2013’s Pacific Rim remains a cut above simple sandbox spectacle thanks to director Guillermo del Toro’s two-fisted approach — one juvenilely, yet justifiably, pumped in the air, the other with a firm grasp on his own idiosyncratic instincts for action-film anthropology.
There are eight (credited) directorial / screenwriting fists trying to clutch Pacific Rim: Uprising, which again finds an international group of heroes piloting giant robots called Jaegers to save the world from alien creatures called Kaiju … this time with a “twist.” None of these fists belong to del Toro. Some seem to be tied behind backs. All are content with 111 minutes of jerkoff motions.
Its most interesting achievement is ripping off every Transformers film in 100 minutes and playing worse than the worst of those. (Dealer’s choice on “worst.” You have options.) There’s Scrapper, a cutesy Bumblebee-like Jaeger forged from cast-off parts. There’s a destructively duplicitous human alliance with villains a la Dark of the Moon. There’s an evil rogue Jaeger like whatever the bounty-hunter robot with the nose-penis gun was called in Age of Extinction. There’s the tough teen-girl sidekick of The Last Knight and brain-scrambling encounters with the enemy a la Revenge of the Fallen.
Uprising, an amusing subtitle for a film with all the insurgent energy of a senior dog napping in the sun, represents the cinematic directorial debut of Steven S. DeKnight. Among the lesser-known apostles of Joss-us, DeKnight followed stints on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Dollhouse with a Spartacus series on Starz — pulpy, porny, propulsive and powerful — and a show-runner gig on the first (best) season of Netflix’s Daredevil after several other creative folks fled.
DeKnight’s track record for executing other people’s playbooks is a bare-minimum qualification for sequel clean-up. Here, his stamp stops at asking his visual effects supervisors to render battles in daytime environments as a counter to del Toro’s nighttime neon reveries. One cool Jaeger uppercut sends the recipient vertical up a skyscraper as though it were a high-striker carnival game. Otherwise, sunlight just makes it easier to see the blurred edges of budget reductions.
Indeed, Uprising is the latest in a line of fiscally timid sequels that only returns the surviving characters played by actors who are still affordable — bye, Charlie Hunnam’s character, presumably dead given his hand-wave past-tense mention in a speech — and pins its hopes on Chinese audiences not recognizing how much they’re being pandered to by casting national favorites in nothing roles.
If there’s a bright spot, it’s that new Star Wars player John Boyega’s wattage remains undimmed even by this mess. Boyega affects his native British accent and reprises his raffish energy from Attack the Block, which put him on Hollywood’s radar. He’s Jake Pentecost, son of the late Stacker (Idris Elba, seen in a memorial hologram), who sacrificed himself to save the world in part one. But make no mistake: Jake is not his father. He says as much once, twice or three times in painful voiceover.
Instead, Jake likes to party and steal scrap metal off decommissioned Jaegers for black-market sales. With the Kaiju seemingly vanquished, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps Jaegers in circulation now police the populace — largely to stop thieves like Jake or ragamuffins like Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), eager to make smaller, faster Jaegers that can be piloted by one human if the Kaiju strike back.
The PPDC’s gladiatorial Jaeger pilots are two-person setups, where each pilot must connect strongly in the Drift — a psychological melding of the minds — to control the Jaeger’s movements. Where del Toro wisely pared back scenes of suited-up duos performing synchronized air punching. DeKnight treats Jaeger piloting like it were Tron night at Dave and Buster’s … with half-price apps.
Before his disappointed dad booted him from the Jaeger program, Jake worked well in the Drift alongside Nate Lambert, played by Scott Eastwood — a lumbering Jaeger unto himself, trampling emotion, charisma and presence underfoot with every stomping syllable.
When Jake and Amara are busted, their choices are to join PPDC as a respective instructor and cadet or go to jail. This is also a chance for Jake to reconnect with his adoptive sister, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), once a Jaeger pilot and now a bigwig with the PPDC. But even the best Jaeger squad is soon to be outmoded by drones — pioneered by Chinese business magnate Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) and produced by Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day), back with more manic energy after Drifting with the Kaiju in the first film. Also back: Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, going full Colin Clive), into whose perpetually panicked face the camera zooms so often there must be outtakes of lenses striking him.
Naturally, it’s not long before the drones go haywire and Kaiju unexpectedly reemerge from the ocean floor. Jake and Nate must put aside their differences and rely on support from the blank-slate greenhorn mopes in this Pacific Rim version of “The New Class” — more or less the same as the blank-slate greenhorn mopes in the Independence Day: Resurgence version of “The New Class.” (Uprising’s credit-cookie threat of another sequel is also the same as that film’s.)
These upstart Jaegers have names. Stuff that sounds like Glory Stallion, Freedom Pinger, Apex Masterwolf, Zenith Whamalong or whatever the marketing team thought turned out well from a “What’s Your Jaeger Name” Facebook algorithm. You’ll remember them as Cool Rotor Whip Fella or Blue Flame Blade Man, if you remember them at all.
The villainous masterplan is reminiscent of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Puppet Masters — not bad from a conceptual standpoint, and allegedly a carryover from when del Toro was set to write and direct himself. But Uprising solves this in maybe five minutes — and at the two-thirds mark in the story — so DeKnight and company can offer 4Chan whiners little ground to complain that there are no Kaiju per se here. At least their iridescent blood trails resemble the best album cover Yes never released.
It’s even more depressing compared to del Toro’s penchant for wondering, and dramatizing, what a world might look like in which giant robots and monsters — and their carcasses — were woven into the fabric of everyday life. He’s the kid on the playground with the infectious energy and imagination that lures you toward him. For a brief wormy-squirmy moment, Uprising taps into a Strange Days-meets-Demolition Man-meets-David Cronenberg kind of thing but then settles back into its unambitious groove. The biggest surprise here? A baffling use of Mr. Trololo.
Between all that, the writers cram so much technobabble gobbledygook into these poor folks’ mouths. Tertiary plasma capacitors, reactionary blood thrusters, precursor mind controllers. Zzzzzzzz. Kikuchi especially suffers through this, eschewing her effervescence from the original as she chews up bad dialogue. You yearn for Ron Perlman to turn up again and tell people how stupid they sound. Or for something half as rousing as Elba’s “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!,” glimpsed on a tattered propaganda poster.
Uprising thinks it’s self-aware, hip and cool by having Jake say he won’t deliver a big, rousing Cockney-and-cocky St. Crispin’s speech like his dad. Moments later, he delivers a big, rousing Cockney-and-cocky St. Crispin’s speech … or whatever DeKnight, a guy who co-wrote three Maze Runner movies, the co-writer of a third, as-yet-unmade Jurassic World movie and someone whom I hope didn’t give up her better gig writing on The Handmaid’s Tale can muster.
One character tells Amara she’s pretty good at turning junk into Jaegers. This depressingly dire dirge does exactly the opposite. Pacific Rim was a breath of fresh air. Uprising is a breath of fresh ass.