Home » At the Multiplex » Pacific Rim: Uprising
         

Pacific Rim: Uprising

For those just tuning in, I love Pacific Rim. After a childhood of growing up with Power Rangers, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and whatever Gundam shows were airing on Toonami, I ate up everything that the movie had to offer and came back asking for seconds. The good news is that after five years of waiting, we finally got seconds. The bad news is that the franchise would be moving forward without Guillermo del Toro or Travis Beacham, the architects of this massive universe. And if you’ve seen the Pacific Rim wiki that documents the impressive depth of backstory and extended universe material that spun out from just the one movie, you’d know that this is in fact a massive universe.

Taking the reins is director/co-writer Steven S. DeKnight, here making his cinematic debut after a career in television. The good news is that his TV resume has an impressive collection of genre shows — before his wildly successful Netflix reboot of Marvel’s “Daredevil”, he was involved with “Smallville”, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Angel”, “Dollhouse”, and… um, “Viva Laughlin”. Whatever.

Anyway, DeKnight was given the keys to Pacific Rim: Uprising, tasked with sating the fans’ appetites for more CGI mecha/monster mayhem. And while the sequel more or less delivers everything we were promised in a Pacific Rim sequel, there’s still the inescapable feeling that something is missing.

Let’s start with the basics: All the way back in 2013, when Pacific Rim was still fresh in everyone’s minds and GDT was still involved with the project, he promised us three things: We were promised a new and improved Gipsy Danger, we were promised kaiju/jaeger hybrids, and we were promised that the sequel would follow-up on the repercussions of Drs. Gottlieb and Geiszler drifting with a kaiju brain. Bingo bango bongo, all three are here and accounted for. We’ve also got the kickass original Ramin Djawadi theme back in full effect, which was right at the top of my wish list.

Additionally, a common complaint regarding the first movie is that the kaiju showdowns uniformly took place at night in the pouring rain, and typically while the robots were knee-high in the ocean. While we weren’t exactly promised a remedy to that, I’m glad to report that the battles are all clearly visible in daylight and there is definitely a greater variety of battlefields. Unfortunately, while the first movie put a clear emphasis on minimizing collateral damage (hence the constant references to the Miracle Mile), this movie’s climax sees a jaeger trying to stop a kaiju by deliberately throwing buildings at it.

On a similar note, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps has apparently forgotten over the course of ten years that kaiju blood is highly toxic. This is why, in the original film, jaegers were equipped with heated blades and plasma weapons that would cauterize wounds and minimize the spill of kaiju blue. I’m pretty sure the giant fucking spiked mace on Titan Redeemer would achieve the exact opposite effect.

Oh, and speaking of weapons that make no sense, Gipsy Avenger (definitely a way cooler name than “Gipsy Danger 2.0”) is equipped with an honest-to-goddamn gravity gun. While this isn’t necessarily problematic, it’s definitely questionable. I also miss the wings and the high collar that were put on Gipsy Danger as a means of protecting the head — in the original film, the jaegers all had such functional little quirks that hinted at a deeper universe with its own logic shaped by the kaiju invasion. Compare that to the sequel’s mechs — while they’re all undeniably cool, they all have designs that are much more streamlined and therefore don’t have as much character. The one exception being Scrapper — more on that later.

Then again, the jaeger fleet of the first movie was an assortment pulled from various generations while all the mechs on display here were built within the past ten years. And that’s a serious drawback of the time jump. In the first movie, humanity had been at war with the kaiju for so long that everything had been visibly worn down from overuse. In this movie, we’re only ten years into a whole new post-war era, so pretty much all of the buildings and tech are brand new. The world of the first movie had a distinctly lived-in feel that the sequel doesn’t, which is pretty ironic if you think about it.

And what of the returning players? Well, Hannibal Chau is nowhere to be seen — I assume Ron Perlman left with his pal Guillermo. Charlie Hunnam’s character only gets a passing mention, but do you miss him? Didn’t think so. Mako Mori, Dr. Newton Geiszler, and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (respectively played once again by Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman) are all prominent supporting characters, and the filmmakers’ choices with them are… um, bold? Yeah, bold. Let’s go with that.

Easily the most pivotal returning character, however, is the one who never appears in person at all: Stacker Pentecost, played in the previous movie by Idris Elba. Our de facto protagonist is his son (Jake Pentecost, played by John Boyega), a PPDC academy washout who’s spent the past decade as a thieving and partying street rat. Apparently, Jake was such an upstart hotshot and Stacker was so bad at doing his job while also being a father that the two of them drove each other apart. Thinking back to the first movie, how Stacker reacted to upstart hotshot Raleigh Becket and his surrogate daughter Mako Mori, I’ll admit that it checks out. But Mako Mori with a surrogate little brother through the whole first movie? No, that doesn’t track.

Anyway, what really matters is that Jake doesn’t have any more dimension than Raleigh did. Swap the “dead brother” issues for “dead daddy” issues, and that’s about it. But what makes all the difference is that John Boyega has more acting talent in one eyebrow than Charlie Hunnam does in his entire cardboard face. In Boyega’s hands, the character became something like a mix between his characters in Star Wars VII and Attack the Block — it may be thin, but it’s where Boyega’s most comfortable and it’s great to see him play it.

Then we have Scott Eastwood in the role of Nate Lambert. We know that Jake and Nate used to be jaeger co-pilots before some kind of falling-out, but their relationship is pathetically ill-defined. I think the filmmakers were going for a sort of friendly rivalry, such that the two of them are willing to let bygones be bygones for the sake of a greater threat. Unfortunately, Eastwood simply doesn’t have the talent or the chemistry with Boyega to make such a complicated and multi-layered interplay work. Even on his own merit as a career soldier, Nate is just boring. Eastwood simply didn’t have the talent to deliver anything above “mediocre”, and that’s nowhere near good enough to stand with our protagonist as an equal partner-in-arms.

Elsewhere, we have Amara Namani, played by newcomer Cailee Spaeny. She’s a die-hard jaeger fanatic, such that she was able to build her very own jaeger from scratch. And it’s a jaeger so small that she can pilot it herself without the need to drift with anyone else. I have so many mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, Scrapper has a cobbled-together feel that gives it a distinctive broken-in look next to the other jaegers in the movie. And the film makes it clear that this is a significantly more limited jaeger, such that it might plausibly need less of a neural load to pilot. It’s not even knee-high to a full jaeger, as we plainly see for ourselves.

That said, the concept of drifting is central to the basic premise of this franchise. The Drift is what distinguishes a Jaeger from a Zord or a Gundam. More importantly, it’s a metaphor for people coming together, overcoming all barriers and differences, to fight for a shared cause. Therefore, the notion of a jaeger that can be piloted without drifting feels entirely counter to the core of the franchise.

(Side note: It was also well-established in the previous film that drifting was such a highly intimate and invasive process that the most effective jaeger teams were immediate family members. Hence we have Gipsy Danger piloted by the Becket brothers, Striker Eureka piloted by the father/son Hansen team, Cherno Alpha piloted by a married couple, etc. I have no idea when the PPDC stopped recruiting siblings, or when literally sharing minds and memories became such a casual thing that any two strangers could be thrown into the Drift together just to see if they’re compatible. But the whole concept of “drift compatibility” was laughably ill-defined in the first movie, so whatever.)

Granted, there is kind of a mitigating factor in that Amara’s character arc is all about learning how to trust others and work as part of a team. As symbolized by her growth from a solo renegade jaeger pilot to a drift-compatible PPDC Ranger, this makes a kind of sense. Alas, this is undercut by the character’s flimsy tragic backstory and her inconsistent attitude toward enlisting in the PPDC. Even so, Spaeny is great fun to watch in the role and her banter with Boyega is on point. I like what the filmmakers were going for with the character, I just wish they’d put more effort into her backstory and her development arc.

By far the biggest surprise in the cast was Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), the head of a privately-owned jaeger manufacturing conglomerate. At first, the character is made to look like such a paper-thin villain that of course we can immediately tell it’s a misdirect. But luckily, the filmmakers were not content to leave Shao as a red herring and instead gave her a truly badass redemptive arc. It also helps of course that Tian Jing lights up the screen — she’s tough, she’s gorgeous, and she commands the screen like nobody’s business.

As for the rest of the cast… well, where to start? Seriously, there are so many characters in this movie and they’re all so ill-defined that I honestly wouldn’t know where to start. There’s the woman who precipitates a weak and useless love triangle between Jake and Nate, there are the other cadets in Amara’s class, there’s the current PPDC marshall… these and others are just kinda there. They take up space and that’s about it.

Granted, the previous film didn’t exactly put a premium on character development either, but there’s a difference. With the exception of Hannibal Chau — whom we met through Dr. Geiszler — every single character in that movie was introduced to us through Raleigh Becket. Even with the Rangers who never had a line of dialogue, they were introduced in such a way that we could see Raleigh’s opinion and respect for them. These emotional connections with the protagonist gave us something to help define who these characters are and why we should follow them. Hannibal’s connection with Geiszler served the same purpose.

Compare that to this movie, which bounces between so many different storylines and audience viewpoint characters. The plot goes sprawling in so many different directions that the characters are all left undercooked for want of screen time or clear significance. Yes, the filmmakers do show a clear effort at humanizing Amara’s fellow cadets, but it’s not the same. This approach needed actors talented enough to make an instantly good impression, and the ensemble was nowhere near solid enough to cut it.

One upside of the sprawling plot is that it helps to expand the world of the franchise, showing the various companies, cultural norms, and technologies that have arisen since the end of the first movie. But that’s just it: This is all limited to stuff that’s happened after the first movie.

For comparison’s sake, consider The Empire Strikes Back. While that movie introduced new planets and technology to the Star Wars universe, it also introduced characters like Lando, who helped develop the backstory for Han Solo; and Yoda, who developed the backstory for Obi-Wan and the nature of the Force. And then of course we have the iconic reveal that changed everything we thought we knew about Luke and Vader. For a less cliche example, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. For all of its many faults, that movie still did a lot to build on dangling plot threads in the first movie, specifically with regard to the compass, Bootstrap Bill, and Cpt. Jack Sparrow’s exploits previous to Curse of the Black Pearl.

But while Pacific Rim: Uprising serves to make the universe wider, it does nothing to make the universe deeper. Though we see a lot of Mako, Gottlieb, and Geiszler, and at least one of their arcs are taken in a wild new directions, it still doesn’t break much new ground in terms of who these characters are and how they got to this point. Hell, we learn that Stacker Pentecost had an estranged son this whole time, and even that doesn’t really do anything to show the character in a new light. There’s a storyline about stealing jaeger tech, and building newer better jaegers is a central component of the plot, and still nothing is done to expand the lore about how jaegers work. The second film briefly mentions the kaiju cults glimpsed in the first movie, but does nothing to explain more about who and what they are. Even when it comes to the kaiju themselves, we don’t learn anything new about who the Precursors are and what they want from us. Put simply, we don’t really learn anything about this world or its inhabitants that the first movie didn’t already tell us.

Something else that’s missing is of course Guillermo del Toro. The man has always had an affinity for monsters, and that absolutely came through in the design and presentation of the kaiju in the first movie. It’s a huge part of what gave the first film its charm, which comes through in stark relief next to the sequel. It’s not that the kaiju in Uprising are awful, to be clear — they are wonderfully presented and neatly designed, new yet consistent with what’s been established. They also don’t show up until the very climax. It’s clear that deKnight has an affinity toward giant robots in the way that del Toro had an affinity toward monsters. This makes a distinct difference on top of the fact that however much he may love giant robots, he still doesn’t have GDT’s flair for design. Seriously, there’s more history and character in a square inch of Cherno Alpha than in any one of deKnight’s mechs.

Moreover, the first movie showed a clear reverence toward the themes of courage and friendship that were so prevalent in the anime I watched growing up. And while those themes are certainly present here, they’re somehow not as resonant this time around. I’m sure it doesn’t help that the first movie more or less had all of humanity working together against a common threat, while that common threat doesn’t come again until the third act of the sequel. Up until that point, we’ve got our human characters split into factions, squabbling amongst each other to find a possible traitor in their midst. One human character is deliberately set up so that everyone is suspicious of her, for God’s sake. That’s not to say it doesn’t work for the plot or the premise, or that the movie can’t set up development arcs so the characters learn to trust each other. But after the last movie, it still feels like a step backward.

If it sounds like I’m being overly hard on Pacific Rim: Uprising, it’s only because I’m trying so hard to figure out what’s missing. Because in the broad strokes, everything’s here. We’ve got huge epic fight sequences (That you can actually see this time!) between awesome mechs and giant monsters. We’ve got kaiju morphology and jaeger tech taken in crazy new directions. We’ve got a simplistic plot with thinly-developed characters. That theme song is still here and it still kicks ass. For better or worse, we’ve got a movie with all the joys and flaws of the first movie, taken to a new level. But the world-building suffers (most likely because Travis Beacham wasn’t involved) and there’s a certain kind of heart that’s missing (probably gone with GDT).

Ultimately, if the choice is between no Pacific Rim sequel and this Pacific Rim sequel, I will gladly take this Pacific Rim sequel with no regrets. I don’t know if deKnight has it in him to make Pacific Rim a sprawling auteur-driven CGI juggernaut on the scale of the Bayformer series, but I’d love to see him try.

Leave a Reply