In Pacific Rim: Uprising's climax, Tokyo and Mount Fuji appear a mere few miles apart, which they most certainly are not. It makes for an exciting battle that falls apart when you stop to examine it. That may sound like a nitpick, but it's a good metaphor for the rest of the film.
There was something magical about the original Pacific Rim's giant monster battles, glossy, rain-slicked colors, and seemingly effortless world-building. It's possible the sequel never stood a chance at living up to that, especially since visionary director Guillermo del Toro chose to focus on The Shape of Water, which won the best picture Oscar for 2017, instead of returning to direct Pacific Rim Uprising. Sure enough, Uprising is a disappointing, if bold, sequel.
Uprising takes place 10 years after the original and follows new and returning characters as they battle yet another Kaiju threat. There hasn't been a new attack since Idris Elba's character, Stacker Pentecost, helped close the "breach" in the original, and the sequel can't seem to decide whether we've grown complacent since then or doubled down on our defenses. The first movie did a great job communicating the status of Jaegers all around the world, and you felt the stakes heighten as they were one-by-one destroyed; this time around, it's unclear where humanity's defenses stand, or why the Jaegers and pilots we do see are the only ones the movie focuses on.
At the start, John Boyega's Jake Pentecost, Stacker's estranged son, parties in the wreckage of Malibu, giant Kaiju skeletons draped across nearby hillsides. He's a dropout of the Jaeger pilot program, which for the purposes of this movie is composed of half-trained teenage cadets at a base in China. There may be more pilots at other sites around the world, but Uprising lacks the original's deftness at worldbuilding, so as far as we're shown, this is it.
Into that program comes Cailee Spaeny's Amara Namani, an orphan who somehow built her own (albeit comparatively pint-sized) Jaeger from stolen and scavenged parts. Meanwhile Jing Tian's new character, the ingenious and cold Liwen Shao, threatens to make the government Jaeger program obsolete with her patented remote drone-operated Jaeger technology, developed with help from Charlie Day's returning character Dr. Newt Geiszler.
There's a massively fumbled late-game twist that derails the plot into goofy fan fiction territory that doesn't feel true to this world (though it is, at least, unpredictable). And naturally, the Kaiju return.
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When they do, some vague shenanigans leave the entirety of the world's defense to a handful of characters: Pentecost, Scott Eastwood's pilot Nate Lambert, and Spaeny's Namani, with her fellow cadets. Only four Jaegers remain standing between the Kaiju and global annihilation, and three of them are piloted by half-trained kids. Luckily, they're aided by some heavy-handed deus ex machina in the form of a secret project Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (the returning Burn Gorman) has been working on.
Spaeny is a breakout star, although Uprising focuses overall too much on the young characters. There's a cheesy thematic through-line about the kids needing to step up and save the world, giving it all an unfortunate Spy Kids vibe. It's pretty surprising coming from director Steven DeKnight, whose previous work includes well-received and mature series Daredevil and Spartacus. But Uprising feels deliberately and conspicuously family friendly. Kids are probably going to love it, but fans of the original's darker tone might find the new vibe disappointing.
There are more than just tonal and direction problems. The writing and plotting are all over the place, with unsatisfying character deaths and some actors playing surprisingly against type--albeit seeming to have fun in the process, but with mixed results. One returning character in particular has their role in the movie flipped in a way that just doesn't work. Certain other plot elements are way too convenient, and Uprising does a poor job retconning events from the first film.
For example, Jake is the son of Stacker Pentecost, a major character from the first movie. This would have worked if, say, Stacker hadn't known about Jake, or Jake was too young to have been involved in the first movie's events. Instead, Uprising wedges in a backstory for Jake that has him dropping out of the Jaeger pilot program while his dad was still alive. Given Stacker's well-explored relationship in the original with his adopted daughter, Mako (the great Rinko Kikuchi), it stretches plausibility that Jake wouldn't have been mentioned before now. This is a clumsy way to shoehorn in a new character.
Kikuchi, by the way, does return in Uprising, but her talents are completely wasted. Adria Arjona's character, the mechanic Jules Reyes, also has very little to do, besides provide another point of competition for Boyega and Eastwood's characters.
Boyega possesses ample swagger, his character here a transplant of Moses from 2011's Attack the Block, filtered through the confidence Boyega's gained since then as a global superstar thanks to Star Wars. But his cocky demeanor often feels out of place in the movie, like they let the actor improvise too much; too many scenes end with yet another crack from Jake about how good-looking he is, like the script kept getting cut off at the end and Boyega was left to wing it with a joke. He's as charming as ever, but it gets stale.
The new Jaegers, on the other hand, are definitely cool. Wielding house-sized weapons like a giant morningstar equipped with multiple spinning blades, or a crackling laser whip, they dominate the movie, as you'd expect. If all you really care about is watching giant robots wail on giant aliens--and occasionally, one another--Uprising will satisfy, although the action this time around feels slightly less weighty than the original. Bashing giant aliens with a humongous lightning whip or spinning ball of death is awesome on paper, but too many of the Jaegers' attacks just seem to glance harmlessly off until the plot demands otherwise.
Most of all, Pacific Rim: Uprising is just confusing. If you haven't seen the original, it's unlikely much in this sequel will make sense. Concepts like Drift--the way Jaeger pilots mentally link with one another--are poorly explained, despite this movie spending plenty of time attempting to recap and revisit past events. And if you did like the first Pacific Rim, you'll likely wonder what happened to all the distinctive side characters, the stylish action, and the flashy aesthetic. Pacific Rim: Uprising might have seemed like a pretty good giant monster movie if it didn't have to live up to the gigantically cool original, but unfortunately, it simply can't escape its predecessor's massive shadow.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Stars Cailee Spaeny and John Boyega do a good job||Too much retconning that doesn't make sense with the original|
|New Jaegers and Kaiju are fun||Plot is fumbled with out of place twists and deus ex machina|
|Fun to return to this world||Struggles to establish the state of the world after 10 year gap|
|Action feels flightier, with less attention to detail|
|A very Spy Kids vibe|
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