Pacific Rim Uprising is All Flash, No Substance

I never thought I would see a sequel to Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 monsters vs. robots epic. The movie cost a ton of money to make and met with a mixed critical reception and underwhelming box office numbers, making a sequel unlikely. But five years later, here we are, and a sequel is in theaters. And it’s…just okay.

I loved the first movie. A lot of people out there didn’t seem to like it, which is baffling to me because I enjoyed the hell out of it, and still do. It’s better than all five Transformers movies put together.

The first film had a sense of immediacy to it that made the story compelling. Mankind was on the brink of extinction, and the sense of imminent doom gave the movie dramatic heft because there was always something at stake. I also liked the characters and cared about what happened to them.
Neither of these are the case with the sequel.

Images: Universal Pictures/Legendary Pictures

The movie spends a long time spinning its wheels before the inevitable return of the kaiju, the building-sized monstrosities that were seemingly defeated in the first film. The plot of the sequel feels inconsequential, and there were several aspects of it that, as I drove home after the movie, I realized made absolutely no sense.

It’s no spoiler to say that the kaiju return in the sequel, since if they didn’t there would be no movie. But the way the writers engineered the reemergence of the great beasties was…kind of stupid. There were several moments as I watched the movie where I thought to myself, really? That’s how they chose to do it? It sounds weird to say that a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots jumped the shark, but it’s true. Pacific Rim Uprising jumps the shark in a major way.

I also didn’t care about the characters. The protagonist of the new film is Jake Pentecost, son of Stacker Pentecost, Idris Elba’s character from the first film, who famously cancelled the apocalypse.

I didn’t like Jake Pentecost.

He’s a stuck-up, obnoxious jackass. Pacific Rim Uprising suffers from what I like to call Jurassic World Syndrome, which is when characters in a movie repeatedly talk about how cool they are. Jake is so full of himself that he talks multiple times about how sexy he is. I’m not joking, he calls himself sexy on more than one occasion. It’s the worst. I really liked Raleigh Beckett, Charlie Hunnam’s protagonist in the first movie, but the protagonist of the second movie is a cocky jerk.

Jake is played by John Boyega, who is not a bad actor and looks and sounds quite a bit like Idris Elba, so I could buy him as the son of Elba’s character. But his character is badly written and not very likable. The supporting characters are more likable but not much more memorable. One of the other main characters is Jake’s friend who is played by Scott (son of Clint) Eastwood, who has his dad’s jawline but none of his screen presence. I don’t even remember his character’s name, I think it was Nate something. He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread stuck to a beige wall. He’s a black hole of charisma.

One of the only returning characters from the first movie is Mako Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi, and she’s barely in the movie. Only a few mentions are made of Charlie Hunnam’s character, and no reasons are given for his absence. Returning from the first movie are uber-nerds Dr. Herman Gottlieb and Newton Geiszler, who are quirky but not as funny or likable as they were previously.

Uprising was directed by Stephen S. DeKnight, whose background is mostly in television. This is his big-screen directorial debut, and the results are decidedly mixed. I’m a fan of some of DeKnight’s TV series, such as Starz’ Spartacus and Netflix’s Daredevil, but his direction of Pacific Rim Uprising is just okay. He does good work with the action sequences and special effects but the plot is crummy and the characters are boring. He also doesn’t have a great sense of spatial awareness, since during the film’s lengthy final battle I had a hard time keeping track of where the various robots were in relation to each other, and which characters were piloting which robot.

The movie does look good. The special effects are great and I liked the designs of the robots and monsters, and the city-destroying climactic battle is pretty fun, spatial awareness issues aside. The final battle takes place in Tokyo, which has been destroyed in countless Godzilla movies, and at one point three kaiju form together to create a MEGA KAIJU, which made my inner 12-year-old happy. But unlike the first movie, the special effects are all the new movie really has going for it. There’s no substance underneath and no reason to care about the people piloting the enormous ‘bots.

Pacific Rim Uprising is ultimately a disappointment. Its ending sets the stage for future sequels, but it’s hard to get excited about the prospect. Maybe I shouldn’t complain too much, since I went into the movie expecting some serious robot-on-monster action, and in that respect I was satisfied. But the unlikable protagonist, lack of characterization, and slow, nonsensical plot drag it down. The movie as a whole feels more commercialized and less personal than Del Toro’s original. It’s still better than most of the Transformers movies, and doesn’t have the unfunny racial humor and weird sexism that characterize those movies. In that sense at least it would make a better entertainment to take your kids to, but the lack of substance is just too bad.

Ah, well. Only about a month until Avengers: Infinity War!!

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