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Friday, March 23, 2018

Review: PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING Builds on the Good and Inherits Bad from the Original

It's only March and we're already quickly heading into big blockbuster territory, with the sequel to Guillermo del Toro's 2013 Pacific Rim being perhaps the first giant monster flick to hit the screens in 2018. The original film was one that divided critics; sure, it was fun as hell and had everything you could want in a big, dumb action movie (colossal monsters and giant robots, I mean, come on), but it also was sorely lacking in character development, especially in its lead with Charlie Hunnam. With first time feature director Steven S. DeKnight at the helm, it wasn't clear whether Pacific Rim: Uprising would fall flat without the guidance of the visionary del Toro, just become a Transformers-like toy commercial, or maybe, just maybe, do something interesting with the budding franchise. Luckily for fans of big things hitting other big things, Uprising manages to capitalize on what works in the first film in a big way, and actually is surprisingly unpredictable in a few of its major turns.

Uprising follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the apocalypse-cancelling Stacker Pentecost, who has abandoned his military duties in favor of living it up in one of the abandoned half-destroyed cities on the coast post-war. After a run in with the young Amara (Cailee Spaeny), an orphan who builds her own mini-jaeger with scrapped parts, the pair end up forcibly enrolled into military duty just in time for the first post-war attack, this time by a mysterious rogue jaeger.

One thing that most folks agreed on with Pacific Rim was that it does a phenomenal job of building a world around its action figure smashing basic concept; there's a whole economy built around walling up the coasts, and the exploits of the film's scientists make interesting connections with the origins of the colossal kaiju. Uprising wisely adds to that mythos, creating a world where there's a whole subculture of people living off the scraps of former jaeger complexes, squatting in deserted mansions. This plays nicely against the "kaiju groupies" in the first film, who have now graduated to kaiju worshippers. 

The other element that is really built up is a range of unique and interesting jaegers. The handful that are focused on in the first film are really cool, but are all essentially red shirts: within the first few minutes of their deployment, they are all sacrificed in the name of making sure you know how badass the kaiju really are. Here, mostly for the better, the film seems much more self-aware of its toy-collecting target audience. From the sleek, ninja-like Saber Athena to the bulky three pilot tank Titan Redeemer, we definitely get the coordinated teamwork of multiple unique jaegers battling it out in a way that the first film didn't quite deliver.

Uprising also is shockingly unpredictable and doesn't just copy/paste the first film with bigger monsters and bigger robots; instead, we get some very interesting blends between the two warring collosi, and in fact the kaiju aren't seen in their usual form until the final act. Given that the breach that connected their world to ours was ostensibly sealed in the last film, Uprising does some pretty interesting things to keep that war going without resorting to the old, "the breach has opened again, and this time its even bigger!" There's a big twist involving the villain of the film that I'd hate to spoil here, but let's just say DeKnight and co. definitely pulled the rug out from under where I expected the blockbuster sequel to go.

All that said, you'll notice I haven't said much about any of the characters; unfortunately, this movie inherits that same problem from Pacific Rim. While Boyega's Jake has personality and a handful of good lines, without his connection to Elba's character his backstory would be nonexistent, and motivation minimal. The surrounding cast is pretty blah, including Jake's drift partner Nate (Scott Eastwood) who could've had no lines and had about the same effect on the plot, and the bizarre inclusion of Jules (Adria Arjona), who literally exists only to have the faint murmurs of a romance that never matters even a little. Spaeny's Amara has nearly the exact same backstory as Mako's, which just takes arguably the best part of the first film and makes it into a Shyamalan-ian level character obstacle.

Then again, who really expects loads of character development in a giant robots vs giant monsters movie? All in all, Pacific Rim: Uprising takes the best parts of the concept and expands on them in a big way, and the extended final action sequence is seriously fun and impressively tense. In a world where Pacific Rim could've been left alone as perhaps the best of the mega-disaster genre (Dwayne Johnson seems to have a lock on one-off movies with toppling buildings, with not one but two identical looking movies releasing in the next four months), it's pleasantly surprising to see that it is possible to create a worthwhile sequel.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is directed by Steven DeKnight and stars John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, and Cailee Spaeny. It opens in theaters today.
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