I have had a soft spot and love for giant monster movies, or Kaiju, ever since I first saw clips of the 1933 King Kong off the Making of Jurassic Park documentary when I was a kid. There have been many monster movies made. Some movies have been great and others have been just a fun showcase of special effects wizards like Ray Harryhausen. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was a love letter to Kaiju films (specifically Kaiju films from Japan). Del Toro knew exactly what type of movie he was making, a giant monster movie with giant robots fighting monsters. Del Toro’s film had a childlike sense of awe, wonder, and excitement. I really enjoyed the first film and have watched it a few times since it’s initial release.
Guillermo del Toro wasn’t able to return to the sequel and instead chose to work on The Shape of Water (which ended up winning best picture) and the original co-screenwriter Travis Beacham also did not return. In place of that, this sequel has enlisted the talent of TV writer, producer, and showrunner Steven S. DeKnight in the director’s chair along with a team of screenwriters, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, T.S. Nowlin (with Steven S. DeKnight credited as well). Pacific Rim: Uprising takes place ten years after the original Kaiju was defeated and the gateway between dimensions was closed. The world has prepared for the possible return of Kaiju and after being arrested Jake Pentecost (the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost) is given the choice of either returning to the pilot program or remain in jail. Reluctantly Jake takes the offer and recruits a 15-year-old named Amera who was able to build her own Jaeger as they prepare for the return of the Kaiju.
It is easy to stomp and pout that Del Toro hasn’t returned for Uprising and blame that for why this movie doesn’t work. Having Del Toro wouldn’t necessarily have been a lock for success either (I write that as he is one of my favorite filmmakers). Pacific Rim wasn’t a perfect movie and had many weaknesses but it succeeded because it knew what it wanted to be and had a strong sense of utilizing spectacle for entertainment. Steven S. DeKnight is no creative slouch. He has successfully written for shows such as Marvel’s Daredevil and Starz’s Spartacus. He might be no Del Toro but he does possess a clear track record of writing creative entertainment.
However, Pacific Rim: Uprising does show that while DeKnight is talented he is no fit for this type of movie. Pacific Rim: Uprising has the same flaws as the first Pacific Rim but lacks any of the creative passion that Del Toro brought to the table. DeKnight, clearly with a background in TV, tells his story in a limited fashion, never stopping for a lot of oo’s and ah’s but instead quickly speeding through it all. The opening ten minutes of the movie plays more like an elongated previous on/pre-credits sequences to a TV show. Sitting there watching the movie I wanted to yell, “slow down! Enjoy yourself!” DeKnight doesn’t seem like he is having a lot of fun with the material, or at least the way the movie is paced certainly doesn’t portray that he is excited.
This isn’t to say DeKnight doesn’t have a knack for creating exciting sequences. There are a few moments of action in the movie that are pretty entertaining. The same sense of scale and weight isn’t there like it was in the first movie but DeKnight frames the fight sequences in full view of the audience and avoids the visual noise of Michael Bay’s Transformers films. For about half the movie there is a distinct lack of action while the movie builds up the story. There is a pretty spectacular scene once the big villain is revealed and all mayhem breaks loose that managed to hook me back into the movie’s story (only to lose it by shortchanging the scene).
Also to DeKnight’s credit, he has a different look aesthetically and approaches to the Pacific Rim world than Del Toro does. The original Pacific Rim was set in a world where every battle was in the rain and it didn’t stop raining until the end of the movie (spoiler alert). Pacific Rim: Uprising is bright and colorful. The Jaeger’s have even more of a Samurai look to them and there is a touch of Anime influence. Aesthetically I love the bright and vibrant color palate that Uprising had.
The movie is written by four writers (that’s double the amount of the original) and it feels like it is written by four different writers. I mentioned before that this movie feels like it is rushing but I also said it takes about an hour to really build up the story; which may seem like contradictory statements but there is a difference. DeKnight doesn’t take his time with the scenes that he is directing. There is very little build up and fine-tuned rhythm that would make classic Steven Spielberg blockbusters a thrill to watch. Things just happen and DeKnight carries out the rest of the scene. Meanwhile the story takes a while to get going where it needs to go and it doesn’t help that there are simply too many different ideas at play here. One moment the movie is a dumb action flick, the next it is a Top Gun/Kingsman style training flick, and then the next it is a mystery film. All of this feels like the writer’s had different ideas and DeKnight tried to find a way to mash them together (very unsuccessfully).
Pacific Rim: Uprising also just ends on a sort of cliffhanger. Well, actually the movie just abruptly ends and then rushes into its mid-credits stinger that was way too reminiscent of Independence Day: Resurgence. This whole movie feels a bit too reminiscent of that sequel. Some of the world building elements feel taken straight out of that movie; the way some returning characters are handled with such a disposable manner reminds me of Resurgence, and the setup for the sequel felt almost beat for beat like Resurgence. I checked to confirm if any of the writers worked on Resurgence and I found no connection which I find shocking.
The actors are all game for the material and that is probably the strength of the movie. John Boyega has oodles of charisma and demonstrates why he is a great lead for blockbuster franchises. His character is written inconsistently but Boyega does his best to make the material work. Cailee Spaeny is fantastic in this movie as the young girl genius. Returning cast members Charlie Day and Burn Gorman (an underrated actor) are great to see together again. Burn Gorman seems to get a lot more screen time this time around which was a nice surprise. Rinko Kikuchi is completely wasted in this movie. Scott Eastwood is trying but just never seems to be a good fit for his role and shares little chemistry with Boyega. Tian Jing and Jin Zhang fill their parts well enough. There is a collection of other actors and characters that don’t leave much of impression.
One of the weaknesses of the first Pacific Rim was their characters had a tendency to be a bit dry. Pacific Rim: Uprising doubles down on this by adding even more characters but none of the storytelling to flesh them out or make them memorable. This also makes the fates of Uprising’s characters even less interesting.
The twist in Pacific Rim: Uprising was strong enough to give this movie an extra shot of momentum leading into the well-executed but lacking third act final battle. One does not have to expect Blade Runner to be disappointed in this movie. Pacific Rim knew what is wanted to be. It wasn’t perfect but it was entertaining and was an exciting love letter to the Kaiju movie sub-genre. Pacific Rim: Uprising (a title that feels generic and doesn’t mean anything) has a few exciting action beats but has all the flaws of the first movie with new ones. The world building feels lackluster and the moments of creativity feels like it is undermined by the ending. For this monster movie fan, I was disappointed by the direction in this sequel and makes another round of robot vs monster action harder to get excited about.