Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim turned giant robots fighting giant monsters into something resembling art. It pales in comparison to his other, more mature work, but it was a hell of a lot of fun, putting care and effort into dumb sci-fi. Del Toro had a heart where Michael Bay saw only dollar signs with the Transformers franchise.
But Pacific Rim: Uprising seems content to make everything feel like a toy commercial. It literally has a character state its motto: “Bigger is better.” The movie is focused solely on destruction. While the first had barely any connective tissue between its awe-inspiring setpieces, Uprising doesn’t have any. All its characters are mere attractive faces and traits or quirks. Only John Boyega saves it from being a complete waste. His charm could pilot a Jaeger itself.
Boyega plays Jake, the son of Idris Elba’s character from the first film. He’s a professional thief, who spends his days conning other thieves out of big scores. Early on, he meets Amara (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), who’s beaten him to the punch on a valuable piece of technology for a homemade Jaeger. They both end up arrested, and then shipped off to an army camp for training and reintegration into the Jaeger program. Jake spends most of his time griping to his ex-co-pilot (Scott Eastwood, who comes across less like his dad than a store-brand Armie Hammer). Amara spends most of her time with a young class of cadets, who are distinguished only by their ethnicities and cliché traits (one’s a bully, one’s the comic relief, etc).
Uprising thinks this qualifies as character development. It not only operates under the impression that you know and love the original, but also decides it doesn’t need to do any further world-building. It introduces a ton of new, uninteresting characters, but only spends its non-battle moments showing off the improved technology.
The film deploys a semi-interesting twist in its third act, but it actually makes the film worse on the whole, because it ultimately doesn’t make sense, and it proves that a new character is solely there to serve as a red herring. The film also doesn’t know how to play with scale. Part of that may be attributable to director Steven S. DeKnight’s inexperience. He’s directed several episodes of TV, but this is his first feature film. Everything is just big and bigger. And it introduces several new Jaeger models and kaiju, only to have the film climax with another mano e mano.
I completely understand the urge to watch giant robots fight each other on the big screen. Pacific Rim made it work, but Pacific Rim: Uprising assumes just giving you more battles and John Boyega is enough to do the same. It’s not.