‘PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING’ does everything a sequel should do – so why is it so hollow?

The Jaegers of PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Creating a worthy sequel for franchise fans is pretty textbook at this point, so it’s always surprising when someone screws it up. The audiences wants are fairly simple: double down on what was there before in terms of the narrative, deepen character relationships and make sure the action is twice as explosive and fun. Simply put, a sequel should be even more awesome than the original to justify its existence. Yet, even though director Steven S. DeKnight’s PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING does all the things its supposed to do, it still manages to deliver a tepid, lukewarm response.

Disposable entertainment certainly has solidified its place in local multiplexes. But why, in the era of insightfully balanced blockbusters, must they regress to the empty caloric intake of popcorn pictures of the past?

It’s been ten years since the last Kaiju attack laid major cities to waste and left families torn apart. Ranger-turned-street-hustler Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is running from his past, specifically the large-looming shadow of his deceased hero father (Idris Elba). But someone is out to poach his business – sassy, scrappy, fifteen-year-old hacker Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). The pair are apprehended by Pan Pacific Defense Corps General (and Jake’s estranged sister) Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who recruits them to train as Jaeger pilots. This puts Jake face-to-face with rival pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), creating a love triangle with mechanic Jules Reyes (Adria Arjona). Plus Amara is thrown into the fray with her fellow cadets, including the intimidating Russian Cadet Vik (Ivanna Sakhno). However, the pilot training program is on the precipice of being shuttered, thanks to advancements in Jaeger drone warfare by Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), funded by Shao Industries president Liwen Shao (Tian Jing). As the PPDC prepares for the possibility that the Kaiju will return, a new threat emerges in the form of a powerful rogue Jaeger.

John Boyega and Scott Eastwood in PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

DeKnight’s follow-up in the series does an about face from Guillermo Del Toro’s original vision. He ditches the ugly rain-soaked night fights between the Jaegers and Kaiju, and the hokey, trope-riddled caricatures from the first film, instilling this second chapter with a brightly lit color palette, better lead characters and a snappier pace. The battles are bigger. The monsters are larger. Don’t get me wrong. These are all good things, but it’s a low bar.

Outside of Nate and Jake in Gipsy Avenger, it’s a challenge to track which trainee is in what Jaeger. The sequel repeats one of the original’s problems, which is cutting the momentum by flipping back and forth from the action inside the Jaeger cockpit to the fight outside. There’s just no getting around it. It all blends together in a gargantuan, loud, off-putting cacophony of actors screaming, alarms sounding, crunching of metal and roaring of giant monsters. And as if it wasn’t chaotic enough, one of the Russian cadets plays this outdated viral video. Only one of these fights adds to character-driven motives through action. The rest of the big action set pieces satiate the most basic of giant-monsters-and-robots-fight needs, but fail to genuinely excite and electrify.

The filmmakers never ask us to care about the trainees as individuals first. Rather, all the script by DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin asks of us is to see them as a collective unit. The audience, of course, understands we should be rooting for the greater good of the team. But wouldn’t it feel far more emotionally satisfying and impactful if we knew their individual desires and motives? If it’s done right, this wouldn’t add to the run time. As it is, with exception of Amara, the rest of this ragtag crew barely rank as one-dimensional. So why are they there beyond the necessary added value of diversity and introduction into the Hollywood talent pool? The actors seem capable enough to handle more character depth. Give it to them!

Scott Eastwood, John Boyega, and Cailee Spaeny in PACIFIC RIM UPRISING. Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

While this passes the Bechdel Test (which only highlights the test’s need for a refurbishing), the narrative can only handle one female character at a time – and only succeeds about half of the time. Reyes is completely wasted, reduced to a barely present love interest, who splits her focus, servicing the needs of Nate and Jake’s egos. Vik is an antagonist until she’s not out of convenience. These two are useless and weightless considering there are other, better written, formidable women in this – namely Amara and Liwen.

When it comes to thematic ties and messages, UPRISING excels far better than its predecessor – and yet, it’s still nothing special. One could find similarities in tone and commentary to the questions raised in BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda’s dilemma about using its advanced technology for warfare is echoed by the debate over using Kaiju technology in the Jaegers. Its subtlety is admirable, but it’s more of an unintended by-product than actual hearty statement. Additionally, bringing in drones as an attempt for real-world relevancy doesn’t exactly stick its landing.

At least UPRISING, which is marketed to all-audiences, has given us one bonkers element – one that’s deeply rooted in Japanese anime culture. It’s the impetus for the villain’s action. Tonally, the scene where Foreigner’s “I Wanna Know What Love Is” plays soothingly in the background throws everything off, but it leaves viewers with probably the only memorable moment in this film.

Big action-tentpoles don’t have to be forgettable fodder anymore. Audiences have shown in the past few years that they will turn out for and competently understand films with  deeper messages rooted in reality. There’s always room for lightly-buttered pure escapism, but I would prefer something we could all savor longer.

PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING opens on March 23.

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