Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) by Steven S. DeKnight
Review by Jordan Collier
It’s no secret among my friends that I’m a huge fan of giant robots and giant monsters. So is Guillermo del Toro, made apparent by his love letter to all things Gundam and Godzilla, 2013’s Pacific Rim. It knew exactly what it was, and it never supposed itself to be anything other than a big, fun blockbuster--and a well-crafted one at that. But underneath all the one-liners, explosions, and giant robo-punches there was something special about it still: it had a ton of heart. It was almost like del Toro’s inner 9-year-old excitedly rushed up and showed you his collection of robot and monster action figures and explained why each of them were so cool as he pretended to make them fight. Now imagine zooming out from this scene to find out it’s taking place in a room behind a one-way mirror in near-perfect laboratory conditions as a group of investors and producers silently tick box after box of what they think made the first one great. The result is Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Picking up 10 years after the first film’s climactic “Battle of the Breach,” we follow Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), a roguish scavenger and son of Idris Elba’s character from the first movie. Having gotten mixed up with the law after stealing some Jaeger (giant robot) parts, he is given the choice to go to jail or train recruits for the Jaeger Program. Soon after, we learn that the program is threatened to be replaced by a drone program which would replace pilots with artificial brains that could be controlled remotely. During a final council meeting to approve this initiative, those in charge are attacked by a rogue Jaeger. And we’re off...
...or so I thought. See, one of the biggest problems with this movie is that it has absolutely no idea how to pace a story. Whenever we aren’t actually watching giant robots fight (we spend A LOT of time watching giant robots fight) the story moves at a pretty breakneck pace--way faster than a cast of this size can keep up with. Characters have a starting point and an ending point with no sort of character arc in between. There are jumps in morality, in skill, and in motivation that seemingly happen out of nowhere. People just are one way and then they aren’t whenever the plot needs them to be.
Characters aside, the pacing doesn’t help the plot either. Big, supposedly dramatic reveals happen with all the dramatic tension of a rapidly deflating balloon. Multiple times you blink and find yourself knee-deep in a conflict you had no idea you were being led to--including the climax! It’s like that they forgot that you still need an actual core to wrap your giant fights around.
I wish I could say that at least the giant robots in the giant robot movie were good, but I would be lying. I thought long and hard about the visuals in comparison to the first and I actually don’t think that the special effects are worse, but the reason why it looks cheaper is how the visuals are presented. In Pacific Rim, del Toro, to a certain degree, followed horror’s cardinal “don’t show the monster” rule. Sure, the Jaegers and the monsters would appear in their entirety multiple times throughout the film, but most often encounters occurred at night, in the rain, cloaked in dust clouds, and often in medium close ups. This accomplished two things: hiding any bad CG, and aiding the sense of scale (since you can’t take it all in at once). In Uprising, everything takes place in harsh, unforgiving daylight and we get a loooot of long shots that sometimes showcase multiple monsters and multiple Jaegers. Uprising “shows the monster” and it shows them a lot.
Of course, in a vacuum, all of the new Jaegers look pretty cool. The 10 year gap in technology between the original has brought with it a bunch of new toys. The new line-up is much sleeker than their original counterparts and bring with them a cool, expanded arsenal including a friggin’ laser whip! But this sleekness comes at a cost. Gone are the lumbering behemoths of the original, shaking the world with every step they take. Now the Jaegers move so smoothly and effortlessly that they don’t feel like huge robots at all. Just normal humans running around wearing metal suits. It all feels a little too much like an episode of Power Rangers with a 150 million dollar budget.
Uprising’s greatest sin, however, is that it is just plain boring. Sure, it ticks a lot of boxes that ensure an “optimal” blockbuster experience: a new YA tone, a studio-mandated quota of jokes, the aesthetics of a feature-length iPod commercial, explosions, giant robots, and giant robots causing explosions. But not once during the entire 111 minute runtime do you get to feel any of this. It just happens. And then you go home.