Review of the Week–Pacific Rim: Uprising

I’m willing to admit that while I pride myself on having good taste when it comes to movies, I can usually be sucked in by something that doesn’t look great, but has the promise of big, ridiculous action. I mean, giant monsters fighting giant robots? How does it get more awesome than that? Given this, I was eager to check out the latest installment in the goofy sci-fi action franchise Pacific Rim. Did I think it would be fun? Yes. Did I think it would be good? Honestly, no. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.

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In case you didn’t see the first movie, Pacific Rim is about the struggle between humanity and the Precursors, a race of aliens from another reality who have been sending giant genetically-engineered monsters (known as kaiju in the Japanese tradition) through tears in space under the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on our planet. To battle the rise of the kaiju, humanity created jaegers, giant robotic fighting machines controlled by a tag-team of pilots.

Uprising picks up 10 years after the first movie, when a final assault by jaegers closed the breaches and ended the Kaiju War. In the aftermath, the world has gotten mostly back on track, but not everyone is on board yet: especially not Jake Pentecost, the son of hero Stacker Pentecost who sacrificed his life to end the war. In the years afterward, Jake has become a scavenger and a criminal who makes a lavish, if dangerous, living by stealing and selling off scrapped jaeger parts. After being picked up by the government following his most recent arrest, Jake is given a choice to either go to jail or finish what he started years before and rejoin the jaeger program. As Jake and his fellow outsider Amara work their way back into the training, the survival of the jaegers themselves is threatened by the advent of a corporate-controlled drone program that would make the current human pilot system obsolete. But Jake, Amara, and the rest of their trainee squad will have to grow up fast when the worst happens: the breaches reopen and the kaiju return, this time with a plan that will destroy all life on Earth. And they have to deal with the fact that one among them is a traitor to humanity.

I would characterize the first Pacific Rim movie as having a bunch of cool ideas and a ton of spectacle and fun, but not much else: critically, the acting was pretty wooden and awful, and the plot had holes in it big enough to drive a jaeger through. Naturally, I didn’t expect much more from Uprising seeing as sequels are rarely better than the first movie. This was one of the exceptions, though. While Uprising‘s plot isn’t revolutionary or anything–it’s pretty much the classic lovable rebels become the heroes the world needs story–it does take a lot of the elements introduced in the first movie and shift them in interesting new directions. The idea that the kaiju were meant to activate the Ring of Fire? Maybe a slight stretch, but makes a lot more sense than just random destruction. Jaeger drones with kaiju brains who turn into robot/monster hybrids? Pretty cool. The robot vs. robot action was refreshing as well instead of just another kaiju vs. jaeger story–the kaiju didn’t show up again until about halfway though the movie, which made way for a lot more inter-human drama that the series really needed in my opinion. There was also some pretty strong consequences in regard to the carryover from the first movie: Mako being killed off in such a tragic way was a pretty powerful motivator for Jake (she was his adoptive sister), and Newt Geiszler’s betrayal was unexpected and awesome.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the villains here. Like most people, I was under the impression that Shao and her evil drone jaegers were going to be the bad guys in the film. I was pretty certain that Charlie Day, reprising his role as Geiszler from the first movie, was going to be again relegated to the role of comic relief. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: Day was the best thing about the first movie, as he plays the wacky mad scientist role really, really well. But talk about callbacks! It turns out that linking with that kaiju brain to save the world in the first movie was what lead to him being brainwashed/mind-controlled/whatever by the Precursors into being their willing puppet on Earth, sabotaging the drone jaegers and allowing the kaiju to reenter our world. That’s a pretty dark turn for his character, and I loved it. Although I must say I’m not sure if the film went far enough in portraying his change of heart. Adding other friendly characters like Hermann Gottlieb to give it a little extra weight helped, but evil Charlie Day was pretty much just like good Charlie Day, except he was on the wrong team and had a deeper voice sometimes. I would have loved to dig a little deeper into the psychology of what happened to him and make him a little more menacing–something I think Day could easily have done. In addition, I didn’t really buy Shao’s change of heart going from a flashy corporate CEO driven by profit and greed to a humble grease monkey willing to give her life to protect the planet. If there was a little more background to her character, it would have been much more believable. I get that it happened out of necessity, but still.

The character/acting beats were much better from John Boyega and Cailee Spaeny. Both were highly likable renegades who very believable found a higher calling in the jaeger program, complete with their own powerful backstories and personal setbacks. These two I could really get behind, and I wasn’t a bit surprised when the pair of them ended up piloting the jaeger that saved the world. Was it original? Definitely not. But was it enjoyable and logical? Absolutely.

My Rating: 7/10

While it’s not setting any records for originality and definitely isn’t best picture material or anything, Pacific Rim: Uprising did a fine job of following up the fun but sometimes flat first movie by highlighting all the things that made it cool and resolving some of its most serious flaws. The new twists on old ideas are what make this sequel worth watching, and able to stand on its own as a much better movie technically than its predecessor. In the end, it is still mostly about the spectacle, but like I said before, there’s nothing wrong with that once in a while. If you’re looking for a fun afternoon and spending $10 that you won’t feel too bad about afterward, this movie is for you.

Also, the blatant setup for the sequel at the end was sort of bland but kind of cool too, with humanity set to take the fight to the Precursors on their home turf. Independence Day much? But maybe for Pacific Rim, the third time will be the charm and a truly great movie will come out of it all the next time around. I know I’ll be seeing it when it does!

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