‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ looks the part, but lacks heart.

There’s something about watching a monster fight that really packs people into the theater. Whether it’s classic creatures like King Kong and Godzilla or newer fare like those seen in 2006’s The Host or any glimpsed in the Cloverfield series, audiences love themselves a good monster flick. Heck, last year’s Kong: Skull Island made over $566 million worldwide. It’s with no surprise that Universal Studios and Legendary Entertainment decided to make a sequel to the 2013 robot-versus-monster scifi actioner Pacific Rim, but the question folks didn’t think to ask is – did we need to?

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L-R: Cadet Ryoichi (Mackenyu, Amara Namani (newcomer Cailee Spaeny), Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), and Ranger Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood).

Ten years after the Pan Pacific Defense Corps Jaeger pilots successfully closed the pan-dimensional breach deep in the Pacific Ocean that permitted large alien monsters – called Kaiju – to attack the citizenry of Earth, the world is still recovering. Even with the breach closed, the global populace still fears the return of the monstrous beasts from another dimension. As a result, an advanced drone program is developed to reduce deployment time, decrease the number of necessary pilots, and prevent soldiers from directly getting into harm’s way. This puts the Jaegers, the elite mechanized defense force responsible for global safety, once more on the verge of decommission. That is, until the Kaiju mysteriously return and the only thing that can stop them is the new generation of Jaeger pilots led by faces old and new.

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Rinko Kikuchi reprising her role as Mako Mori.

While it may seem silly to ask whether Pacific Rim – a film which made over $411 million globally – requires a sequel, it’s a significant question from a narrative perspective. The original Guillermo del Toro directed and co-written story successfully, as is oft-quoted, cancelled the apocalypse, so continuing the story needed to be organic. Incredibly, the four-person team of writers behind Pacific Rim Uprising figured out how to do exactly that. Without going into spoiler-territory, Uprising director Steven S. DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin craft a narrative opening that’s just bonkers enough to make sense in a world where humanity protects itself from alien invaders by using equally giant robots. That said, the road they travel so heavily mimics the original film that moments within Uprising – whether in the form of action sequences or interpersonal themes – feel like carbon copies expounded, a la sequelitis. It’s for this reason that Uprising looks the part of the original (almost too much so) but largely lacks the heart that made Rim compelling. Uprising frequently tells its audience that “bigger is always better”, yet bigger frequently leads to bloat, which Uprising suffers from quite a bit.

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Jake and Nate maneuver their Jaeger into position.

Some narrative bloat is reasonable when you’re setting up a new world to explore. Audiences need something to ground them before they go exploring along with the cast of characters. Sequels don’t have to do this as much with so much of the groundwork done for them in the previous film(s). In the case of Uprising, introducing John Boyega’s Jake Pentecost, son of Jaeger leader Stacker (Idris Elba), and Cailee Spaeny’s Amara Namani, mechanical engineer and future Jaeger pilot, forces the narrative to split three-ways: on establishing the new world, finding a way to mesh the previously unknown Jake into this story in a natural way, and fleshing out newbie Amara, a character with zero roots in the series. Once it refocuses around the halfway point, the film goes completely off the rails and really finds its footing within the Pacific Rim universe.

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Charlie Day returns as Dr. Newton Geiszler.

Helping to bring the lifeblood to this rock’em sock’em adventure is a diverse cast filled with new and old faces. Boyega really gets the chance to strut his stuff in Uprising, a vehicle that shows off his strength as a leading man previously only hinted at in features like Attack the Block and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. He’s charming, slightly roguish, and utterly believable as the reluctant solider. If he wasn’t saddled with a similar storyline as Rim’s Raleigh Becket (Charliee Hunnam), the character might feel more unique. Similarly suffering is Spaeny’s Amara, a character who carries the burden of a similar storyline of Mako from the original. Though this is Spaeny’s first feature film, she does a great job making this new character, and its subsequent emotional responsibility, hers. Speaking of Mako, fans of the original will delight in seeing Rinko Kikuchi return to the role, even if it’s both brief and underused. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, however, find their characters – Drs. Newton Geiszler and Herman Gottlieb – taking on much more significant roles, which makes sense given the duo’s powerful impact on the narrative in Rim. Nothing truly new is added by either of them, yet they remain consistently amusing to watch.

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Jaegers poised and ready for battle.

But what do fans of any Kaiju flick want? They want monster fights. They want city-destroying, bone-rattling monster fights and when you throw in some robots to do battle with, audiences are going to walk away happy. Not only does Pacific Rim Uprising deliver on the action, but it amps it up beyond what the original accomplished. Does it feel as visceral as when Gipsy Danger uses a cargo ship as a sword to beat-down a Kaiju? No. But this generation of Jaegers is far more flexible and mobile, leading to some creative team-up action which is really all Uprising needs to offer to keep audiences happy. And they must leave happy or we may never know what comes next in already teed-up next installment of the Pacific Rim series. And you’ll want to see where the story goes next.

Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.

An alternate version of this review was published by CLTure on their site on March 23, 2018.

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Categories: CLTure, In Theaters, Publications, Reviews

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