A good sequel is a marked improvement on the original. Maybe it’s bigger and bolder, pushing the boundaries of the things that made the previous entry successful. It might deepen its internal mythology or twist expectations of the narrative we’ve come to know. The only thing that the pointless Pacific Rim: Uprising does better than predecessor? It’s 20 minutes shorter.
The…ahem, “story”…once again involves humanity using massive robots called Jaegers to defeat alien monsters from the deep called kaiju. Set 10 years after the end of the first film, we reluctantly focus on former Jaeger pilot Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), who’s father Stacker sacrificed himself to end the Kaiju War. Jake makes a living selling Jaeger parts on the black market, and after his most recent run-in with the law is given a choice: prison or re-enlistment into the Jaeger program along with his accomplice, a mechanical prodigy named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). Then some stuff happens.
To be clear, this film has no plot as much as it has an endless parade of unadorned tropes and cliches lazily connected by a story so thin as to be invisible. To even call it a plot is almost like an insult to the very nature of the word. Pacific Rim: Uprising exists only to provide a shaky framework for some exciting robots vs. aliens fights, a seemingly simple promise that it only barely manages to deliver on.
With its overfull cast of one-note characters and focus on shoddy world-building, Uprising plays much more like the pilot for a Netflix TV series than it does a feature film. This might be due to the fact that director/co-writer Steven S. DeKnight (as well as two of the other three writers) have only ever worked in television. To say that DeKnight is out of his depth is a gross understatement. His sense of structure, pacing, and even basic visual design only occasionally rise to the level of competent. Guillermo del Toro may not have brought his A-game to the original film, but at least he injected it with a sense of devotion, creativity, and genuine adolescent wonder. DeKnight is content to just throw stuff on the screen in the most mercenary way possible.
DeKnight’s biggest problem isn’t necessarily his film’s shambling specter of a plot or unoriginal fight scenes. What truly makes the film sink like a stone is its delusional belief that the film is not about robots but about the people who make the robots go. There’s barely a character with anything beyond a rough outline of a profile, there are way too many of them to get attached to, and the ones we do learn about have the most predictable and unsatisfying character arcs possible. Aside from one character who’s set up as an antagonist but turns out just to be a [term for an unpleasant person], nothing that happens on screen comes as a surprise.
But what about those fight scenes? Well…they exist. They’re fine. Mostly. There’s nothing terribly wrong with the fight scenes, even if some of them drag out a bit too long and play like a super high-budget version of a Power Rangers battle, complete with a cackling off-screen villain. There’s nothing at all innovative about the fights, but they do their job within the parameters expected.
One of the main things keeping them from being truly exciting is the fact that the CGI hasn’t significantly improved over the first film’s, highlighted all the more by DeKnight’s questionable decision to set all the fight scenes in daylight instead of the rain-and-darkness backdrops of the original. The other hindrance is the design of the fighters involved. The robots look and move less like lumbering machines than they do Olympic athletes, far too sleek and fluid. The kaiju are all horns and eyes, with none of the personality, vague Lovecraftian allusions, or terrifying primal intelligence of the beasts from the first film.
And speaking of lack of personality. That cast. Hoo boy.
Virtually none of the new cast makes an impression of any kind, and that includes ostensible lead John Boyega, who has neither the charisma or ability to head an ensemble of this size. To be fair, Boyega is not a bad actor, and he is quite charming, but he is incapable of transcending the material and actually seems to give up trying halfway through. His Jaeger co-pilot and rival, played by Scott “son of Clint” Eastwood, does no better but at least is more consistent in his attempt to make an effort. The closest thing we get to an endearing character is Cailee Spaney’s plucky teenage spitfire Amara, but even then, the kit-bashed mini-Jaeger that Amara constructs has more depth than she does.
The few members of the original cast making a return don’t do much better, their parts coming off as written by a fan fiction writer with more passion than talent. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance reeks of contractual obligation, and she barely hides her disdain for the material. Charlie Day is on complete autopilot, his psycho/funny schtick becoming immediately exhausting after his first scene. Only Burn Gorman, playing scientist Hermann Gottlieb, comes close to giving a fully-invested performance, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dull and uninspired cast. The only cast member who takes their role more seriously is Chinese actress Jing Tian as a mysterious corporate executive, who approaches her role with a gravity and dedication that the film never deserves.
There seems to be no good for reason for Pacific Rim: Uprising to be a thing, and indeed, the film was only rescued from development hell by the Chinese investors who purchased Legendary Pictures in 2016. Even the film itself seems to acknowledge this, barely making an argument for its own existence. It in no way improves on its predecessor, and it does nothing at all within the framework of the mecha genre to distinguish itself from anything that came before it. Even by the standards of escapist cinema, it’s tedious, flat, and relentlessly dumb. Maybe next time, we should just let the kaiju win.
FBOTU Score: 3 out of 10 / D+