When a Cinematic Universe Is Built Around Something New

'Pacific Rim Uprising' has its flaws, but deserves credit for trying to exploit a sizable gap in the realm of pop culture.
Courtesy of Legendary Pictures/Universal Pictures
'Pacific Rim Uprising'

The cinematic universe is something nearly every studio in Hollywood is pursuing. But while the craze was kicked off in earnest six years ago following the massive success of Marvel's Avengers, it's surprising to consider that the new craze has for the most part been based on relatively old IP.

Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and its accompanying Netflix TV shows) is just 10 years old, but it has its roots in the comics of the 1960s (or the '40s, if you are Captain America). Other onscreen universes (such as those based on DC Comics and Star Wars) also have decades-old roots. Even Harry Potter, perhaps the youngest of the extant shared cinematic universes, has been around for 20 years as a print property. 

Enter Pacific Rim. It can be easy to forget the relative newness of the budding Pacific Rim universe because it is derivative to the point where watching it involves being in a near-constant state of deja vu. The Jaegers resemble super-sized Transformers that don’t transform into cars, and the Kaiju look like amalgamations of just about every giant world-invading alien monster ever to appear in a Hollywood movie, but at the end of the day it’s technically new — at five years old, it's practically a baby.   

Pacific Rim Uprising clearly has starry-eyed ambitions for the future. Picking up a decade after Guillermo Del Toro's original 2013 film, the emphasis on world-building is clear from the start, with Jake Pentecost’s (John Boyega) opening monologue about his “world,” and from there remains consistent with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, from the huge ensemble cast to scenes that could easily be summarized as Let’s profile a dozen different Jaeger models because we can.

The Universal and Legendary property has already begun planting the seeds of a larger universe with comics, and Rising's filmmakers have been open about ambitions for such a universe. The immediate question is if the film will make enough money to warrant more. The more fundamental question is whether or not Pacific Rim actually has sufficient content to fill such a universe. As far as concepts go, the most intriguing thing the Pacific Rim world has to offer is its mind-meld/drift compatibility plot device. Pacific Rim Uprising seems well aware of this, clearly eager to linger on technobabble-y discussions of “neural handshakes” and so on whenever the opportunity presents itself. While Hollywood’s interest in the idea of linked minds can be traced back to at least 1935’s Peter Ibbetson — a black-and-white drama about separated lovers who can enter each other's dreams and which itself dates back to George du Maurier’s 1891 book — it’s relatively unexplored and rich territory in comparison the overrun and thoroughly explored lands of giant battle-bots and aliens hell-bent on world destruction.

Even most recent attempts to kick start cinematic universes, like Universal’s abandoned Dark Universe, have not been about creating new worlds so much as revamping and repurposing existing ones. In spite of its content being in several regards derivative to the point of almost feeling old, Pacific Rim Uprising’s attempts at establishing a new cinematic universe reveals a sizable gap in our current popular culture realm. There is definite room for a new cinematic universe — a genuinely new cinematic universe, something not grounded in an adaptation, or a reboot, or a remake, or any of those other words brought to you by the letter “R." Even if Pacific Rim Uprising doesn’t quite make a convincing argument for its ability to fill that space, it does present a compelling case that such an empty space is there to be filled.  

The prestige that time has given the established fictional universes we know and love is ultimately a double-edged sword. High expectations and illustrious legacies are also heavy burdens. Yes, new cinematic universes are risky — they don’t have built-in fan bases— but they also have the freedom bestowed by that lack of expectations. They can have fun; go a little crazy. They can, for example, have a character have brain sex with an alien resembling a giant sea slug crossed with a teratoma and not have to worry about dealing with the fallout of desecrating anyone’s childhood memories in the process. Yes, Pacific Rim Uprising is silly — to the point of utter stupidity at times — but there’s a delightful levity to it, too, to watching something with such clear world-building ambitions that is also novel, even if it is a decidedly generic novelty.

It seems unlikely — though admittedly, not entirely impossible — that Pacific Rim truly has the potential for the depth and breadth required to fill the space of a full-fledged extended cinematic world. Regardless, Pacific Rim Uprising’s evident ambitions serve as a reminder that, as great as it is to visit familiar, beloved fictional places, there’s definitely room for something new in the current Hollywood cinematic multiverse.