Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) Review

The original “Pacific Rim” was a deceptively simple rock-‘em, sock-‘em giant robots versus giant monsters movie, blessed with a sumptuous visual elegance, an ocular feast of inky darkness and shadows and iridescent neons and a sly, witty self-awareness that knew just how to push its outlandish premise. It’s sequel, on the other hand, drags the concept out into the harsh light of day, basking in the sunshine of its own inadequacies.

Ten years after the breach was sealed by the heroic actions of Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, not appearing in this film), Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, sort of appearing in this film) and the noble sacrifice of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, technically appearing in this film), Pentecost’s wayward son Jake (John Boyega) finds himself pressganged back into the Jaeger service following a run-in with the law. With the service under threat of automation, Pentecost and his former co-pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, Hollywood’s current go-to-guy when they need a blandly reliable presence to pad out a franchise’s existing cast without the risk of overshadowing other characters and find Jeremy Renner a bit too piquant) find themselves having to lead a group of raw recruits as the kaiju menace inevitably unexpectedly returns.

Remember how, in the first film, the Jaeger programme was on the bones of its arse, being de-funded and about to be shut down by the world’s governments because it was proving ineffective and cost-prohibitive against the mounting kaiju menace in favour of a defensive wall? This film sure as hell doesn’t, because it really hopes you won’t think how absurd it is that, with the complete elimination of the kaiju threat, those same governments would turn around and sanction not only the restoration of the jaeger programme but its global expansion, pouring all that money and resources back into it for no discernible benefit.

It also doubles down by hoping that you won’t side with the pseudo-villains of the early part of the film (before it does a narrative 180 that might give you mental whiplash) who suggest that a better way of piloting all these unnecessary jaegers would be to do so remotely from the safety of a heavily protected base.

Where the first film was an affectionate homage to the tradition of Japanese monster movies and the b-movies of the 1950s and 60s, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” reads more like the waking nightmare of American emasculation by an ascendant China, with the grotesquely overfunded hardware dependant military force under threat of being made obsolete by a more agile, future-facing, technologically advanced alternative. The films very existence is testament to the hypocrisy of America’s identity crisis as it tries to maintain its sense of macho bravado, all the while kowtowing to the financial muscle of the Chinese market with virtue-signalling inclusivity in setting, characters and plot that feels both patronising and cynically manipulative.

The film opens with a narration by Boyega bringing us up to speed on the history of the world over the past ten years, a narration which addresses none of the plot holes above but does emphasize the scarcity of resources (probably all those giant fucking robots sitting around doing nothing) and provides a montage of product placement of such breathtaking venality and clumsiness it makes the YouTube hero sequence from “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” look as inscrutable as Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal”.

Boyega, star and producer, is clearly having an absolute blast in this nonsensical playground and he manages to imbue the proceedings with some of that sense of fun, slyly winking to the audience and relying on his undeniable screen charisma to ride out the rougher parts of the plot. At times, it almost feels like he’s in a different movie and I envied him. The rest of the cast, even the returning few from the first movie, are merely adequate to anonymous and the one bright spark, aside from Boyega, Cailee Spaeny’s spunky bootleg jaeger engineer Amara Namani, has her early promise cruelly cut short as she’s all but sidelined as comprehensively as she would have been in a Michael Bay “Transformers” movie.

Lacking del Toro’s visual panache, Steven S DeKnight’s feature directorial debut allows the stark daylight settings to make everything look cheap, even though money was clearly splurged everywhere. The special effects are, as you’d expect, pretty good, even if they’re used to portray machines and fighting styles so ludicrously unlikely that you run the risk of choking on the popcorn you’ll be shovelling into your mouth as you gasp and snort derisively at the same time. So intoxicated is the movie by the concept of monsters vs robots that it never once views the universe through a lens of common sense and with every ‘ain’t-this-cool’ mecha-kung-fu move, it just undermines the idea that the Jaegers make any sense whatsoever as weapons of war, let alone giant pest control.

Not only does this Pacific Rim sequel fail to rise, it exposes its flaky, undercooked ideas through a vapid eagerness to somehow top the first film by putting more and bigger monsters, robots and ‘splosions on screen. Oh, there’s still fun to be had just from the sheer spectacle of what a SyFy Original movie would look like if an eccentric billionaire financed it as a $200million SFX vanity project but if this is all the “Pacific Rim” franchise has to offer, I wouldn’t cancel the apocalypse, I’d welcome it.