Review: PACIFIC RIM UPRISING Packs a Surprising Punch

Pacific Rim Uprising
Credit: Legendary Pictures
Credit: Legendary Entertainment

Pacific Rim Uprising
Directed by Steven DeKnight
Written by Steven DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin
Starring John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny and Charlie Day
Produced by Legendary Pictures
'Rama Rating: 7 out of 10

It's the sequel that no one asked for. The return of the robots-versus-monsters slugfest whose marketing campaign didn't promise to "cancel the apocalypse," but to instead "get it on till I die." But with the departure of now Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro, is this world really big enough for two Pacific Rim movies?

You might be as surprised as I was when I say this... but yes.

Make no mistake, Pacific Rim Uprising isn't the same animal as its genre-entrenched predecessor. Instead, it's nimble, funnier, lighter on its feet — and in some ways, perhaps an even more watchable and engaging movie than the occasionally self-serious original. While Pacific Rim Uprising loses its momentum thanks to an overrushed third act and a series of convenient plot holes, there's also a lot of corrective measures taken to this sequel, which rests squarely on the charm of two out of its three leads.

Now, if you don't know your jaegers from your kaiju, don't worry — Pacific Rim Uprising sets up all the exposition you'll ever need thanks to a leaden introductory montage recapping the first movie. But this quickly moves onto Uprising's biggest strength: the charisma of Jake Boyega as Jake Pentecost, the son of the legendary hero Stacker Pentecost, who makes his living wheeling and dealing in a palatial mansion that so happens to also be the graveyard of a massive kaiju from the first film. While the original Pacific Rim opened with a striking action sequence as Raleigh Beckett and his brother locked in mortal combat with a killer kaiju, Uprising recognizes that without a likable lead character, none of that spectacle matters — and in so doing, watching Jake sleeping on a jet ski or trading for Oreos and sriracha gives some effective humanization for this roguish scoundrel.

It's the personal, street-level stakes of Uprising's beginnings that wind up buying so much goodwill for the rest of the film, as Jake winds up at cross purposes with Amara Namani, played with enthusiasm and charm by Cailee Spaeny in her first feature film. Amara is a diehard jaeger fan, having built her own home-brewed mech in an abandoned warehouse in case the kaiju ever return. Boyega and Spaeny work wonders with one another, and it's the sibling-style bickering and banter that gives Uprising much of its heart. But after a joyride in Amara's armadillo-esque jaeger Scrapper, the two are inevitably dragged into custody by the police — leading to a subtle but welcome change to the Pacific Rim mythos.

With Jake and Amara forced to enroll in the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, Pacific Rim Uprising's major philosophical differences from its predecessor might be the most striking — whereas the overly serious original film felt more like Top Gun thanks to its gloomy (often one-dimensional) cast, Amara's induction into a youth cadet program almost feels Harry Potter-eseque.

However, this is where Uprising also starts to lose its momentum — while Boyega and Spaeny are great, the rest of the supporting cast struggles to catch up. While their inclusion to the plot becomes more important as the story goes on, Amara's young squadmates in the cadet program feel both underdeveloped and overly earnest, while Adria Arjona is barely a prop as the vaguely hinted but quickly discarded love interest Jules Reyes. The biggest letdown, however, is also the most predictable one, as Scott Eastwood brings little magnetism or intensity to his stoic and straight-laced Nate Lambert — it's hard to call him a foil to Jake, because the script itself doesn't offer a lot of conflict between the two characters.

But that all said, there's some surprising twists and turns to Uprising that I think builds upon the world of the original Pacific Rim and then flips the rules of the world around nicely. For a war that seemed pretty black-and-white in the first film, Uprising plays a lot with shades of gray — a rogue jaeger called Obsidian Fury proves to be a striking first antagonist to let Jake and Nate shake off the rust with one another, while there's a superb reveal to the villains in this second installment that further muddies the battleground and gives the kaiju an important element to connect with them as an invading force. (Even the return of Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori brings a surprising, if likely polarizing, twist.)

Yet while the first half of Pacific Rim Uprising feels loaded with likability and potential, you can't help but feel like it starts to lose its punchiness by the film's second half. Some of this is due to some fairly gaping plot holes in Steven DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin's script — every time the jaeger program seems utterly doomed, they're saved in the nick of time thanks to a convenient fix or a bad guy suddenly deciding to overcomplicate their plans. (One sequence featuring a seemingly endless horde of Ripper robots feels like game over for Jake and company, but they wind up somehow lessening the odds for the pilots.) Even the finale, featuring a do-or-die gambit on the summit of Mount Fuji, feels convenient — especially when a minor side character is suddenly elevated to being the most competent character in the entire film.

But perhaps more telling is that while Jake and Amara in particular are given winning characterizations, they only get to experience the most superficial elements of an arc — sure, they each wind up replacing the family the other one has lost, but it's hardly the kind of emotional catharsis we'd expect of the son of a legendary jaeger pilot coming to terms with his lost father or any of the friends he's lost along the way. In general, there are no scenes that have that same weight as Beckett losing his brother, Mako seeing her jaeger-driving savior, or Stacker having his last stand at the bottom of the ocean — and the scenes where Uprising tries to emulate its predecessor are some of the most disappointing and awkward moments of the film. (No one is ever going to rally around "This is our time" as a slogan. It's just not going to happen.) With Boyega and Spaeny's quips, one might argue this is the Disneyfication of Pacific Rim — and while this film doesn't drag in the same places as its predecessor, it also means it never quite hits as hard.

I mention the marketing campaign of Pacific Rim Uprising not as an unnecessary sideswipe, but to examine the idea of expectations upon this film, the little would-be franchise that could. In many ways, the marketing of this film will likely make and break the film — while there will be plenty of people who won't even bother seeing Pacific Rim Uprising thanks to its try-hard marketing, there will be others who come with a deeply depressed bar... which you'll likely be as surprised as I was when the film handily vaults over it. There are certainly flaws to Uprising, particularly in terms of its secondary characters and its emotional payoff at the end, but this movie also moves at a breakneck pace, never overstaying its welcome as it embraces its pulp and sci-fi roots. Some critics might call Pacific Rim Uprising dumb or impersonal, but I would strongly disagree — I think this film actually brings a lightness and humor to its source material, evoking an unserious charm that isn't too dissimilar from the first Star Wars. While it's unlikely this Uprising will last long in the face of heavy hitters like Ready Player One and Avengers: Infinity War, this is a Pacific Rim that, like its jaeger underdogs, punches surprisingly out of its weight class.

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