Pacific Rim (2014), the giant monsters-vs-giant robots mayhem extravaganza, always felt like an unlikely project for fantasy-horror auteur Guillermo del Toro, but you don't quite realize just how much he brought to that film until you see the del Toro-less sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising (he stayed on as executive producer, but was otherwise uninvolved). Uprising rehashes the gargantuan battle sequences from the original and leans heavily on the enormous scale of its premise, but it dispenses with all of the weird, quirky, oddball, and sometimes gross details that gave del Toro's film some character. With Uprising, we see quite clearly how Pacific Rim could have been just a big, dumb monster movie without del Toro's visual acumen and fascination with the eerie and grotesque.
Stepping into del Toro's shoes is Steven S. DeKnight, who is making his feature directorial debut after nearly two decades of executive producing, writing, and directing episodes of various fantasy-action television series, including Angel, Smallville, Dollhouse, and Daredevil. And, while DeKnight is certainly a component craftsman who does a notably good job of managing the action sequences, which remain blessedly coherent and free of Michael Bay-style overload, he lacks an appreciable personality, which renders the robot-monster mash largely rote. After all, you can only watch giant CGI humanoid robots and reptilian monsters smashing through glass skyscrapers, pulverizing overpasses, and crushing cars before it all starts to run together.
It doesn't help much that the storyline, written by DeKnight, playwright Emily Carmichael, television producer/writer Kira Snyder (The 100, The Handmaiden's Tale), and T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner), is a mishmash of character clichs and overly familiar narrative arcs, starting with the prodigal-son protagonist, Jake Pentecost (Star Wars's John Boyega using his native British accent), the son of the first film's martyr-hero. The action picks up 10 years after the end of the first film, which found humankind saving the planet from kaiju, giant marauding creatures who came into our world through an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, by constructing jaegers, building-sized robots that were so powerful they could only be piloted by two humans who were neutrally linked. Jake has spent that time running from his heritage by playing the part of the bad-boy criminal stealing jaeger parts, which leads to him crossing paths with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young woman who has been building her own jaeger (which is highly illegal). They are both pressed into military service, which brings Jake back into contact with Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), a square-jawed do-gooder with whom he previously served and with whom he has a long-standing grudge that we all know will eventually be forgiven when they have to fight side by side against the returning kaiju.
And return the kaiju do, although not exactly as you might expect. If Pacific Rim: Uprising has an upside, it is that the storyline resists an outright rehashing of the first film's plot at every turn by delaying the return of the kaiju in favor of an extended mystery involving a rogue jaeger and the incursion of a Chinese mega-corporation run by Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), who wants to replace the jaeger pilots with drones. Shao has in her employ Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a returning character from the first film whose droll jocularity provides the film its comic relief and masks what turns out to be a surprising narrative turn. It's not enough to save the film from feeling like a retread of what we've already seen, and while a final act "We're taking the fight to them" declaration all but ensures a third installment, it's hard to feel like there's much more than can be done here.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Universal Pictures
Overall Rating: (2)
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