Kaiju and Jaegers tussle well enough in the remarkably not bad PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING.
By Matt Cummings
In making a list of the most under-appreciated action films of the past two decades, one must place 2013’s PACIFIC RIM near or at the top. Filled with great CGI, a compelling story, and tons of fun bashing, it’s everything TRANSFORMERS could have been, and everything POWER RANGERS dreamed of. But the film left a markedly final stamp on things; so when trailers arrived for PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING, audiences’ first reaction was an understandable “Why?” The sequel does its best to allay any fears, but it’s clearly not as fun as the first, nor do a few plot holes help to make its case for franchise status.
Although it’s been 10 years since The Breach was sealed, the world struggles to rebuild while keeping an eye on looters of old Jaeger tech. For Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the death of his father who helped to end the Kaiju threat has left him drifting throughout life. While attempting to steal a Jaeger power source, he meets the orphan Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), who’s arrested along with Jake. But with imprisonment comes an offer: re-join the Pan Pacific Defense Corps to train Amara and a team of young recruits, just as a new drone program threatens to replace them. Jake is wary of settling down, especially when he learns that his ex-Drifter Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) still holds old grudges that saw the team disbanded. But when the drones turn into Kaiju themselves, Jake and old fellow Drifters Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) join forces to face the biggest Kaiju yet: a Category 6 beast that threatens to destroy all life on the planet.
At just $101.8 domestically, the original PACIFIC RIM wasn’t exactly a Category 5 Kaiju, but has since become a genre favorite, right up there with 2014’s EDGE OF TOMORROW. This is why UPRISING was green-lit, but I wondered if there was another story left to be told. UPRISING doesn’t take the bold risks of the original – although a plot twist will leave you pleasantly surprised – but it does enough to continue the story into a third, should audiences embrace it. That’s going to be a challenge, given that the road here is pockmarked with a few problems. With the exception of Jake and Amara, most of the troupe are there for color, disposable pawns ready to be used instead of cherished as potential new heroes. A major character from the original is only mentioned but is assumed alive, while the first act is mostly set up; that’s not a bad thing as we get a lot more of the politics and backstory for Jake and Amara. I wish Michael Bay would have treated his characters with the same love, but some of the interaction in Writer/Director Steven S. DeKnight script borders on real cheese, something that he seems to have ignored in his landmark DAREDEVIL series on Netflix. That missing character and the flow of Act 1 makes things slow to get up to speed, but I still enjoyed the politics of a world struggling to move on. As a director, DeKnight fares far better, giving both machine and man their respect in some pretty good action scenes. CGI is solid, and it seems like its $150m budget was well spent. But there’s also a cheapness to the script that keeps bothering me, perhaps in the interaction between certain characters and situations, such as the renegade Amara, or in our ability to quickly who will live and die. My worry is definitely centered around the stiff Eastwood, whom I’ve never liked. He’s really a black hole here and every scene featuring him suffers mightily.
Even with these faults, there’s a lot to like about UPRISING. Boyega and Spaeny enjoy excellent chemistry, as Boyega really commands the screen. He’s a hero actor for sure, but he also bleeds a bit before our eyes once he begins to drift with Amara. Day and Gorman pick up where they left off in the original, and I actually wish they would have been more involved. And then there’s that plot surprise that keeps UPRISING from becoming a predictable flop. I’m not sure if it will be enough to launch a final film, but it’s a fun, enjoyable ride that fails less than it succeeds. I know that’s not a ringing endorsement, but perhaps a second viewing will change my mind. And that admission alone should tell you a lot.
THE BOTTOM LINE
PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING is remarkably not bad, featuring a rather goofy but somewhat interestingly transitional tale. If you loved the smash-up of the original, you’ll love the final act but could be bored by cheesiness of the set up. And while it will appeal to the same audiences that loved the seemingly unstoppable BLACK PANTHER, it’s unclear whether they will embrace a film that knows it’s dumb but doubles-down on the mayhem and mostly succeeds.
PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language and has runtime of 111 minutes.