“This was supposed to be epic,” quips John Boyega in Pacific Rim: Uprising after he and his co-pilot attempt a badass icon pose ripped straight from the first film and fail miserably at doing so, “but it wasn’t.”
This seems to be guiding ethos of the film, directed by Spartacus and Daredevil showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, which mines the original for parts and, in the process, forgoes everything that made that one interesting. Gone is the neon color palate, here replaced by blue skies and sunny days, as well as the tactile griminess of that world, abandoned for an audience-friendly sterility that’s bound not to piss off shareholders. In its place remains a hollow shell of what could have been a potentially interesting film, stacked to the gills with horseshit characters and a plot so dumb you’ll wonder if you had a stroke while watching the film. A Pacific Rim sequel without original director Guillermo Del Toro at the helm (though he has a producing credit, along with, inexplicably, Boyega) was always going to be a tenuous proposition, and it brings me absolutely no joy to tell you, as I really enjoyed the first film and hoped this one was going to be decent, at least. But nah, Pacific Rim: Uprising sucks shit.
Minor spoilers throughout.
Anyways, while you were busy watching that whole first movie about Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the adopted daughter of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, whose presence is sorely missed), overcoming her struggles to become a giant-robot pilot (named Jaegers, in case you forgot) alongside a forgettable white guy, it turns out Pentecost had another kid who grew up to be John Boyega. Of course, he’s the bigger name, so the sequel focuses on him and kills Mako off pretty quickly to give him motivation to be a real good guy. But first! And after his father died in the last movie, he got real upset and decided to refuse the call to action (just like any good hero on their hero’s journey!), abandoning his robot-military career and becoming a scrapper, selling Jaeger parts to dipshits out in the “wastelands,” which has some pretty great beachfront property as long as you don’t mind the giant monster (called kaiju) bones strewn across the property. In helping a self-determined orphaned inventor named Amara (Caliee Spaeny) with a robot friend of her own — shades of Transformers 5 here, which bodes poorly for the film — escape from the law after a botched robbery, he’s captured by the government authority and pressed back into service, training recruits (including Amara) alongside his former friend Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, who it seems will never make a good movie), who is about as interesting as his name sounds.
Anyways, once Mako dies in an attack by some sort of weird-ass rogue robot, Boyega decides to avenge her death by hunting down the weird robot that did it to her. And he, alongside Nate Whitebread, tracks it down to the Arctic, where they’re finally able to best it in metal hand to metal hand combat. They pop off the bot’s head, expecting to see the faces of the pilots who did this, and discover a partial kaiju brain in there instead. Everybody immediately suspects Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), who has been pushing hard for the Robot Port Authority to adopt her big ol’ Jaeger drones instead of having humans pilot them, but it turns out it’s not her pulling the strings. Still, her drones have been infested with Kaiju brains, and begin an open revolt against their human masters by opening portals to the world of the Kaiju, so that more can come through and ultimately devastate the world. Luckily they’ve got giant robots and a bunch of teenagers ready to go, so John Boyega and Nate Whiteout decide to kick ass and save the day, and uncover who exactly is behind all of this nonsense.
So, yeah, I guess there’s a decent premise buried underneath all that Boyega horseshit, but the film totally lost me once they killed off Mako, who was the emotional core of the first film and is buried up in a helicopter crash quickly so that Amara can exactly replicate her arc but with one key difference (bet you can’t guess what it is). And it’s a shame, too, because none of the characters have an ounce of the depth of any character from the last film, and she could have provided at least a more solid link to better cinema throughout. Seriously, everyone in this film, save Boyega, is boring as fuck or doing a derivative take on what they did in the last film, though it’s nice to see that the commitment to diverse casting that Del Toro held firm on continue, even if the Asian characters are mainly relegated to the role of cannon fodder.
Even the fun grace notes — Charlie Day’s attire, even more so than his all-important plot line, being the one fun character evolution that took place between films — are lost amongst the generic shuffle here, and all of Del Toro’s personal touches are abandoned. This film’s wit is entirely enclosed in a group of food puns that Boyega delivers at the start, and despite his best efforts, none of the damn jokes land. And it’s sad, seeing Boyega, one of the true shining lights within our current generation of stars, brought so low by a shitty script.
“But hey, you might say, at least this has decent turn-off-your-brain rock ’em sock ’em robot fun in it, right?” I mean, not really. The great thing about the first film was how keenly Del Toro understood the scale of his creations and how difficult it would be for them to move, and these bouts between Kaiju and Jaegers felt like heavyweight prize-fights, intense and badass in a compelling and believable way. Here, the Jaegers are agile and quick, dodging blows and dishing them with a speed that you’d find in your average Prequel Trilogy lightsaber fight.
It’s essentially downgraded from a Pay-Per-View worthy bout to the kind of shitty jobbers you’d find in the wrestling ring weekend after weekend at your local high school gymnasium (I kept waiting for a giant botch, or for a giant table to appear as a new landmark in Tokyo for one of the Jaegers to smash into). It’s a transition away from that unique take to something that feels ripped straight from a generic Super Sentai episode. As such, Uprising never manages to even deliver on its most basic promise. And what a goddamn shame it is. Nobody needed this to be better than the original or a home run or even a ground-line single, and it still couldn’t even get off base. Pacific Rim: Uprising is the worst case scenario for all modern franchise films: The installment so boring that it might doom the entire enterprise into irrelevance.