'Pacific Rim Uprising' is Still a Kid's Fantasy Come to Life
Let’s get this out of the way: Pacific Rim Uprising is a movie for kids. The basic premise of giant robots and monsters duking it out and causing massive destruction on the big screen is a geek kid’s fantasy come to life, hearkening back to the days of smashing our little robots and dinosaur toys into lego buildings while mimicking exploding sounds.
When Guillermo del Toro brought the concept to the big screen in 2013, it was remarkable in that it was one of the few big-budget, special effects-driven blockbusters not based on an existing property. At a time when Hollywood seemed to be turning over every rock in the world of comics and dystopian YA futures in search of something to adapt into film, Pacific Rim was a breath of fresh air.
The first film was only moderately successful in the United States, owing to being an unfamiliar concept and property, but performed remarkably well in China and non-US territories. Filipino audiences were delighted to see Manila laid to waste by a giant monster, or kaiju, in the opening narrative (Manila gets a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it nod in this installment, too). It was, in fact, due to its success outside the US that afforded Pacific Rim a sequel, and Uprising bets all its chips on China and neighboring regions with an extremely Asia-centric story and supporting cast.
The story picks up ten years after the conclusion of the first film, where we see Jake (John Boyega), the son of fallen hero Stacker Pentecost, as a hard-partying grifter who illegally salvages parts from decommissioned giant robots called jaegers. Jake encounters a young teenage mechanical genius named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) who’s cobbled together her own pint-sized jaeger.
They become part of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, joining other jaeger pilot candidates, where they train in preparation for the possible return of the kaiju. Aside from the criminally bland and uncharismatic Nate (Scott Eastwood), Jake’s fellow ranger trainer, there are no adults on the jaeger pilot program which assembles a motley assortment of Russian, Chinese, and Indian kids who look like they’re barely out of high school (which makes a scene talking about boobs in the bunkers oddly appropriate yet unnecessary).
Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, and Charlie Day reprise their roles as Mako Mori, Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, and Dr. Newt Geiszler respectively; we get to see how their characters have grown over the past ten years. Her piloting days behind her, Mako now works in an administrative role and helps guide her younger brother Jake on the right path while Hermann appears to be stuck doing the same, albeit better-funded academic research on kaiju. It’s Newt, who now works for the private sector with Shao Industries, who’s experienced the most character growth. Driven by the company’s relentless CEO Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), Newt is tasked to develop a new generation of remote-controlled drone Jaegers intended to replace manned Jaegers on the battlefield. This little bit of political and corporate maneuvering makes the first act drag slightly, but it sets up a few interesting twists that lead to return of the kaiju and natural evolution of Day’s kaiju groupie character. If there’s one gripe I have, it’s how one of the characters from the old film was given a surprising farewell, and the character deserved so much better.
Pacific Rim Uprising embraces its homage to Japanese giant robot anime, taking the action right to the heart of Tokyo in the finale, which seems to be decimated by giant monsters so regularly it's almost tradition. It can’t get any more on-the-nose than an appearance by a life-size Gundam statue in front of an Anaheim Electronics building. It’s thankfully unpainted because you actually half-expect it to come to life and aid in the final battle against the mega-kaiju, which is sort of like an organic, monstrous homage to Japan’s combiner robots.
It’s highly entertaining and so cleverly tailored for its intended target audience—namely the Chinese (Hong Kong actor Zhang Jin also has a prominent role as Marshal Quan), and kids (or every adult geek who’s ever wanted a giant robot)—that a third installment should be a foregone conclusion. The pre-credits scene promises that the jaegers will take the fight to the kaiju; if we’re lucky, Del Toro will return to helm it and we’ll be treated to the culmination of his truly twisted vision.
There’s a sort of tedium to watching a robot duking it out against another robot which happens a few times in the film, and it’s all thanks to the numbing effect created by Michael Bay’s Transformers. There are also a number of curious plot holes (where did those tiny kaiju-stitching machines come from?) and questions (how’d they know the rogue jaeger was called Obsidian Fury?). But at the end of the day, it’s really just a movie about improbably gigantic robots beating up improbably gigantic monsters. If that sounds like your thing, go grab some popcorn, find the biggest screen available—IMAX was probably invented for extravaganzas like this—and enjoy the ride.