If for no other reason, it’s a good thing Pacific Rim: Uprising exists because it means there’s hope for new movie series not based on preexisting source material. There hasn’t been a hit blockbuster movie series that’s truly “new” in a while. The Matrix was almost two decades ago, while Avatar‘s taking so long to get its sequels going, nobody cares anymore. Launching a blockbuster in the mode of Star Wars or Indiana Jones, series which take familiar influences and re-contextualize them with original characters, is unfortunately a risk these days. That Pacific Rim, a “risky” original which didn’t set the US box office on fire, is able to earn a sequel on the strength of its passionate fanbase and international success, is in itself a positive.
However, Pacific Rim: Uprising is missing the personal touch of director Guillermo Del Toro. Replacement director Stephen S. DeKnight does a good enough job putting together a fun silly popcorn movie, but overall it falls significantly short of the original. This sequel actually has some good ideas that fix some of the original’s weaknesses, but for every improvement, there are multiple problems. Here are 10 ways the sequel disappoints, and 5 ways it exceeds the original.
15. BETTER: THE PROTAGONIST
It’s almost universally agreed that Raleigh Becket, the main character of Pacific Rim, was the least interesting part of the movie. The role lacked personality compared to the movie’s colorful supporting cast, and Charlie Hunnam couldn’t imbue this generic hero type with the charisma that could have made it work. Becket was still a lead in Del Toro’s original script for the sequel, but schedule conflicts forced the writers to come up with a new hero.
Jake Pentecost, as a “bad boy” hero struggling with the legacy of his father, is already a more interesting character on the page, but it’s John Boyega‘s acting which pushes him to greatness. Boyega’s passion more or less carries the whole movie. His performance combines the confidence of his Star Wars stardom with the attitude of his break-out role in Attack the Block.
14. WORSE: THE FEMALE LEAD
It’s never fun to trash young actors just starting out, or at least it shouldn’t be (angry sideeye to the nerds who ruined Jake Lloyd’s life). And look, Cailee Spaeny’s performance as Amara Namani isn’t that bad, but this character needed a much better performance if she was going to work.
RELATED: Interview With Cailee Spaeny
Amara’s written as a sort of genius bratty fangirl, the sort of character which could either be charming or irritating. Spaeny, however, has a tough time acting against all the special effects creatures she’s supposed to be in awe of. The character’s problems aren’t all her fault, though; some of the dialogue she’s given is just awkward. One wonders if Del Toro’s first choice for the part, Maisie Williams, could have pulled it off better.
13. WORSE: WHAT HAPPENS TO MAKO
Mako Mori, the Jaeger pilot played by Rinko Kikuchi, was the break-out fan favorite character from the first Pacific Rim. The strength of her character arc inspired “the Mako Mori Test,” a companion to the older Bechdel Test for measuring female representation in movies. Seeing that Mako was one of the few original cast members set to return was cause for excitement. Was there going to be a focus on her and Jake’s sibling relationship? Would she have a new piloting partner? Would she use her sword again?
The answers to those questions: only a little, no and not even close. Mako’s out of the action in this movie, her appearance a glorified cameo before she dies in a helicopter accident. She doesn’t even get a heroic death, she’s just fridged for the sake of furthering Jake’s story. Mako Mori in Pacific Rim: Uprising sadly fails the Mako Mori Test.
12. BETTER: NEWT
Charlie Day‘s manic comedic performance as the scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler was already a highlight of the original Pacific Rim. He’s arguably even better in Pacific Rim: Uprising. He’s certainly weirder, which is welcome in a sequel somewhat lacking in the original’s oddball touches. Turns out Drifting with a kaiju brain is addictive, and it’s turned this once heroic character evil.
Treading the line between lovable eccentric and irredeemable bastard is Charlie Day’s whole shtick on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, so he’s a natural at this (one running gag is a clear Sunny reference). In the first movie, Newt was Del Toro’s obvious self-insert character, the monster geek who saves the day. Newt’s funniest scene in this movie is probably its most “Del Toro”-y touch, the sort of pop absurdity you might see in one of his Hellboy movies.
11. WORSE: THE SUPPORTING CHARACTERS
Pacific Rim: Uprising has almost the exact opposite problem of the first movie. Where the first had a weak lead and a great supporting cast, this one has a great lead and an almost entirely forgetable supporting cast. Some of the side characters at least get something. There’s charm to the campiness-bordering-on-homoeroticism of Scott Eastwood’s rapport with Boyega. Jing Tian, here because the first movie was huge in China, gets a big crowd-pleasing moment in the final battle.
The teenage Jaeger Academy cadets, however, are complete non-entities. Given how much of the movie is focused on Amara trying to get along with this group of characters, this poses a problem. The idea makes sense: fill the movie up with young heroes who will appeal to kids now and could keep the franchise going. Yet there are just too many characters we don’t give a dang about here.
10. WORSE: THE KAIJU
Guillermo Del Toro’s main obsessive interest is monsters. While Pacific Rim‘s kaiju were decidedly less sympathetic than most of the auteur’s supernatural creations, you could still feel how much he loved those destructive abominations. Seeing robots punch monsters is the main reason anyone went to see Pacific Rim, was it not?
There is some good monster-punching in Pacific Rim: Uprising, but it’s almost all concentrated in the last act of the movie. For a movie where monsters are half of the selling point, it’s awfully light on them. There’s one monster moment in the final act which might be jaw-dropping if the trailers didn’t spoil it, but in general there’s not the same sense of wonder. There’s certainly nothing as disturbing as the baby kaiju strangled by its umbilical cord or as awe-inspiring as the kaiju flying into space in the first movie.
9. BETTER: THE JAEGERS
While the monsters are sidelined, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a joy for robot lovers. The plot kicks into gear when a Jaeger goes rogue. This story provides the opportunity for some cool Jaeger vs. Jaeger battles. When the big Jaeger vs. Kaiju battle arrives, it’s the Jaegers who get all of the coolest moments. Each of the machines is well designed with its own unique special weapon.
Many critics who’ll dislike the movie will dismiss it as just a Saturday morning cartoon in live-action. That’s an entirely fair description of the movie. When it comes to the giant robots, however, that cartooniness is absolutely a good thing! The robot action has a sense of fun and personality which will make you feel like a kid again.
8. WORSE: THE WORLD-BUILDING
The first Pacific Rim did an amazing job making its world feel lived-in and believable, showing how a kaiju invasion would reshape society. It touched upon the impact on everything from economics to religion. Pacific Rim: Uprising has some decent world-building. An early scene of a pool party by a kaiju skeleton is evocative, and the first act touches upon how kids who grew up during the war view the Jaeger pilots.
There’s less of an emphasis on the world-building, though, in a story where there should be more of it. Justifying the Jaeger program in a world where the kaiju are seemingly gone seems like it should be a bigger emphasis. A more minor note, the appearance of the real-life Gundam Unicorn statue in Tokyo is a nice bit of a fan service, but raises questions of what mecha anime’s like in a world that’s essentially become a mecha anime.
7. WORSE: THE CINEMATOGRAPHY
Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t a bad-looking movie, but it is a blander-looking one than the first. Guillermo Del Toro might use color better than any other live-action director working today, and working with his regular cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, his Pacific Rim was gorgeous. Some have criticized the decision to shoot many of the action scenes at night, but the bright colors and atmospheric effects made those scenes pop.
Director Stephen S. DeKnight hasn’t directed a feature film before, let alone one of this scale, and even with an accomplished cinematographer like Dan Mindel, his vision is less visionary. There are more daytime action scenes, and they’re competent, but they look flatter. There are bright colors, but they’re less atmospheric. Worst of all, there’s way too much shakey handheld camera work in scenes where fluid shots would be better capturing the scale and scope of the action.
6. BETTER: SHORT AND SWEET
Pacific Rim: Uprising runs a lean 111 minutes, 21 minutes less than the first Pacific Rim. More importantly, it’s a half hour shorter than even the shortest of Michael Bay‘s Transformers movies. Negative reviews of Uprising compare it to the Bayformers, but being shorter makes all the difference. One big reason Bay’s flicks mostly fail at even mindless fun is that they drag on way too long to even be that.
Pacific Rim: Uprising, in contrast, is short and sweet. It has the self-awareness that if it’s going to be less substantial than its predecessor, it can’t just pad itself with nonsense to force itself into an “epic.” Even when the movie is underwhelming, it’s never boring. Nothing feels like it belongs on the cutting room floor.
5. WORSE: LESS FUNNY
Yes, Charlie Day is hilarious in the movie, but other than him, Pacific Rim: Uprising is less funny than its predecessor. One of the major things which elevated the first Pacific Rim above the likes of the Transformers movies was its smarter sense of humor. Without ever becoming a parody or a mockery, it embraced the absurdity of its genre and expertly punctuated its big action setpieces with silly but effective moments of humor.
There are some similar attempts at laughs in Pacific Rim: Uprising, but they’re less successful. Maybe it’s because the movie’s aiming more for kids rather than the all-ages, almost Spielbergian tone of the first movie. Maybe it’s the downside of the rapid pace, the timing of jokes being slightly off. Or maybe it’s because the funniest character is missing.
4. WORSE: IGNORES THE ONE CLIFFHANGER
Where the hell is Hannibal Chau and where the hell is his shoe? Pacific Rim wrapped up its main story neatly, but in its mid-credits scene provided perhaps the best sequel hook ever: the reveal that Ron Perlman’s skeezy black market salesman survived being eaten by a kaiju and is really pissed off about losing one of his gold shoes. Surely the search for that shoe alone would make an extremely entertaining sequel.
It seems Hannibal Chau does get a story in the Pacific Rim: Aftermath comic, but nevertheless his absence in Uprising is a disappointment. Especially given how well Hannibal played off of Newt in the first movie, wouldn’t it be great to see how he’d deal with Newt’s turn to the dark side?
3. BETTER: THE ENDING
The first Pacific Rim has one of the all-time great blockbuster action climaxes with its Hong Kong battle… and then the movie goes on for another half hour for another, adequate but less impressive final fight. Pacific Rim: Uprising‘s battle in Tokyo ends the movie on a stronger note. Saving the best for last does wonders for final impressions of the movie. It’s this final action scene which pushes this mixed bag of a movie into an easily recommendable one.
There’s also an extra scene right after the final title card but before the credits, which sets up a dynamite premise for a potential third movie. Who knows if we get a third Pacific Rim. It took long enough for us to get a second. Even if the series isn’t living up to its full potential, though, it still makes you want to see more.
2. WORSE: LESS ORIGINAL
OK, this is basically a given. By their nature, sequels are almost certainly going to be less “original” than their predecessors. Yet the best sequels, your Dark Knights, your Fury Roads, your Empire Strikes Backs and Last Jedis, are the ones which expand upon what came before in creative ways. Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t bereft of anything new and interesting, but still comes up short.
The lack of originality combined with the worse execution makes it often feel like you’d be better off just re-watching the original. The worst moment of deja vu in this regard is a flashback to Amara’s backstory, which is almost note-for-note identical to Mako’s similar flashback in the first movie, yet with none of the genuine terror or emotional impact.
1. WORSE: NO THEMATIC DEPTH
The first Pacific Rim might not be a deep movie, it still had some strong messages. It was earnest in its belief that the bonds between human beings will save us, and that cooperation across borders was a necessity. It was politically optimistic and, with its use of The Drift, psychologically interesting. There was a lot of meaning which could be expanded upon for future movies.
Maybe in the event a third movie gets made, we’ll finally see these themes elaborated on. Pacific Rim: Uprising doesn’t do that. The storytelling possibilities of The Drift are wasted. It’s a stretch to say this movie’s actually about anything. Maybe the unmanned Jaegers are a commentary on drone warfare, and there is the repeatedly stated but not particularly well-illustrated theme of family legacy. Beyond that, though, there’s nothing to chew on.
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