Review: Legendary's 'Pacific Rim: Uprising' is a Blast from the Breach
by Adam Frazier
March 25, 2018
In Guillermo del Toro's 2013 movie, Pacific Rim, a dimensional rift opened at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and through it emerged Kaiju, giant monsters engineered by the alien Precursors to move between dimensions and terraform planets. The Kaiju unleashed their fury on cities along the Pacific Rim and proved virtually unstoppable with conventional weapons. Gigantic humanoid mechas called Jaegers — piloted by humans connected via a neural bridge — were engineered to fight back. Jaeger Gipsy Danger, piloted by Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori, successfully closed the rift by detonating a bomb, aided by legendary Jaeger Marshal Stacker Pentecost, who gave his life to ensure the success of the mission. Ten years after the Battle of the Breach, the oceans have become restless once again. Enter Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel directed by Steven S. DeKnight (Marvel's "Daredevil") and starring John Boyega as Pentecost's son.
A once-promising Jaeger pilot, the rebellious Jake Pentecost (Boyega) left behind the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) for a lucrative career as a black market scavenger for Jaeger tech. While trying to steal a highly valuable tertiary plasma capacitator, Pentecost is apprehended by the PPDC and brought before his estranged sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mori offers to have his charges dropped under one condition: that he trains the next generation of Jaeger pilots at the Shatterdome in China alongside his former co-pilot, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). One of those young cadets is Amara Namani (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), an orphan of the Kaiju War who built her own Jaeger: Scrapper. Both Amara and Jake are strong-willed and self-sufficient, and while they tend to pull away from others, their many similarities lead them to form a bond — one that makes them drift compatible. As the cadets' formal training begins, an unstoppable new threat is unleashed by the Precursors, and PPDC command is destroyed, leaving Jake and his squad of rookies as the planet's last line of defense against extinction.
A spirited love letter to Japanese manga and anime, including Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Kaiju movies like Godzilla vs. Megalon and Destroy All Monsters, Pacific Rim Uprising honors the universe Guillermo del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beachem created while allowing it to grow and evolve. As much as I love the first movie, it has its issues. First, Charlie Hunnam's underwhelming turn as the lead character, Raleigh Becket. Whether it's Hunnam's performance or Beachem's writing, the role can't carry the emotional weight of the storytelling. You invest more in supporting characters like Mori, Pentecost, and Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau because it's nearly impossible to care about Becket. That is not the case with DeKnight's sequel. John Boyega shines as a magnetic leading man, more than capable of carrying the Pacific Rim franchise forward. And what I love most about his performance here is that it isn't just a rehash of his Star Wars character, Finn. Ironically, Boyega's Jake Pentecost is an amalgam of his The Force Awakens counterparts, Han Solo and Rey — part-scoundrel, part-scavenger.
Another issue of the first movie rectified in the sequel is the staging of big, dynamic action set pieces. As dazzling as the special effects are in del Toro's original, many of the fantastic Jaeger and Kaiju designs are obscured by darkness as 90% of the movie's action sequences take place at night. And while the scope of the first film is huge, you never really get an opportunity to be in awe of it, simply because there aren't many wide shots that let you appreciate the scale of these enormous monsters and mechas as they hurl each other through skyscrapers. The action isn't as incoherent as a Transformers movie, but it's far from the epic grandeur of the final battle in Gareth Edward's Godzilla. Here, DeKnight, fight coordinator Liang Yang, and cinematographer Dan Mindel (of Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens) stage some beautiful, sweeping fight scenes in broad daylight, allowing the audience to take in the Jaegers and Kaiju as actual characters, not just pixels smashing into each other.
Perhaps my favorite thing about Uprising is the introduction of Cailee Spaeny's character, Amara. She's Newt from Aliens, John Connor from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Lex from Jurassic Park all rolled up into one fiery persona — a resilient survivor with a mind for engineering who will no doubt inspire countless young girls. Her Jaeger, the 40-foot-tall Scrapper, is an adorable mini-mecha that feels inspired by Wall-E and Batteries Not Included. Due to its smaller size (compared to the 300-foot-tall, 200-ton Jaegers), Scrapper can interact with environments and Kaiju in different ways than we've seen before. It can also curl up into a ball and roll fast to dodge attacks or debris, which makes for a few fun moments. While Boyega and Spaeny are no doubt the highlights of DeKnight's movie, Scott Eastwood is one of the low points, as his role doesn't add much at all to the proceedings. He's essentially a substitute for Charlie Hunnam as the franchise's Least Interesting White Guy™. Other newcomers to the series include Jing Tian (Kong: Skull Island) as Shao Liwen, head of a rival drone Jaeger program, and Max Zhang as Marshal Quan, the PPDC's laser-focused leader.
Another low point is the underuse of Kikuchi's Mako Mori. The fan favorite gets shortchanged here, and little is said about what happened between her and Becket in the ten years since the first movie. Also reprising their roles from Pacific Rim are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as Dr. Hermann Gottlieb and Dr. Newt Geiszler, respectively, brilliant (and super-weird) scientists on the frontlines of Kaiju defense. Day seems to be operating somewhere in between Bobcat Goldthwait and Paul Reiser as a kooky corporate shill, and his subplot is by far one of the most unusual parts of a movie filled with giant robots, massive monsters, and interdimensional alien overlords.
The core of the story in Uprising, conceived by a writers room consisting of Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, DeKnight, and T.S. Nowlin, is that anybody can make a difference. What's so cool about this universe is how the world came together to fight a global threat, so much so that all the races and religions of Earth have put aside their differences to work together, and the cast assembled by casting director Sarah Halley Finn reflects that ethos. This is a film co-written by women that, like A Wrinkle in Time, champions the idea that young girls can be scientists, engineers, and monster-punching badasses. Like gender, skin color isn't an issue in the future of Pacific Rim — no one bats an eyelash at the thought that people of all ethnicities and backgrounds can be a family. It's an inspiring, hopeful idea and the perfect escape from a reality in which the world becomes more and more divided every day.
Overall, I had an absolute blast with Pacific Rim: Uprising. It's missing del Toro's unique sensibilities but makes up for the lack of originality with state-of-the-art spectacle, great performances from Boyega and Spaeny, and unabashed enthusiasm for the subject matter. I hope this movie makes enough at the box office to warrant a third entry because I would love to see where DeKnight and Boyega (who also serves as a producer on the film) take it next. Uprising won't convert those that didn't connect with the first film, but monster movie fans will undoubtedly get their money's worth. The quality of the filmmaking isn't as strong as its predecessor but DeKnight's blockbuster sequel just might be more fun in the end.
Adam's Rating: 3 out of 5
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