The feature film debut of Steven S. DeKnight, Pacific Rim: Uprising, takes place a decade after the first film in the franchise, and centres on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Pacific Rim’s Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Rather than delivering rallying speeches atop the foot of a skyscraper-sized kaiju-killing robot like his dear old dad, Jake is keen to establish his own identity away from his father’s famous name, spending his nights at bouncing pool-parties in abandoned beach houses. He earns a living scavenging parts from abandoned jaegers which litter the kaiju attack sites from years prior, and cheats fellow-scavengers out of their share of the bounty using charm, wit, and luck; he’s essentially the Han Solo of the Pacific Rimiverse. It’s on one of these scavenging missions where he meets Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage girl who constructs custom jaegers from spare parts.
It is the relationship between – and performances of – these two that is Uprising’s strongest point. John Boyega is charismatic as the jaded and defiant Jake (when is Boyega not charismatic?) and Cailee Spaeny is very impressive as the cynically independent Amara, making many of the weaker plot points seem less grating simply by her presence. The familial bond that forms between the two over the course of the film is what saves Uprising from being a soulless clashing of metal. But that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s two hours of uninspiring dialogue, a forgettable score, and a lack of the sense of scale which made its predecessor so spectacular.
I don’t buy into the world; the jaegers aren’t grounded, they’re airy and abstract
Of course, it’s not always productive to compare a sequel to its forerunner, as every film is a piece of art in its own right, but in this case both attempt to do the same thing: make their jaegers seem big. This is somewhere Uprising falls down. Don’t get me wrong, its designs are enormous, but they’re not awe-inspiring because I don’t buy into the world; the jaegers aren’t grounded, they’re airy and abstract. They don’t bring a visceral impact because they don’t look like they could exist in the real world, rather they appear to be cartoons transposed into a live-action setting.
Perhaps the key to my inability to connect with the film is in lacklustre worldbuilding. Pacific Rim has a world that is dirty and used, its gargantuan lumbering mechs look tangible and organic as as they trudge through the black ocean, rain cascading off their joints in swathes. Uprising’s world is sleek and artificial, the jaegers here seeming more like children’s action figures hopping around Lego cities. It’s like grass versus astro-turf. And in a film where spectacle seems so key to its appeal, this issue is an important one.
I found myself laughing at the serious moments and frowning at the jokes
There’s also a sub-plot involving the returning characters of Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) which is a bizarre premise to begin with and one that is bizarrely executed. Charlie Day does well with this storyline, which appears to try and merge comic relief with dramatic beats, which does not work in this instance, as I found myself laughing at the serious moments and frowning at the jokes.
This is not to say there’s no fun to be had with Uprising. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, the battles between kaijus and jaegers (although they are few and far between) have some of the most entertaining visuals of the film, and there are a number of interesting directions taken with the villainous characters. Ultimately, however, it never lives up to its potential. Solid performances are mired by a clunky plot, cringeworthy dialogue, and inevitable comparisons to its superior precursor. Perhaps now that the apocalypse has been cancelled twice, it’s time to cancel the Pacific Rim franchise.