People go to the movies for all sorts of reasons – and nestled somewhere in the Top 10, between “gaining insight on the human condition” and “witnessing our collective hopes, dreams and fears projected in front of our very eyes” is, of course, “see a big-ass robot beat the shit out of a skyscraper-sized monster.” Director Guillermo del Toro understood this back in 2013, when he took several bags of studio loot and gave us Pacific Rim. It was mass entertainment, sure, the kind of popcorn movie that’s filled with things-blowed-up-real-good set pieces and speeches about the apocalypse being cancelled. But it was also a weirdly personal film – a big-budget tribute to the J-pulp fetishes of the director’s youth and a valentine to the corner of the Geek Universe weaned on Godzilla and Gundam. You didn’t even need to think that it was among the Oscar-winner’s best idiosyncratic works (it is not). If you recognized that Stacker Pentecost was one of the seven greatest screen names of all time, if you knew your Minilla from your Mothra, if the word kaiju did not need to be explained to you, then this was your cult jam.
Pacific Rim Uprising is not that movie. It’s not much of any movie. It is a collection of noises and images and military jargon being oorah-ed at sternum-rattling volume and featherweight CGI destruction and WTF slo-mo sequences and the occasional feeling that you’ve been cheated, but let’s not call that a movie. The idea that a sequel is rarely better than the original is a cliché – oh, and there are tons of clichés in this as well – but this is not just a bad follow-up, or even a flipped bird to fans. This is Transformers-level inanity. This is a blow to your head from a mallet. It will not make you feel like a 10-year-old, but it will make you feel 10 years older by the time you leave the theater. It is certainly not personal in any way, shape or form, just strictly chilly, corporate to a fault and somehow both chintzy and wildly overblown. Del Toro didn’t direct it, though he is one of the credited executive producers. He should still sue for damages.
“We were a generation born into war,” sayeth the opening voiceover, as shots of mechas battling Lovecraftian monsters fill the screen. It’s been a decade since the events of the first Rim job, in which alien overlords sent huge creatures to destroy our world and we sent ginormous robots, piloted by humans and known as “jaegers,” to smack them back into oblivion and close the interdimensional breaches. The world, however, is still a wreck. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, filling time between Finn escapades), the son of the late, great jaeger jockey Staker, has washed out of the flight program and has been reduced to bartering for Oreos, hot sauce and black-market spare parts. He meets a street urchin named Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who’s built a homemade mini-bot and gets them both nabbed by the authorities. Rather than send them to prison, Jake’s adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) gets them sent to the training camp where the jaeger fleet is kept. Yes, they will eventually pilot one of these things via Dance Dance Revolution moves and mind-melding. No, you won’t really care.
Charlie Day reprises his role as a kaiju-studying scientist, flailing his arms wildly and manically getting on your nerves. (Every person who buys a ticket to the film should, by rights, receive an invitation to have dinner at the house that Day buys with his check from this.) Burn Gorman, a British actor whose specialties include creeps, fascists and mutineering Night’s Watchmen, is back as his fellow hand-wringing egghead. Scott Eastwood is a hotshot ranger, replicating his dad’s squint ‘n’ and growl technique with none of the gravitas; his cadets are a Fast & Furious-style multiethnic blend that may have been recruited from various military outposts or the Mall of America. Numerous talented Chinese actors show up in bit roles, because the original tanked in the U.S. but did big numbers in foreign markets. It’s the film business, not the film do-things-because-they-are-creative.
A rogue jaeger enters the picture, prompting the film’s best line: “There’s a rogue jaeger!” (Second best line goes to Eastwood: “When I entered the Corp, I was just like you. I was worse: [monotone shriek] I was NOBODY!”) Cue scenes that, seriously, could very well be Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots: The Movie. What’s more impressive than giant Shogun Warriors fighting monsters, you ask? How about jaeger possessed by mutating kaiju! Eventually, a trio of your average Friends of Ghidorah show up, which prompts a series of fights in a major metropolis that leaves nothing but senseless, and weightless, and airless digital destruction in its wake. The fate of the world is at stake, and yet nothing is.
An autopsy reveals that TV veteran, first-time feature director and one-of-four-screenwriters Steven S. DeKnight was the same man who did showrunner duties on the first season of Daredevil, which set the pace for Netflix’s gritty, grim corner of the Marvel Universe. There’s no such friction or fuel for fantasy here, nor is there much of the imagination or audacity that helped the original skirt by. There’s just numbness and exhaustion – so much mayhem and so much crushing boredom. Uprising is a serious downer, the kind in which “Bigger is better!” is repeated first as an taunt and then several times as a mantra. The real buried-lede line, however, goes to Day, as he watches these oversized kids’ toys duke it out and sarcastically comments from the sidelines, “Real original! I’m not impressed!” You think this attempt to prove that the general public can be suckered by anything, especially franchise-related, is generic and god-awful? You should see this wreck from where we’re sitting.
Check out this clip from the new Pacific Rim Uprising below.