The original Pacific Rim was an absurd, goofy and dumb action movie about robots punching monsters in the face. Despite this ridiculous premise, the movie turned out to be a cut-above your standard blockbuster trash. The spectacle of huge monsters smacking each other around was counterbalanced with characters and developments that gave the film a hell of a lot of heart. Who could forget the likable personas of Mako Mori, Stacker Pentecost, Newton Geiszler or Hermann Gottlieb? Somehow, against all odds, a movie about punching monsters in the face turned out better than it had any right to be.
Pacific Rim: Uprising feels like a direct response to the success of the original. Instead of relying on the seemingly irreplaceable heroes of the original film, Uprising brings on a mostly original cast of characters to fill their void. Instead of trying to one-up the last film, it goes in an entirely new direction with its plot, themes, and characters. It expands on the universe of the original. It introduces an internal struggle and a hidden villain. Uprising, if anything, is trying to be different, while recapturing the feeling of the original.
In terms of the action, it succeeds. But, where’s the heart?
Pacific Rim: Uprising
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Pacific Rim: Uprising follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the now deceased Stacker Pentecost who cancelled the apocalypse in the first movie. Jake is a reluctant hero, but he eventually finds himself at the center of a conflict involving the rogue Jaeger Obsidian Fury, and an army of remote-controlled Jaegers that aim to get rid of the pilots once and for all. It’s a plot that you’ve probably seen before, but that isn’t really the reason why we’re here anyways. Pacific Rim has always been about towering monsters and the characters inside them, and not necessarily the plot.
The action is, thankfully, great. It wouldn’t be much of a blockbuster if it wasn’t, right? Much like the first movie, it consists of each Jaeger fighting with their special abilities, like Gypsy Danger’s plasma cannon. However, more often than not, our heroes like to duke it out in a manner similar to a bar fight. Start with punches, throw ‘em around a bit, and then fight dirty with whatever objects are in the area to bring down those damn Kaiju. If you’re looking for more large-scale, silly destruction it’s here, and it’s good, bucko.
However, what made the original great (for a big dumb action movie, let me be clear) is the connective tissue that held the flesh together, and allowed it to really stretch. I love the action scenes from the original, but the moments between Mori and Pentecost, or one of several charming conversations between Newt and Hermann were what made me care about the movie. The stakes were high because, hey, I like these people! They have ambitions, clashing personalities, and interesting arcs that transform them over the course of the film.
Pacific Rim: Uprising has very little of that. Jake Pentecost is a flat, uninteresting protagonist that starts out as a dick, and finishes as your bog-standard hero. It’s terribly uninteresting, but man, does John Boyega try his best to bring the character to life. Second to Pentecost, there’s Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who does actually have a likable, somewhat interesting persona. She’s a Jaeger-scavenger and engineer who constructed her own mini-Jaeger to protect herself if those damn Kaiju ever come back (they do.) She seems like a promising character, until the plot suddenly gets in the way of any character development she was undergoing.
Unfortunately, Pacific Rim: Uprising does this to all of the characters, except for one. There are several scenes peppered in here and there that introduce young Jaeger pilots working alongside Amara as cadets. These characters are funny, a bit unique, and are memorable enough to justify expanding on. They’re ripe for development, but the movie forgets to do so over the entire runtime. After their introduction, they’re given a few lines of sparse dialogue to develop some internal tension and struggle, but we never get to know any of them – and they’re the ones who end up saving the world. It might not have been so bad if there were at least some main characters that lifted the weight for them. But Jake Pentecost can’t do it, and Amara can’t because she wasn’t given the time.
Now, I’m going to get a little bit angry here for a second. What they did with the characters from the original film is absolutely atrocious. Newt is now, for some reason, a douchy businessman managing a bunch of scientists. Mako, the brightest and most kickass character from the first film, is pushed to the sidelines for the entire movie. Hermann is still Hermann, but he was always one half of a duo – and he isn’t enough on his own. One change in particular – and I won’t say what, or who it happens to – broke my suspension of disbelief so hard I audibly cringed in the theater. I won’t say anymore. If you want to see Uprising, go right ahead, but be warned of how it treats its returning cast members.
What else is there about Pacific Rim: Uprising? I don’t know. The effects are great. There’s a lot of detail put into the Kaiju and the Jaeger models, and even though this is a CGI heavy movie, most of it isn’t distracting or clearly fake. Most of it looks pretty good. The acting is fine, the soundtrack is fine, the action is great, the characters are bad.
Ultimately, what makes robots punching monsters in the face fun is not merely the act in and of itself. It’s the people, inside the robot, punching the monster in the face the gives each blow weight, and each laughable plot point forgiveness. Unfortunately, Pacific Rim: Uprising can’t provide this. At best it offers a Saturday morning cartoon level of character development. But we don’t want caricatures piloting the titans to cancel the apocalypse – we want hot-blooded, developed characters. Uprising, for all its emphasis on becoming the start of something new, can’t deliver.