'Pacific Rim: Uprising' Is Missing Guillermo Del Toro's Touch

The sequel is lacking the scope of the 2013 original, which was helmed by the new Oscar winner.
Courtesy of Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures

[This story contains spoilers for Pacific Rim: Uprising]

In the five years since Pacific Rim, the career of its director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has had some remarkable ups and downs. A couple of years after the film opened — to a firm embrace by a cult of fans around the world, but only moderate success at the domestic box office — del Toro released the spooky horror pastiche Crimson Peak to even milder box office and a smaller but similarly dedicated cult. Just last month, del Toro won the Academy Award for best director and best picture for last year’s The Shape of Water. This month, he’s produced Pacific Rim: Uprising, the sequel to Pacific Rim, suggesting that the goofy sensibility of the first film still exists, but isn’t as successful without his presence as director.

Pacific Rim: Uprising mostly forges a new world, with only three major characters returning from the original film. The new leads, played by John Boyega, Scott Eastwood and Cailee Spaeny, suggest a sequel defined by its youth. Boyega, playing the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, doesn’t get a barn-burner of a speech with lines like “We are canceling the apocalypse!” Instead, when he does get to inspire the cadets who will pilot giant robots called Jaegers to face off against mutated Jaegers as well as aliens known as Kaiju who are attacking cities like Tokyo and Sydney, it’s to emphasize that “it’s our time.” The past is past here; the first film’s lead, Charlie Hunnam, doesn’t appear and his character is only referenced briefly in a tossed-off line of dialogue.

The characters who do return all end up being instrumental to the story, however. Stacker Pentecost’s adopted daughter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) first recruits her brother Jake (Boyega) to return as a Jaeger ranger before she’s killed in an attack by a mutated robot. Then there are the goofball scientists, Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). Geiszler now works for a Chinese technology firm trying to build drone versions of Jaegers; but once those Jaegers turn against humans, it’s revealed that not only are they essentially piloted by Kaiju brains, but that they were crafted by Geiszler himself. Or, rather, Geiszler as guided by the Kaiju brains with which he melded during the first Pacific Rim, which have embedded inside of him over the past decade. (While this movie doesn’t feature a lot of the first film’s cast, it presumes that everyone watching it remembers Pacific Rim very, very well.)

At its core, Pacific Rim: Uprising, co-written and directed by Steven S. DeKnight, is utterly ridiculous without taking itself too seriously. Having humans placed inside of giant robots to fight equally giant aliens and other robots is the kind of thing a hyper little kid might dream up while on the playground. Thankfully, Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t above having its characters be funny — and unlike how things were in the first film, Boyega is a much more charismatic lead character to follow around. But even though the original was longer (at 111 minutes including the end credits; Uprising is very lean and fast-paced), there’s something inherently missing here that del Toro would have brought to the table.

If anything, the sense of scope from the first Pacific Rim is missing from Uprising. There are requisite battle scenes in crowded cities in both films, but those in Uprising feel more perfunctory than exciting or necessary. Much of the characterization of the new leads — Boyega’s character Jake struggling to step out of his father’s shadow, Spaeny trying to prove herself as a Jaeger cadet despite dealing with a long-ago family trauma — also feels perfunctory, as if the four credited writers had to do something with the new guys and went for the safe route. The excitement in Pacific Rim: Uprising either comes from the performances (Boyega is the standout) or some novel twists in the action. But it’s still equivalent to drinking a generic soda as opposed to Coca-Cola: something ineffable is different and doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Guillermo del Toro is as known for having lots of unreleased or in-development projects that he’s writing, producing or directing, as he is for actually writing, producing and directing finished films. It’s somewhat remarkable that Pacific Rim ever got a sequel — it made a ton of money in China, but its box office in the States was never quite as impressive as Universal Pictures had hoped. But while the existence of Pacific Rim: Uprising might be notable, the execution of the film is something of a letdown. It’s got the robots, the aliens, the big battles and everything that made Pacific Rim so enjoyable. But even as Pacific Rim: Uprising finds some charm and excitement, it’s a fairly unremarkable experience marked by the absence of those who made the first film so good.

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