Guillermo del Toro’s titanic action film, Pacific Rim, was a surprising success in 2013: an effects-heavy mechs vs kaiju bout that embodied the directors’ passion for all that is larger-than-life and geeky to a delicious fault. What’s more surprising is how it has taken until this year to produce a sequel, with its concept seemingly rich in potential for future follow-ups. But Pacific Rim: Uprising has arrived nevertheless, with a new lead actor in the form of the charismatic John Boyega and a fresh pair of directorial eyes, courtesy of Netflix’s Daredevil producer Steven S. DeKnight. Does it do justice to del Toro’s inventively action-packed original? Or does it signal a systems failure for debut feature director DeKnight? Well, the answer is neither. But that doesn’t mean that the film isn’t worth your time: Pacific Rim: Uprising is textbook popcorn fun.
Following on from the events of the first film, Boyega stars as Jake Pentecost, raucously rebellious son of revered Jaeger pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), whose self-sacrifice to protect the world from the apocalyptic onslaught brought about by monstrous creatures known as ‘Kaiju’, has put the Pentecost name on a pedestal that Jake has neglected to reclaim. As a pilot himself once, it was Jake’s duty to take the cognitive wheel of the mechanical beasts dubbed as ‘Jaegers’, huge machines built to meet and match Kaiju on the frontline. However, his fear of failing to live up to his father’s name leads him astray, wheeling and dealing on the black market in order to get by.
But, of course, this being a big-budget blockbuster, things go awry: Kaiju are threatening to resurface and a rogue Jaeger poses as a hazard to civilian lives. So in a classically American manner, Jake is tasked with rising up from the ashes as the hero to lead a new batch of Jaeger pilots into battle. This emphasis on the film’s ‘American’ qualities is important, as it embodies the major difference between this film and its predecessor. While del Toro took clear inspiration from Japanese properties such as Saban’s Power Rangers and Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Gundam, DeKnight transmutes those into a popcorn action picture that resembles the patriotic, feel-good thrills of Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day. As such, it lacks the passion of del Toro’s ode to those products that he clearly cherishes. Yet it delivers its own nostalgic, formulaic pleasures, playing it safe in a satisfying way.
Firstly, its action teeters on the edge of the absurd, but never strays into eye-rolling territory. Some earlier sequences ramp up the tension, but its third act dispenses the excessively destructive combat that you came for. What can only be described as the artificial A-Team, Jake’s assembled team of Jaegers are imaginatively designed, contrasted effectively with the grotesque forms that the Kaiju take: their arduous conflict through the streets of Japan is relentless, a propulsive burst of energy that proves to be the highlight of the film.
But often with a film such as this, one finds clichéd dialogue in tow, and Pacific Rim: Uprising distributes a hefty dose of it across its runtime. As with Emmerich’s Independence Day, DeKnight’s film relies on uplifting monologues and expository jargon to get its point across: like a blunt iron fist to the face, there’s no subtlety to expose here, as the movie is more than ready to settle for stock narrative scenarios and stereotypes. There’s nothing inherently disappointing about this approach: for example, Roar Uthaug’s recent Tomb Raider reboot successfully appropriated these formulas for a fun time at the cinema. It just suffers with the loss of audience care and attention. Without a fresh and sentimentally stimulating perspective like Lara’s in Tomb Raider, Jake and co.’s journey is exactly what you’d expect, so any emotional investment is unlikely.
Boyega does a good job of at least instigating a connection with the audience, clearly emulating George Lucas’ synonymous scoundrel, Han Solo. With a snarky demeanour and determined spirit, Jake is the walking, talking definition of a nonconformist hero and Boyega chews up every moment of it: his comedic chops prove invaluable in a film that too often takes itself seriously. The same cannot be said for the supplementary cast. Charlie Day is confusingly allocated a role akin to that of Burke in Aliens. But without the corrupting charm of Paul Reiser, Day instead offers a paradoxically upbeat performance that undermines the sinister undertones of the role. Furthermore, Japanese/Chinese actresses Rinko Kikuchi and Jing Tian barely register in their limited roles: the film’s Asian presence is sadly limited, for a franchise so heavily indebted to its culture.
But in spite of these flaws, it’s still an enjoyable escapade. Boyega carries the film, one that provides all of the surplus destruction and robot vs. monster action that you will indisputably expect upon entering your respective film screening. Sure, its script is weak and some of its performances a little wooden. But Pacific Rim: Uprising is still worth a trip to the pictures: much like the steel-limbed Jaegers at its heart, the film is formulaically mechanical but actively eye-catching and visually appealing. Less Toho and more 90’s disaster flick, there’s no political allegory to be found here: just a good-ol’ fashioned romp with enough visual tics and tricks to keep you engaged until its commendable conclusion.