Review: 'Pacific Rim: Uprising' Is Often Stupid, But It Doesn't Make You Feel Stupid for Watching It
There are two kinds of people in this world: people who loved 2013’s Pacific Rim, and people who I’d prefer not to associate with. The reasons why are more complex than one thinks, and it ties into many larger conversations about the media we consume. It’s not objectively good. In fact, there is a good bit of Pacific Rim that is pretty silly. But there’s something to be said for the idea of a really well-made, crowd-pleasing, not-too-smart popcorn film, and Guillermo Del Toro’s giant Jaegers vs Kaiju (aka robots vs monsters) flick checked off all the right boxes in all the right ways. This conversation is a bit of a slippery slope, though — it’s too easy for people to use escape hatches like “turn off your brain” or “don’t take it too seriously,” which isn’t really what I’m talking about when it comes to films like this. Pacific Rim is not a work of cinematic brilliance, but it is incredibly entertaining on a purely fun level. More importantly, despite its shortcomings, it doesn’t punch down, it doesn’t insult its audience, and it doesn’t resort to cheap gags to do its narrative heavy lifting. Instead, it focused on a well-realized futurescape, with interesting, quirky characters with good intentions making (mostly) good decisions, impeccable set and costume design, and a general sense of fun. It was the anti-Transformers, if you will.
I go through that bit of excessive explanation because it becomes useful when reviewing its inevitable sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising. Del Toro moved on to a producer’s chair for this one, turning directorial duties over to Steven S. DeKnight (previously best known as the showrunner for Starz’s Spartacus franchises). Taking place ten years after the events of Pacific Rim, it centers on Jake Pentacost, son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentacost from the first film, as he deals with his father’s legacy, becoming a Ranger, an uneasy partnership with his Jaeger co-pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). There’s also a young upstart cadet at, uh, Jaeger Academy? Some such silliness. Anyway, Cailee Spaeny plays Cadet Amara Namani, a street rat and genius mechanic who is drafted into service, with Jake as a sort of uncertain mentor to her and her co-cadets. Meanwhile, the new threat of Kaiju — as well as another, more unpredictable and surprising enemy — looms.
There’s a noticeable change in tone to Pacific Rim Uprising — it’s a lighter, less self-serious picture with fewer overly weighted dramatic beats and a general feel that’s decidedly less dark. In fact, that lightness translates into more than tone, but in the film itself — gone are the somewhat obscured dark-and-rainy combat scenes. Instead, the bulk of Uprising’s battles takes place in brightly lit locales, letting you revel in all of its wondrous destruction. And that destruction is wondrous — the effects and action choreography remain as outstanding as its predecessor, and its final battle — a harrowing, heart-pounding orgy of mayhem that takes place in Tokyo (a winking bit of homage to the film’s Godzilla-inspired roots) — is a gloriously rendered showstopper. There’s a lot to enjoy in its action sequences, from new spins on the Jaeger designs to intricately detailed Kaiju morphology, to just the breathless absolute madness that comes with that scale of destruction. It’s all bonkers-level destruction and devastation, wherein you’re having the time of your life watching entire cities be destroyed, but all so bloodlessly that you never have to feel particularly guilty about it.
As for the rest of the film, it’s enjoyable, if perhaps for different reasons. There’s decidedly less heart to the writing, and the stakes somehow don’t feel as high, in part because the focus is spread over a much wider cast of characters — the Jaeger cadets, the Rangers, but also the return of characters like Charlie Day’s Newt, Burn Gorman as Gottlieb, and Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori. There’s also the x-factor of Jing Tian as Liwen Shao, the head of a mysterious company that wants to start the mass production of Jaeger drones, which creates all new challenges. There are a great many moving parts, and the script isn’t quite strong enough to juggle them effectively. The upside is that the cast is damn fun, even if they’re not always given the choicest lines to deliver. Boyega seamlessly combines the earnestness and humor of Finn with the brashness and grim determination of Moses to create a fun new character, and he’s a joy to watch. Cailee Spaeny acquits herself well as the spunky, take-no-shit recruit, and Gorman and Day once again make a marvelous couple of weirdo nerd geniuses. The cadets are an impressively diverse cast (the film wears its commitment to diversity brightly on its sleeve), and they’re all fun enough to watch, even if there’s only a hint of history given to each of them. Given the youthfulness of the cast, there’s sometimes the feeling that you’re watching a CW version of Pacific Rim, but on the other hand, the boundless youthful enthusiasm that comes with it is hard to not be charmed by.
At the end of the day, Pacific Rim Uprising is more of the same, with some minor tonal differences and a cast full of fresher faces. It’s hard to explain in some ways — it’s often stupid, but it doesn’t make you feel stupid for watching it. It’s big, loud, goofy fun, even if it’s also deeply flawed in some of its storytelling. There is a fair share of substantial plot holes, and it’s not going to win any awards for writing, acting or directing. But that’s OK. While it perhaps doesn’t take itself seriously, it does take you, the audience, seriously. It doesn’t insult your intelligence, it doesn’t cheapen itself with derivative characters or shitty jokes, and it gives you a good time without making it an endurance test. Like its predecessor, it feels like the type of film Michael Bay always wanted to make if his rampant arrogance and ignorance didn’t get in his own way. It’s B-level popcorn at its finest, and that is a perfectly fine — sometimes even great — thing to be.