Review: ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ is Down for the Count

The second fight between the Jaegers and Kaiju lacks a certain punch in this long-awaited sequel to Pacific Rim. 

RATING: ★★ (out of four stars)

Guillermo Del Toro’s love for monsters and fantasy throughout his career finally paid off last month as his fantasy-romance The Shape of Water won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as an Oscar for himself as Best Director. His passion for monsters of every type has been made apparent in every film he’s directed, from his fantasy dramas and blockbusters, one of the most recent of those being 2013’s Pacific Rim, which did possess stock characters and mediocre lead performances that were redeemed by a visual style that evoked the look of an anime brought to life in live-action, creative worldbuilding, stellar special effects, and entertaining fight sequences that pitted robot mechas known as Jaegers against giant Japanese kaiju monsters. The film couldn’t make a profit at the domestic box office, but that was more than made up for by its overseas intake, particularly from the growing Asian film markets. Universal and Legendary Pictures is hoping for similar success from this sequel, which has former Daredevil showrunner Steven DeKnight in the director’s chair while Del Toro serves as a producer. Sadly, Pacific Rim: Uprising is another case of a franchise losing its soul once its out of the hands of the minds behind it.

Uprising follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film, who gets by scavenging for and selling remnants of deactivated Jaegers while living a carefree life of partying in a section of the West Coast ravaged by destruction at the hands of the kaiju, who have been absent for ten years up to this point. But after an altercation with the Jaeger-enthusiast, builder and pilot Arama Namari (Cailee Spaeny), the two scrappy mercenaries are assigned to instruct incoming recruits for the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps in Hong Kong, where Jaegers are housed in the event of another interdimensional invasion from the kaiju. But while the cadets go through their training, the massive Shao Corporation, led by Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) and Newt Geizler (Charlie Day, reprising his role from the first movie) offer the military base a unit of Jaegers piloted by robot drones rather than humans, but the Corps is skeptical of their reliability. Sure enough, a breach begins in the form of a Jaeger gone rogue, and while the military heads and corporate leaders try to comprehend their next step, it’s up to the ragtag team of young Jaeger pilots led by Pentecost and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) to save the world from mass destruction.

A movie’s success as a sequel is contingent with how much it sets itself apart from its predecessor while taking the elements that made it great and improving upon them. Uprising aims to do so with a campier tone than the first film, but fails thanks to a story that breezes over its razor-thin character development so fast that the audience has no reason to invest in its group of characters. Boyega is the lone bright spot in the cast, as he makes the most of the material he’s given by delivering Jake’s snark and quips with his infectious charisma, going so far as to even play Scott Eastwood better than Eastwood himself in a scene where Pentecost does an impression of his character. Opposite him, Eastwood does nothing for the film’s runtime but bark orders and replicate his father’s scowl, while the remainder of the ensemble consists of obnoxious teenagers that deliver flat, cringeworthy banter while being devoid of both personality and range of facial expressions.

Pacific Rim: Uprising also fails thanks to lazy writing and even lazier direction. While the first film had a unique visual style with a moody atmosphere complemented by the vibrant colors of its Asian metropolitan setting, Uprising elects to set the majority of its action sequences in broad daylight, rendering them bland and uninteresting to look at, and even fills them to the brim with tired slow motion effects and speed ramps that plague the action movies of today. They’re almost redeemed by the impressive visual effects and the cinematography of the action sequences, where enough room is given for the robots and monsters to fight each other in dynamic wide shots. With that, one would think given how fast the film breezes through its limp, soulless story that it’s aiming to be all about the fight scenes and nothing more, but despite an immersive sound design, the Jaegers do nothing we haven’t seen before but dual wield chainsaw swords for the first two-thirds of its action sequences, and even that’s been showcased in all the advertising up to this point. It’s worth noting that Uprising even lacks the cosmic scale of the first one, because there’s so many plot threads and story elements going on at once, that even the kaiju feel like less of a threat this time around.

The first Pacific Rim may have been dumb fun, but there was at least effort put into telling a good story and creating a sense of cosmic awe, fear and wonder through its anime-influenced visual style, breathtaking special effects and fun action sequences. The CGI and sound design may look and sound good respectively in this sequel, but those elements are wasted in repetitive and boring fight scenes with no suspense or mood, and involve characters it doesn’t allow its audience to care about. Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t an offensively bad blockbuster, but it’s taken the heart and soul of its predecessor and processed it into a soulless, by-the-numbers cashgrab, and there will be enough of those in the coming weeks to go around. But right now, Tomb Raider is holding up well in retrospect, and even The Hurricane Heist is dumb fun done right, or you could revisit the original Pacific Rim. Anything is better than this disappointment of a sequel.