads of character development in a giant robots vs giant monsters movie? All in all, Pacific Rim: Uprising takes the best parts of the concept and expands on them in a big way, and the extended final action sequence is seriously fun and impressively tense. In a world where Pacific Rim could’ve been left alone as perhaps the best of the mega-disaster genre (Dwayne Johnson seems to have a lock on one-off movies with toppling buildings, with not one but two identical looking movies releasing in the next four months), it’s pleasantly surprising to see that it is possible to create a worthwhile sequel.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Terrific. Pacific Rim flopped in North America but we still get an expensive sequel because it made a fortune in Asia, the only market that matters anymore.

    The trailer looks like outtakes from a Transformers movie. Infantile junk like this is killing movies. It’s sad that people over the age of 12 are eagerly looking forward to this.

  2. Bill, I haven’t been 12 for 38 years, but I’ve loved far worse giant monster movies because giant monster movies are objectively awesome.

    So let’s make a deal: you get to see whatever movies you want to and I don’t cast aspersions on your maturity or taste because people are allowed to like what they like. Fair?

  3. Gary: Why do you think people are trying to keep you from liking what you like? If you want to be 12 forever, that’s your business.

    Unfortunately, crap like Pacific Rim are crowding out other kinds of movies, as you know if you’ve been to a multiplex in the 2010s.

    I knew my comment would upset the many fanboys whose tastes are stuck in middle school.

  4. I kind of agree with Bill. The people who mock people who argue for more diverse options in the cinematic marketplace generally tend to be the ones who are already happily getting what they want in the marketplace but who are (for some reason) hostile to other, different options being available.

    A deliberately simplistic version of this would be Marvel fans who love the light, bright, humorous approach to super-hero movies who complain incessantly about darker, more melancholy, more serious, more nuanced approaches to super-hero movies. Having a few darker, more serious options won’t make the (dominant) lighter, brighter options go away, but fans of the lighter, brighter approach continue to complain nonetheless, seemingly intent on killing the other options. It’s those people who tend to whine the way Skip described.

    Just my observation based on my own interactions. Could be anecdotal.

    (This has nothing do with my own opinions of Pacific Rim. Tried watching it, found it dull and superficial, couldn’t get through it.)

  5. I loved the first Pacific Rim and the only person in my circle of friends who loved it more than me was my wife, who bugs me at least once a month to put it back on. Fortunately it’s a big, wide world with lots of stuff to go and love. Your life is happier enjoying things you love in geekdom than bemoaning something you don’t like.

  6. I recommend the new book “The Big Picture,” by Ben Fritz. It describes how superheroes and other franchises have taken over the movie industry. Adult dramas in theaters are now as rare as jokes in a Christopher Nolan movie.

    What I want is diversity in movies: movies in a wide variety of genres (as Marvel and DC used to publish comics in a wide variety of genres). But everything is getting pushed aside by sci-fi, fantasy and superhero epics, because they make the most money overseas. About 80 percent of the studios’ profits now come from outside North America.

    Daniel said: “The people who mock people who argue for more diverse options in the cinematic marketplace generally tend to be the ones who are already happily getting what they want in the marketplace but who are (for some reason) hostile to other, different options being available.”

    Amen, Daniel. Hollywood now does everything it can to cater to people who used to be mocked as nerds, geeks and fanboys. It’s everyone else who is being ignored. If they don’t live in a city with an arthouse, they’re increasingly staying home with Netflix and other options.

  7. Daniel is also right about the hostility that fans express toward people who have different tastes and opinions. Fans are getting what they want, every week at the multiplex: a steady diet of franchise movies packed with CGI spectacle (lots of stuff blowing up real good).

    But if someone doesn’t show enthusiasm for these movies, fans take it as a personal attack. They act like this is still the 1970s, when their interests were considered marginal. Today, pop culture IS culture. But fans still act grumpy, still act like they’re an oppressed minority under constant assault.

  8. I don’t give a rat’s turd about this movie, but unlike you princesses, I’m not going to cry about its existence of vomit all over people for liking it. Christ your lives must be amazing if this is all you get so upset over.

  9. Spoken like the mental giant you are, Skippy.

    As usual, you come across like a high school kid trying to be a hipster — and failing miserably.

  10. Guess what, Skip? This is a pop culture site, where people debate pop culture.

    Maybe you should go to CNN or NPR, where you can discuss the situation in Syria.

  11. You’re not discussing. You’re crying manchild tears all over anyone who dares enjoy something you don’t. Grow up.

  12. Actually, Skip, you’re the one attacking people for having different opinions. That’s all you ever do on this site — bash and insult people whose opinions differ from your own. You never have a positive comment about anything.

    Let us know when you graduate from high school.

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