Review – Pacific Rim: Uprising

It’s been approximately five years since Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim hit theaters and, for a long time, all we heard is that a sequel was (to paraphrase) “probably coming”.  Del Toro’s original film (which is actually my favorite del Toro film, alongside Hellboy II: The Golden Army) was moderately successful, but not overwhelmingly so, making a sequel a risky financial proposition if not handled correctly.  And though del Toro isn’t back, having been replaced by Steven S. DeKnight as director (del Toro has a producing credit), del Toro’s most mainstream-friendly creation is, in the form of this long-awaited sequel.

The narrative does a commendable job of paying service to what came before it while not being so beholden to it that new viewers are lost.  If you saw and remember del Toro’s original Pacific Rim, then some of the proceedings will have more meaning and resonance for you.  If that original film is a mystery to you, the film fills you in on what you need to know (which is actually not all that much) and then introduces some new faces to carry the bulk of the story’s weight.  If nothing else, it’s more accessible than Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, and people seem to be okay with that one, so Uprising‘s plot should be fine for most.

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Truth be told, the script isn’t as lazy as I feared it might be.  Everyone knows that the movie is eventually headed for another epic confrontation between the humans in their Jaegers and the monstrous Kaiju, but the path to getting there isn’t as linear as expected.  There are plenty of unexpected detours and turns along the way, even up until the very end of the film.  DeKnight (who also receives a co-writing credit in addition to his directorial duties) and the rest of his team go out of their way to keep things unpredictable and fun and they succeed to about as great a degree as possible for a movie such as this one.  Kudos to them for even caring about doing so, as there is probably no legitimate reason for them to unless (gasp!) they actually care about the quality of their work and not just making money.  If the viewer cares to look, they may even pick up on the underlying theme of world unity being carried over from the first film and then challenged by a devious outsider who attempts to unravel all the progress that had been made.  Sounds sadly topical, does it not?

While there was certainly an intangible sense of poetry within del Toro’s original film that doesn’t quite make the transition over to this one, it’s not for a lack of trying.  The characters – both new and old – are charismatic, engaging, entertaining, and diverse not only in terms of ethnicity, but also personality.  Motivations are clear and sensible and they are generally relatable, being assisted by a capable cast.  Some of the arcs are essentially a repeat from the first film (or at least one of them), but that doesn’t harm things all that much.

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John Boyega continues his bid to take over Hollywood as Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost from the original film.  Rinko Kikuchi reprises her role as Mako Mori and Charlie Day and Burn Gorman also return to the series as their scientist buddies Newt and Hermann, respectively.  Joining them are franchise newcomers Cailee Spaeny, who plays 15-year-old Amara – a wannabe Jaeger pilot, and Scott Eastwood as Nate Lambert, a personal and professional rival of Jake’s.  Boyega and Spaeny are the standouts of the bunch (as written for this film) but all hold their own and elevate the material, keeping it interesting during the downtime.

Because, let’s be honest, as nice as all of that is, that’s not why any of us are here, is it?  I’m sure you will see plenty of reviews that eschew validating the action in favor of talking about the character development, story, etc.. as if it all bears equal weight.  It doesn’t.  All of the latter is great and it always helps and is preferable to have, but what matters most in a franchise like Pacific Rim is the monumental action and visual effects.  That’s the flat-out truth.  Anybody who is pretentiously claiming otherwise is flat out lying in a misguided attempt to preserve their own perceived reputation.  Lying, I say!

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Fortunately, I have nothing but praise to heap upon that aspect of the film.  In fact, Pacific Rim: Uprising, in my opinion, far and away features the best action of any 2018 film, thus far.  Not only is the scope and scale massive, but the movie gradually builds from one impressive set piece to an increasingly more impressive one until it climaxes in one monumental battle for the ages.  The effects are top-notch, the Jaeger and Kaiju designs are outstanding, and DeKnight generally has an eye for giant-robot-versus-monster throwdowns, keeping the camera wide and the action slow enough that it’s easy to interpret and the power plows through the screen (though the characters are a bit reckless in their efforts to win the day).  Near the beginning of the film, his cuts are a little too fast, but that ends quickly and it’s all smooth sailing after the initial twenty minutes, or so.

I feel like the Pacific Rim series, artistically speaking, is what Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise wishes it could be.  Pacific Rim (both the original and Uprising) has characters that are generally enjoyable, dialogue that is unremarkable but good enough, and action that is decipherable – a low bar but one that Bay often has trouble clearing.  Transformers makes the money but it also has the benefit of being an established intellectual property with a long history and a devoted fanbase (although it’s looked much less devoted, recently).  But Pacific Rim is much better balanced, paced, and sophisticated.  Uprising successfully carries on the themes that del Toro introduced and brings them into 2018 while also raising the stakes.  It doesn’t quite possess the artistry of del Toro’s original, but it’s a more-than-worthy follow-up, regardless, and delivers big time on what the audience is looking for: giant monsters versus giant robots.  Stop pretending you need or want anything more and just go see it.

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