Something I noticed almost immediately about the five-years-in-the-making sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is how much of the film takes places during the daylight, with the sun shining brightly on the metallic skin of the giant, monster-killing robots known as Jaegers. It’s a sharp contrast to the ever-present, dark and rainy conditions of the first film, which somehow used the night as a way to ramp up the scale and density of both monsters and machines. But by displaying everything in bright light in Pacific Rim Uprising, it all takes on a far more cartoonish quality that sadly makes the Jaegers look like Transformers and makes the movie less substantive.
One of the bright spots here is the presence of new-generation Star Wars lead John Boyega, playing Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film. After dropping out as a Jaeger pilot cadet years earlier, he turned to a life of black-market business, buying and selling Jaeger parts to people interested in building their own giant robots for private use. After one of his salvage missions goes wrong, he meets a young hacker named Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who just happens to have built a mini-Jaeger of her own. Rather than actually paying for their crimes, the two end up in a Jaeger pilot program, led by one of Jake’s old rivals, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Helping to lead the entire Jaegar program is one of its only living heroes, Mako Mori (a returning Rinko Kikuchi), whom Jake sees as a big sister.
With the Kaiju threat apparently gone, the world’s leaders are considering stepping down the Jaeger program, removing pilots from the process and using unmanned, drone-like robots to fight in the future, in the interest of cutting costs. Heading the program is another of the few returning cast members, Charlie Day as Dr. Geiszler. His cohort Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) is also around, but the two have grown distant since they mind-melded with a Kaiju brain in the last film to save the world. Geiszler works for a corporation led by the severe Liwen Shao (Tian Jing of Kong: Skull Island) that must deliver the drones on a timetable that naturally doesn’t allow for proper testing. But really, what could go wrong?
One of the many missteps in Pacific Rim Uprising is that it spends far too much time dealing with the soap opera drama lives of the human characters. In the first film, there was some degree of backstory on the pilots, but only enough to illustrate how their pasts might impact their ability to be great pilots. This time around, there’s a great deal of petty squabbling among the cadets that seems superfluous and eats up a lot of time. The Kaiju aren’t the primary threat this time around (although they are certainly a factor in unexpected ways); instead, we get a hint of the trouble by the appearance of a rogue Jaeger that causes a great deal of destruction and seems to move fluidly, like no other robot has before. I liked the idea of this new threat, but I’ll admit, I missed the presence of the Kaiju from a purely creative aspect.
Del Toro is listed as a producer on the film (he’s also listed as the film’s “visual consultant,” which may just be a way for the filmmakers to acknowledge that they used his many robot and creature designs), but his presence is sorely missed this time around. Director Steven S. DeKnight (a producer on many television series, including “Daredevil,” “Smallville,” and Joss Whedon’s “Dollhouse” and “Angel”) borrows a lot of the beats from Pacific Rim, but by replacing the truly awe-inspiring creature designs of the Kaiju with just more robots, Uprising loses a big portion of its pure science fiction joy.
Not to knock the next generation, but by replacing the first film’s older-trending pilots with a team of much younger cadets, it feels like a blatant attempt to attract a younger audience demographic. Boyega (also a producer on the movie) has personality and charm to spare, but the idea behind Pacific Rim was that it was a combined, global effort and not a one-man show. Here, he has to carry a great deal of the film on his albeit capable shoulders.
Something about Pacific Rim Uprising feels like the small army of writers simply decided to go bigger and more chaotic or go home. It’s like Del Toro left his toys out for others to play with, but these new filmmakers grabbed the brightest, shiniest ones and left the far more interesting monsters on the ground, only to discover them later after the robots began to bore them. I wouldn’t even call this movie a disappointment as much as a major missed opportunity. The film ends with a set up for future adventures; maybe they’ll remember the big, ugly one that brought them to the dance, if there is indeed a next installment.