I would not have thought a Pacific Rim sequel could survive the departure of Guillermo Del Toro. It’s not that he’s the only person who can bash giant monsters and robots together; it’s that the first film was such a personal collection of fetishes that it seemed weird to me for anyone else to play with his toys. It’s like he was in a big bathtub and for several hours, he threw all of them in there and the result was just crazy. A Pacific Rim sequel, in theory, felt to me like someone else climbing into that same bathtub after him, and with all due respect, that’s not a gig anyone wants.
Steven S. DeKnight, though, is a guy who has a big appetite for pulp, and who understands the value of lunacy. If you watched his Spartacus, in particular, it looks like he understands that a big crazy twist can work as long as it’s fun. That combination of interests made him an interesting choice for the follow-up, PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING. The results are uneven, but there are things about it that are so surprisingly enjoyable that I’m still curious to see what else DeKnight can do. He comes as close to getting this thing right as anyone could, but in the end, it just doesn’t feel like this was ever going to work.
It’s almost unfair to just boil Pacific Rim down to “monsters vs. robots” because there are plenty of big sci-fi ideas jam-packed into this world. Hell, when Travis Beacham sold the original spec script, there was an entire glossary because he knew people would have a hard time getting all of it right their first time through the script. For those who didn’t see the original or who don’t remember the details of it, there was a strange interdimensional rift that opened on the ocean floor, allowing monsters through into our world. The world reacted by building giant fighting machines called Jaegers, and in order to operate one Jaeger, it takes two pilots, connected by a psychic “handshake” called The Drift. You have to be drift-compatible in order to effectively pilot a Jaeger, and there are all sorts of things that factor into it. Much of the plot of the first film hinged on the Drift and the way scientist Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) eventually turned it against the kaiju, using it to look back into their world as a way of figuring out how to fight them. It also served to set up the emotional stakes of the film. Not just anyone could climb into the cockpit of a Jaeger, and you couldn’t do it if you weren’t centered and ready. Simple stakes through a high-tech twist, and it worked.
Even more than that, I loved the way del Toro’s film felt like it was set in a world where monsters had been around for a while and society had adjusted to the reality of them. In particular, I loved the black market for used kaiju parts and the weird cult we glimpse the temples of in the background. That kind of weirdness is what made the film feel so personal, and it’s also what made it feel like the evolution of the entire idea of giant monster movies. For as long as kaiju film culture has existed, there is very little in those movies that makes it feel like they’ve thought about the larger worlds.
It’s clear that Steven S. DeKnight and his co-writers, Emily Carmichael & Kira Snyder and TS Nowlin did their best to build on the weird-ass ground rules established by del Toro and Beacham, and while they certainly pick up a few threads, they don’t really create anything that feels like a fun expansion or an upgrade to the original. They fall into the trap of “more and louder,” and that’s a shame, because there is one idea in the film that hints at just how loony things could have gotten.
The film starts a full decade after the end of the war in the first film, and Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of Idris Elba’s spectacularly-named Stacker Pentecost, is living as a scavenger in the ruins of what’s been left behind. The world is starting to rebuild, but there’s still an active push to build Jaegers and train new pilots, and Jake left the program behind, choosing to live on the margins. It’s hard not to see some parallels between where we find Jake in this film and where we met Rey in The Force Awakens, but this film is nowhere near as nimble at building a new cast of characters to fill in around the previous film’s returning characters. It’s during an illegal run to retrieve power cells from a long-fallen Jaeger that Jake meets Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young girl who has built her own Jaeger from scrap. That’s illegal as hell and when Jake accidentally leads the authorities to her workshop, they both end up arrested. There’s a way out, though, if they’re both willing to join the Jaeger pilot training program.
One of the things that happens when you watch several hundred new movies a year is that you start looking for little pleasures in films, even films you’re not particularly enjoying, and I found myself fascinated by the way Scott Eastwood appears to have finally turned that corner and all the DNA dropped into place and BLAM!, suddenly he is absolutely his father’s son. DeKnight takes great pains to shoot Eastwood from the angles where the resemblance is the greatest, and Eastwood leans into the family squint in a big way. His growl isn’t as convincing as Dad’s yet, but then again, Dad wasn’t Dad when he was this age, either. He plays Nate Lambert (and, no, none of these names stuck when actually watching the film, a real disappointment after the swings for the fences with characters names in the first film), who trained with Jake in the old days. Now he’s trying to run the program and prepare for what happens if the kaiju ever return. There’s a growing push to replace the Jaegers, though, with drones that are piloted remotely, and Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) and her corporation are right there on the cutting edge of making that happen. She’s got Newt working for her, giving Charlie Day a chance to play a scumbag corporate sell-out version of Newt this time.
The sequel takes a while to find its footing. About a half-hour into the film, things start getting weird, and for a moment, I felt like things were starting to rev up. A mysterious rogue Jaeger shows up and some bad things happen. Big choices are made. And then the real bad guy is revealed and even more bad things happen, and it seemed like they were willing to do anything, even the craziest things…
… and then there’s a lot of noise. Once they make that big choice, they never really do anything else. There are some bright spots in terms of staging and acting and design, but the film settles into a sameness that makes it feel like a slowly deflating balloon. Boyega is still so young, but he’s comfortable playing the lead in a film like this. He’s got an easy charm, and there’s a common thread between his work here and in Star Wars and even in Attack the Block. Boyega’s a great model for the 21st century reluctant hero, the guy who is great at taking care of himself but who has no interest in the greater good until absolutely cornered into it. They keep trying to strike romantic sparks between Boyega and non-character Jules (Adria Arjona) as part of a romantic triangle with Eastwood’s character, but it’s a dud. It just doesn’t belong in this film or help this story. There’s more genuine affection in the mentor relationship he has with Spaeny’s character, and because of their age difference, there’s no threat of it turning romantic. I know it’s a reflex to try to play sexual tension any time you have a good-looking young cast, but the film is already doing 15 different things at once. That’s one more thread to follow, and it’s unnecessary.
I wish we saw more of Rinko Kikuchi, but that’s true in general, not just in this film. I like that they put Burn Gorman and Charlie Day together again, but they don’t do it soon enough, and they don’t let them play enough of the weird dynamic that made them so much fun in the first film. I am pro-Charlie Day, and I would like to see him given more to do. That’s also true of the young cast here. Most of the cadets are appealing and they do everything the film asks of them. They’re just not given time to really register as characters instead of types. That may be the biggest missed opportunity here, because this is very much a children’s film. Which is fine… it is a movie about giant mech suits fighting giant monsters, after all. It’s not what the first film was, but it’s a different filmmaker. That’s to be expected. I just wish they’d leaned harder into making what feels kind of like a Heinlein juvenile, and in a YA-driven world, I’m surprised they had this much trouble figuring out exactly what they’re doing here. They’ve got all the pieces in place, but they just can’t figure out how to make it work right. By the time they have a giant fight against a giant threat, with the clock ticking and a glowing doodad in play, it’s so familiar and so redundant to things we’ve already seen and things that we’ll be seeing in the next few years, that it’s just numbing.
You’ll get the basic kicks, but nothing else, and in a sandbox this ridiculous, that seems like a real shame. I have my doubts we’ll ever see the vague threat of a third film, delivered in the film’s closing moments, brought to fruition. The del Toro film that does deserve a third part (Hellboy) won’t get it, and noisy imitations like this shouldn’t be rewarded with ongoing franchises, either.
Running time: 111 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic