I loved the original Pacific Rim. It was kind of thin in places, but it was so earnest that it sold it. After seeing dreck like the Transformers movies, just having a movie about giant robots that wasn’t a big pile of shit was welcome. The sequel, which doesn’t have the advantages of timing or of being directed by Guillermo Del Toro, couldn’t have hoped to live up to it. Pacific Rim Uprising, though, manages to forge its own path, while keeping that earnestness that helped make the first one so enjoyable. It expands the mythology and creates some interesting, or at least potentially interesting, new characters and lays out a path forward for this potential franchise.
Pacific Rim Uprising is the Saturday morning cartoon version of the original. That is mostly a bad thing, but not completely. Uprising lacks the first movie’s weight and its stakes. The fight scenes are fine. They are not especially inventive, but they are coherent and enjoyable. There isn’t quite the heft that the first movie had, this is a little more cartoony. It works, though. Giant robots are an inherently goofy concept, the first movie played them as straight as possible, this movie frees things a few steps more from the bounds of reality. These robots do a lot more running and jumping that the old ones did. There is also less weight to the story. The first movie had this palpable weight to it, that the end of humanity was near. This takes place in the aftermath; humanity has won. So that oppressive weight is gone. There was also the feeling that any character could die at any time. Mostly because lots of characters died, frequently abruptly. Here, with the bulk of the cast being literal children, that seems, and proves, much less likely. There are still loses, but things are a lot less final than in the previous film.
John Boyega stars a Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has left the Jaeger program and works as a smuggler and thief, salvaging old Jaeger parts and selling them on the black market, as well as things like cereal and hot sauce. Through circumstance he is teamed with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young girl who has built her own mini-Jaeger out of scraps, and forced to rejoin the program. There he is reteamed with his old partner, Nate (Scott Eastwood)to train newcomers and Amara is put in with the rest of trainees. Boyega does good work making Jake an interesting character; his feelings of inadequacy in trying to live up to his father work especially well in a movie that is going to have a hard time living up to its predecessor. The precocious Amara starts well, but her arc kind of gets lost in the middle before coming back near the end. Nate is a guy; he only really has one note of being by the books, with little or nothing about who he is coming through. None of the other trainees do much to distinguish themselves. The other notable new face is Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), the head of the corporation who is seeking to displace the Jaeger program with drones. She is interesting, if underutilized.
Returning characters are few and not treated especially well, though in one case it makes perfect sense. Outside of flashbacks and static images, returning characters are limited to scientists Newt Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb and former Jaeger pilot Mako Mori. The scientists are roughly as important in this movie as they were in the first. Gottlieb still works with the Jaeger program, while Geiszler has gone to work with a private firm. Gottlieb has several chances to shine as the sole scientist for the good guys, it is fine continuation of his character. Meanwhile, Geiszler has gone a little off the deep end, as he was wont to do in the first movie without Gottlieb’s restraining influence, working with the Shao Corporation. His developments, while not really positive, make perfect sense for the character. Then there is Mako, who was the heart and soul of the original movie. Bringing her back seemed like a good sign, but the movie treats her abominably. She has no role, she is only motivation for her adoptive brother Jake.
The story wisely avoids just repeating the first movie. While eventually Kaiju do come back, it doesn’t just start with a new breach. It builds to their return. In many ways, it has the bad guys using the heroes tactics from the first movie against them.
Pacific Rim Uprising is not as good as the original, but neither is it a complete failure. It stumbles occasionally and really misses the hand of Del Toro, but for the most part provides a solid outing of giant robots punching monsters.