If Pacific Rim Uprising had to be distilled into a single word, that word would be "clumsy." Sure, it gains some brownie points for ambition -- it charged ahead full speed despite losing the bulk of its original cast and the first film's director, the daunting-to-replace Guillermo del Toro -- but like so many sci-fi sequels of the last decade, all this gung-ho momentum was funneled into what it could do, rather than what it should.
The premise of Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight, is pretty boilerplate. Set 10 years after the end of the first Pacific Rim, the world has been left to rebuild in the wake of the Kaiju Wars. This is where Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) comes in -- the son of the war hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who, spoilers, died saving the world to end the first film. If you haven't given the original a rewatch in a while, don't worry, the first few minutes of Uprising are, quite literally, a montage narrated by Boyega to both recap and get any and all exposition out of the way as fumbling and awkwardly as possible.
Jake's shirking his dad's legacy, living as a squatter in the ruins of a Kaiju-destroyed town where he gets by on stealing and trading old destroyed Jaeger parts to scrappers for supplies. This is how he meets the young engineering genius Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who has been secretly building her own single-pilot Jaeger robot because she wants to be able to "save herself" when the Kaiju inevitably come back. We of course learn that Jake's squatting, thieving lifestyle only became a real thing after he washed out of the Jaeger Pilot academy and now, following he and Amara's arrest, his adoptive sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) has an ultimatum for him: he can either come back to Jaeger HQ and become a pilot (a "Ranger," as they're called) along with his scrappy new friend, or he can go to jail.
It's a solid enough backbone that should, ideally, be able to carry the rest of the movie forward -- Jake, reluctantly living up to his father's legacy, Amara, his protégée -- but unfortunately, that's exactly where things start to go completely off the rails.
From here, the movie becomes a loosely connected series of vignettes and overlapping storylines populated by nameless, faceless side characters, all of whom are trying admirably to put on their best sci-fi dog-and-pony shows to distract from the fact virtually every recognizable character from the original is nowhere to be found. There's a fun group of teenage Ranger cadets who all seem to have some sort of vaguely defined backstories, a half-hearted rivalry between Boyega and Scott Eastwood's thinly veiled Charlie Hunnam replacement, Ranger Nate Lambert; a subplot about replacing the Jaeger program with drones -- there's a lot going on and the movie never really seems to know where it wants to focus or what it thinks is important.
At one point, it becomes apparent that Amara is struggling to "drift" (achieve the mind meld required to pilot a Jaeger with a partner), a point belabored by a whole moment between she and Jake that feels like it could be building into a cool character arc. Suddenly, the next time Amara has to drift with someone, it works flawlessly and inexplicably. Both Jake and Nate are caught in an awkwardly, repeatedly highlighted love triangle with a female Ranger who seems to exist on screen without any other purpose than for the boys to compete over. The gaggle of cadets get seeded with simmering jealousies, rivalries and friendships that last just about as long as they're convenient before they're easily hand-waved aside to make room for the third act. It's rushed, fumbling and desperately unearned, shoved casually and carelessly aside to make room more montages and giant Monster vs Robot set pieces -- which, admittedly look pretty cool, but without clear stakes or characters to root for, become a tedious bore.
All the while, the script lobs gag after gag like buckshot grenades at the audience in a way that feels almost relentlessly, unapologetically "of the moment." Old memes, bits borrowed wholesale from other movies, sex jokes, visual gags -- Uprising's humor seems cobbled together by a bunch of desperately out-of-touch suits frantically throwing things at the wall to see what could stick.
Of course, there are a few silver linings to be found. Uprising manages to pull off a genuinely cool villain reveal about midway through the second act. Unfortunately it doesn't manage to amount to much more than another patch in the movie's crazy quilt of half-baked ideas, but credit where credit's due. John Boyega as well gets a gold star for this one -- despite the total lack of trajectory in his character and the lifelessness of the script, he managed to keep things afloat with every moment he spent on screen, oozing chemistry with not just his co-stars but the world itself. For all Jake Pentecost feels in context like Pacific Rim's Cousin Oliver, Boyega did his level best to sell it.
Uprising is what happens when you throw Michael Bay's sensibilities, knock-off Power Rangers tropes and the cadence and pace of a Fast and Furious movie into a blender, but forget to put the lid on when you hit puree. The splatters get everywhere -- and sometimes they happen to make pretty interesting patterns -- but ultimately the mess is just a chore to clean up.
Pacific Rim Uprising debuts in theaters on March 23.