2013’s “Pacific Rim” was an unexpected delight. A cursory glance would’ve suggested that it was little more than a ‘robots vs. monsters’ bash—and that cursory glance would’ve been right—but under the stylistic eye of Guillermo del Toro, it was far more fun that it had any right to be. Del Toro won Best Director and Best Picture at the most recent Academy Awards. “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is the replacement director’s first movie. Robots vs. monsters might not be high art this time around.
The movie’s opening is promising. New director Steven S. DeKnight recognizes that part of the original’s charm was its graceful worldbuilding: the Earth of “Pacific Rim” is a murky sea of grime and hope, delineated by titanic technologies that both threaten and enhance the human experience. “Uprising” adds a layer of collective PTSD, as the world copes with the results of the Kaiju invasion while dreading a resurgence. This anxiety seeps through the production design and adds a human element to the sci-fi jargon.
A fight scene that showcased impressively outsized action kicked off the original, setting the tone for jaw-dropping clashes between mountains of visual effects. The sequel hits the ground walking—its interest is in character backgrounds and relationships. Normally this isn’t cause for complaint, but the joy of “Pacific Rim” was that it knew what it was: Jaegers fought Kaiju on the battleground of energetic cinematography, war-weary characters shouted cool lines, and popcorn was hastily consumed. The characters required little more than warm blood to power cold steel.
Growth of the new characters could lead to worthy places, but “Uprising” loses confidence in this endeavor almost immediately. It introduces John Boyega and Cailee Spaeny—both of whom give animated performances—and then loses them in a sea of one-note personalities. The initial goodwill towards well-rounded characters is discarded in favor of a thrilling set piece that dominates the third act. The first two acts would’ve been better off looking more like the third.
Returning scientists, portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, enliven the sequel with some of the original’s spirit. Couple their presence with a shocking twist (it’s surprisingly great for a movie so light on plot), and “Pacific Rim: Uprising” finds its footing after a humdrum start. The final battle is an extravaganza of clear-eyed destruction. No matter how leviathan the players and chaotic the action, the movie remains a blast to watch, as it prioritizes visibility over pandemonium. Replicating anime combat while maintaining visual order is no easy task, and it’s done to exhilarating effect here.
And then it ends super abruptly, leaving little worth remembering. “Pacific Rim” was Guillermo del Toro having fun; “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is trying to copy someone else’s brand of fun. No matter how sensational the action, it lacks the aesthetic touches of del Toro’s color palette and genre film sensibility. The movie’s focus on character is cast off too readily to give it a distinct personality.
With action that’s enjoyable but flavorless and a cast of wasted opportunities, “Pacific Rim: Uprising” is a dilution of what made “Pacific Rim” great. Let’s hope Guillermo del Toro isn’t too busy for the inevitable third entry.