Guaranteed to leave viewers of a certain age remembering back to kaiju-filled Saturday afternoons.
There’s a reason we’ve yet to see a movie about huge mechs punching giant monsters seem serious and intelligent, and it’s because the premise is already so inherently goofy that dramatic weight just crumbles beneath the pummeling. Guillermo del Toro learned as much in 2013 with Pacific Rim — the large-scale action is thrilling (if dimly-lit), but the choice to play it straight and serious clashes with the unavoidably silly plot and functionally-inept “drift” concept.
The sequel has issues, but the last thing anyone can accuse Pacific Rim: Uprising of being is serious.
It’s been ten years since mankind faced down and defeated the giant kaiju creatures that crawled out of the ocean floor. An alien race sent the beasts, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) sent them packing, and now the world is rebuilding. Stacker’s son, Jake (John Boyega), washed out of the service years prior and now spends his days stealing tech for the highest bidder. He crosses paths with a teenage orphan named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who’s been building her own tiny Jaeger — the “robots” typically piloted by two people, although hers is so small she can handle it alone — and the pair catch the eye of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). She pulls both into active duty with Jake as an instructor and Amara as a cadet, and soon the world is burning all over again.
Mako and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) have been training a readiness force in case the creatures return, but the pilot program is under threat of replacement by a new drone system created by Chinese billionaire Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) with the assistance of returning scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). It all comes to a head when an event is interrupted by a rogue Jaeger leading to a clash between heroes, villains, drones, and some enormous monsters.
Pacific Rim: Uprising invests cursory time towards the drama of relationships — Jake and his sister Mako, Amara and her dead family — but the film trades earnestness for goofiness and instead focuses on the action big things knocking the snot out of each other. It’s ultimately big dumb fun that entertains even as it’s quickly forgotten.
The script — co-written by director Steven S. DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin — hits all the basics, manages a pretty unexpected plot turn, and loads the film with humor, and while not all the jokes and gags work they set a suitable tone for the punch, kick, and explosion-filled action. It feels every bit like the old-school kaiju movies that some of us used to watch on Saturday afternoons as kids with broad comedy, furrowed brows, and immense destruction to skyscrapers.
Older films featured performers in costumes trashing models, but as is the norm these days both the Jaegers and the kaiju are CG creations. There’s the occasional bit of visual shoddiness, typically in composition shots, but for the most part the effects work to entertain and delight destruction-porn aficionados as buildings crumble and fighters crash to the ground with a bass-filled rumble. As an added plus the vast majority of the action occurs in bright daylight — the previous film’s endless nighttime brawls in the rain can suck it — allowing for more detail, color, and visible carnage.
DeKnight is making his feature debut here after a long career in television on genre shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Daredevil, and while his strength is clearly more aligned with the action elements than the character ones it’s a satisfyingly competent whole. The film moves at a good clip, gets viewers just interested enough in the characters, and then unloads with double-barreled action shenanigans.
Cast-wise the film features the expected blend of charisma and familiar faces. Boyega’s charms outweigh any deficiencies, Eastwood is, well, Eastwood, and both Kikuchi and Day deliver with more of the same. The standout here is Spaeny who brings a fresh energy to her wunderkind teen who in lesser hands would be overly precocious and obnoxious.
As with the first film the whys and hows of Pacific Rim: Uprising are best not asked — the drift is still dumb, the inconsistency of what it takes to hurt a Jaeger/kaiju is still laughable (a missile does nothing but a karate kick flattens?!) — and instead it’s a film best approached with a smile on your face and a concession stand snack in your hand. If you like movies about huge mechs punching giant monsters then you will like this one. And then you will forget it… until the sequel that it not-so casually sets up is announced.