Pacific Rim: Uprising – Double the action, half the fun

I am not sure what I wanted or expected from a sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, but I am sure that it wasn’t this.

Del Toro was replaced by Steven S. DeKnight for Uprising, and while that immediately disheartened fans of the first, I was still willing to give this a chance. I really wanted to like this movie. I was ready to “turn my brain off” and enjoy a film about giant robots (Jaegers) fighting giant monsters (Kaiju). Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is silly but still has heart. The action is grand and carries weight, you get to feel the true scale of these giant mechs and monsters and each step feels large enough to crack the earth in two. Charlie Hunnam is easily one of the worst leads of a major action film in recent memory, but I still understood his character, Raleigh, and his motivations, as well as the rest of the cast, all of which were memorable.

I do not care about the characters in Uprising. John Boyega is one hundred times more charming and charismatic than Hunnam was, but I don’t care about his character, Jake Pentecost. Jake is the son of Idris Elba’s inspiring, stoic leader, Stacker Pentecost, who gave his life to save the world in the first film. “I am not my father” Jake boasts in the opening narration. It’s a good start to differentiate this film from the first and playing the reluctant, selfish hero is what Boyega does best. He’s not his father, okay cool, so then who is he? We don’t ever really find out. Jake used to be a Jaeger pilot. Why did he quit? We don’t know. He willingly joins back up after the first fifteen minutes, so what was the point? It doesn’t appear that he was ever conflicted. Does Jake admire his father? Or does he resent him? Hate him? We don’t know. We’re never shown or told anything substantial about him or the rest of the characters in this film. Maybe because there’s simply too many of them that we’re supposed to care about. Jake’s best friend and his former co-pilot, Nate (a completely wooden Scott Eastwood), has no personality and neither says nor does anything interesting throughout the film. How did Jake and Nate become best friends? How did Nate feel about Jake quitting the Jaeger program? We don’t know. There’s a group of cadets being trained by he and Jake that each get about one or two lines of dialogue at the most. Why did these cadets sign up? What motivates them to want to become Jaeger pilots? We don’t know.

The only character that works on any level is Amara, played by Cailee Spaeny. She’s an orphan who’s learned how to build and pilot her own Jaeger and is determined to protect herself and those she cares about. We are actually shown Amara’s backstory and in turn, fully understand what motivates her. Part of me feels like this movie was initially supposed to center around her rather than Jake. She’s much more sympathetic, developed, and you actively root for her to succeed. The mentor / mentee relationship she shares with Jake is literally the only relationship between two characters in the film that has merit. This should have been Amara’s movie.

I can’t tell you what the plot of this movie was, because I really don’t know. In all of the marketing John Boyega is there telling you to “Join the Jaeger Uprising!”. Whatever that is or was, it’s not a part of this film. There are way too many subplots happening and it goes hand in hand with the problem of too many characters. There’s Liwen Shao (Tian Jing, one of the better performances), who wants to create an army of Jaeger drones that would render pilots obsolete. Why does the world even need Jaegers anymore when the Kaiju have been gone for ten years? What purpose do they serve in the current world? We don’t know. Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, trying his best) is back from the first film and has his own plot involving Kaiju blood. There’s an evil Jaeger drone, Jeager / Kaiju hybrids, the Kaiju themselves coming back, Amara has an ongoing conflict with another cadet that’s completely nonsensical, Mako (A wasted Rinko Kikuchi) is also back from the first film but does nothing, and above all, there’s a love triangle between Jake, Nate, and a woman named Jules. Jules (Adria Arjona) is talked about in just about every scene between Jake and Nate, but Jules has maybe a single line of dialogue to herself and probably less than a minute of screen time. I can’t even say that Jules is merely an object to these men because she’s not even that. I can’t consider her a character; she’s basically a non-entity. It’s truly the most baffling part of the movie because we’re supposed to care but we have literally no idea who Jules is.

But all that said, we know why we’re here, right? We’re here to see robots kicking monster ass. That’s what we’re paying for. In Pacific Rim, each battle is meticulously built up. You feel the pressure and anticipation of these massive beasts preparing to clash, and when they do, it’s everything you hoped for because it was earned. It is during these fights that we learn even more about the characters, why they are fighting, how they feel about it, if they’re confident or terrified or both. In Uprising, the action rings hollow every time. The battles aren’t built or hyped up, they simply just begin to happen. The stakes aren’t there. I don’t care whether any of the characters live or die. A couple of deaths that occur are downright laughable. The fight choreography isn’t nearly as interesting or inspired as the first, and neither are the designs of the Jaegers and Kaiju. The characters are given nothing to say during the battles other than yelling the name of the weapon or attack that they’re about to use, which would normally be a ton of fun anywhere else.

Uprising is still, at the very least, far better than most of the Transformers films, which is a franchise that this will constantly be compared to. There are some interesting ideas and concepts introduced that add to the world the first film created, but the problem is that there are simply too many crammed into one single film. The idea of Jaeger / Kaiju hybrids is cool but is dropped by the third act in favor of just another big Kaiju. Charlie Day is easily the best part of the whole thing. He seems to be the only one actually enjoying himself and trying to have some fun. The visual effects remain as impressive as ever and blend in perfectly with the incredible production design, which, through its vibrant colors and lived-in environments (and plenty of practical sets), do a great job of fully immersing you in the world it all takes place in. It also doesn’t hurt that the cast is very diverse, with men and women from all over the globe. But all of this gets bogged down by a lack of motivation from the characters, an unnecessarily convoluted plot, bad attempts at humor that fall flat, and (for the most part) uninspired action. All of the giant robot and monster fights in the world don’t matter if I don’t care about the ones doing the fighting. The editing might be the most glaring problem with this film. Things happen so rapidly and continuously that you’re never given time to stop and reflect or think or spend real time with any of the characters. It’s as if they didn’t trust the audience to have an attention span of more than two minutes. I can’t think of a single shot that lasted longer than five seconds.

The ending of this film is the exact same ending as Independence Day: Resurgence (Don’t get me wrong though, that is a much, much worse film than this). “It’s time we took the fight to them!” Jake confidently declares right before the credits roll. Yeah, that’s not happening. Just like Resurgence, we’re not ever going to see that fight. And it’s a shame. Pacific Rim had a lot of potential as a fun action franchise, but after this, I’d say it’s dead in the water.

2.5/5 Stars

Note: There is a really bizarre sequence in this film that involves the old Trolololo meme. Yes, really.

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