By John Mills
I unabashedly love the first Pacific Rim. I’ve re-watched it more times than is healthy, but aside from the basic elements of robots smashing monsters in the face, there were many things that made it work better than it should have. Being headed by the fantastic Guillermo del Toro helped, but it also enlisted fantastic actors like Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi. It was well paced, with slower moments between the truly epic fights. Pacific Rim Uprising by comparison generally hits the same beats, but it feels more like they were contractually obligated to, rather than because there was serious creative direction to do so. (Skip to the last paragraph if you wish to avoid spoilers; you’ve been warned.)
Let’s start with the good about Uprising, because there are some positive things to be said here. John Boyega is great. He does disaffected and uninterested well, especially compared to the almost-cares-too-much nature of Finn in the latest Star Wars movies. Boyega is fun to see on screen, and totally nails his nails. His developing friendship with fellow Ranger Nate Lambert, played by Scott Eastwood, is likewise fun and believable. They start off butting heads, but become fast friends over the course of the movie. The computer-generated imagery (CGI) is par for the course, which means that it’s bright, colorful, and detailed. One thing that Uprising carried over from its predecessor is wide angle shots during the Jaeger’s fight scenes. A few times the Jaegers and Kaiju didn’t really feel like they had any serious weight, getting tossed around like badminton birdies, but this was the notably exception rather than the rule.
A lot of the problems with Pacific Rim Uprising stem from Legendary Pictures’ acquisition by the Chinese Wanda Group. While the first movie was set mostly in Hong Kong (it never felt like that was an audience-focused choice, more like they picked a place and went with it). Importantly, it didn’t feel like pandering to Chinese audiences to boost ticket sales. Uprising has a much heavier Chinese influence, largely in the form of actress Jing Tian, playing businesswoman Liwen Shao. At multiple points, she orders Charlie Day, returning from the previous film, to speak English because his Mandarin is so bad, while only speaking in Mandarin herself. She then emerges in the final minutes of the film as the savior of the protaganists. Also, the joy that is Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is horribly wasted at the end of the first act.
Another thing that the original film did well was make all of the Jaeger crews distinct through the use of unique costuming. Everyone in a Jaeger in Uprising that is not Boyega or Eastwood wears nearly identical uniforms that make it incredibly difficult to tell who is who, what giant robot they’re in, and if they’re the ones getting the snot kicked out of them at the moment or not.
The biggest problem with Uprising is this: it feels generic, resulting in a film that edges on boring. Pacific Rim stood out as something different. It was colorful, the action was all in wide, long cuts, and there was a focus on characters. This is not the case with Uprising, and it suffers for it. If you enjoyed the first film, I wouldn’t bother catching Pacific Rim Uprising.