Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Runtime: 111 minutes
Where to go after the monstrously good times of Pacific Rim? Take it ten years into the future, explore a character that was previously unknown but still has crucial links to the first film, and smash a few cities in the process (goodbye Sydney).
Pacific Rim Uprising poses the question of what happens after the monsters are gone and the humans are left to clean up. With the breach closed thanks to the heroics of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), Pentecost’s son Jake (John Boyega) is left to drift in the shadows of his father and adopted elder sister’s glory.
Hang on. Stacker Pentecost has a son? Yeah, he’s never mentioned in the first movie and you could probably get away with seeing Uprising without seeing the first because of this. However it would be a shame if you missed the first Pacific Rim as it has a delightful weirdness to it that is less obvious in Uprising. Having an estranged son that mysteriously never gets mentioned before is admittedly a pretty weak hook for a sequel, but let’s be real, we are not here for solid narrative links to spawn franchises with. Quite frankly the film industry has stretched our suspension of disbelief with less, so I’m letting this slide.
The appeal of Pacific Rim isn’t that it’s original. It was always meant as homage to Japanese monster movies, infused with the creative world building of Guillermo del Toro, and extremely over the top action. The appeal is having giant robots (Jaegers) punch big aliens (kaiju) in the face with glowing weapons and outrageous names.
But before we can get to the monster fighting, first Jake has to get out of the criminal life he’s built for himself in a coastal mansion ruined by a kaiju skeleton. Which is easy enough if the police pick you up as the passenger of an illegal Jaeger built by 15-year-old orphan Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). Forcibly brought back into the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) as a ranger, Jake is teamed up with Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) to train cadets, to which Amara has been sent instead of juvenile prison. Nate is understandably unhappy about this since he and Jake have unresolved history from their time together as PPDC cadets.
We have the usual “you don’t belong here” conflict with Amara and Jake until the appearance of a new threat: a rogue Jaeger attacking the PPDC during an important council meeting. With most of the Jaegers from ten years earlier now decommissioned or broken down for scrap due to the apparent lack of monsters, this poses a challenge to take down. There are simply not enough Jaegers and pilots to take on such dangerous threats. Instead of monsters, we’re now fighting other robots, which inevitably have a human source in the Pacific Rim universe.
This is a good way of sidestepping the issue of what to fight in a sequel when the original kaiju were sealed away. It’s fun, and shows the strength of many working together against the tyranny of individual selfishness. Being fun is what the original film aimed to be, and Uprising is definitely full of fun moments. It is visually spectacular, and has del Toro’s aesthetic all over it. There are explosions, jokes, ridiculous plans, and ass-kicking. Uprising is by all standards a good action film and a good monster movie, especially since it’s the directorial debut of Steven S. DeKnight. Perhaps not quite the same flavour of offbeat as del Toro’s original round, but still one you could put on at the end of the day and thoroughly enjoy.
There’s a whole bevy of characters to barrack for, and Uprising expands upon the diversity found in the first film, handing some of the most important roles over to characters that aren’t white men. John Boyega delivers clichéd humour with the confidence of being hilarious, and it’s his confidence that makes the humour comedic, not the jokes themselves. Tian Jing is a standout in her role as genius technology developer Liwen Shao. She is poised, powerful, and highly intelligent, capable of demanding the attention of everyone in the room without saying a single word.
However in some aspects, I feel like the plot isn’t as interesting as the first movie, leaning more on the side of formulaic rather than reinventing tropes. There are touches here and there that definitely show that Uprising was directed by Steven S. DeKnight and not Guillermo del Toro, such as a completely unnecessary and unresolved romance subplot between Jake, Nate, and fellow ranger Jules Reyes (Adria Arjona). Not to say that del Toro doesn’t do romance, just that he tends to handle it with less awkwardness. There’s also the decision to cut characters out of the movie which could have been done with more grace and less sad men being sad because they lost someone (a woman) important to them.
I wish they had spent a little more time fleshing the side characters out. Amara and her fellow cadets vanished for a good chunk of the film, only to come back after a few days of training to be perfectly in-sync with one another and able to co-pilot effectively. I do think of the opportunities missed to make Amara’s relationships with the other cadets more apparent. Tell me more about these kids and how they get to the point of being able to pilot real Jaegers in a battle. I don’t want romance; I want the platonic bonding that the first movie so perfectly summarised with “drift compatibility” (how well you mentally synchronise with your co-pilot in order to move your robot around for optimal monster fighting).
That aside, Uprising delivers with a diverse cast, and a strong message of legacy, teamwork, and friendship. In a Jaeger, nobody is truly alone, even if the Jaeger itself is built for one pilot. A lot of action movies pin the duty to save the world onto one person. Pacific Rim refuses to do that, pointing to the pilots and the staff in recognition that both are equally as important for saving the world. You can’t fly a Jaeger without the pilots and the pilots can’t fly a Jaegers without someone to fix it. I feel that teamwork should be emphasised more often in action movies. When the characters don’t work together in Uprising, it all falls apart, creating resentment and discord. Their victory feels genuine, and less polarising since it is shared by all of the characters rather than idolising one Chosen One.
While I much prefer the original Pacific Rim, there’s no reason to pass Uprising over if you have even the mildest of interest in action movies. There will be criticism for its lack of originality and rough pacing, but having highly nuanced plots is a cherry for action movies, not the core. Uprising revels in having robots fight other robots and sometimes wrestle with a giant monster. Lots of these scenes were clearly constructed to look flashy and exciting, and you know what? They were. They were also a joy to watch even if they weren’t unique. Sometimes you just need an action movie to have nonsensical fun with, and on that account, Uprising delivers.