Five years after its debut, Pacific Rim is still a movie with the power to divide the Polygon newsroom between those who found the film’s flaws to be lovable barnacles on an otherwise magnificent day-glo beast, and those for whom those flaws overshadow any virtues, like a giant robot blocking out the sun.
Let’s get this out of the way: If you didn’t like Pacific Rim, you’re not going to like Pacific Rim Uprising. And if you do like Pacific Rim, you’re reading this review because you’re wondering if the jankily constructed confluence of design choices and sci-fi themes that made up the first film can stand up on its own without the guiding hand of now-Academy Award-winning director Guillermo del Toro. The answer is no — Uprising does even less work justifying its own internal logic than Pacific Rim, and even less work than that exploring its cast of characters.
But if you can buy into Pacific Rim, you can buy into Pacific Rim Uprising. And if you can buy into Pacific Rim Uprising despite its flaws, you’ll find it to be a fun, if not exactly filling, film.
We pick up with our giant robots vs. giant monsters story 10 years after the events of Pacific Rim — just because we canceled the apocalypse doesn’t mean we’re not still in a post-apocalypse, you see. Many Pacific coast cities are still wrecked, dotted with kaiju corpses and jaeger junkyards. We’re swiftly introduced to some new ideas — illicit jaeger scrappers, illicit jaeger engineers, and the Pan Pacific Defense Corps jaegers that keep illicit jaegers in line — and we dash away from them equally quickly.
The front end of Pacific Rim Uprising is all in service of introducing our main characters — Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s exquisitely named Stacker Pentecost, of apocalypse-canceling fame, played by John Boyega) and Amara Namani (street urchin and illicit jaeger scrapper, engineer and pilot, played by relative newcomer Cailee Spaeny) — and getting them to the jaeger base full of all the other characters as quickly as possible.
Once it has achieved that, Uprising sets up subplots and relationships with enough speed to give you whiplash. One moment, two characters are clashing over how to train young recruits; the next, they’re companionably griping over their shared past while fixing up an ice cream sundae. By the time the movie introduces a ruthless industrialist who wants to replace our scrappy pilots with clean, sleek corporate drone technology, you feel a bit dizzy.
When Uprising does get around to having a plot, it is, fascinatingly, very nearly a mystery story — the United Nations is attacked by a rogue jaeger on the day of a vote on whether to drone-ify jaegers, and our heroes are honor-bound to figure out who built, piloted and sent it. I must admit that I was taken in by some of the movie’s red herrings and happily surprised by its eventual twist.
But this is about as complex as Pacific Rim Uprising gets. Drift compatibility — the concept that jaegers are so big that piloting them would burn out the brain of a human pilot within minutes, and so to work each one requires at least two people in a psychic and emotional link, in which they share each other’s thoughts and memories — is given lip service but no actual function in the story. Pacific Rim’s underlying theme, that what made us stronger than the alien invaders was our ability to quickly form deep interpersonal bonds, is essentially abandoned.
Without Guillermo del Toro, the design of the film also feels smoothed over, less alive. Uprising is still a candy-colored world, but somewhat muted; dusty where Pacific Rim was drippy, rusty where Pacific Rim was neon. Its jaegers and kaiju lack the personality, weight and scale that animated them so well in the first film.
Their movements are too fast for machines of their size; the viewer is not reminded of their sheer immensity often enough, removing one of Pacific Rim’s most subtle but vital achievements in animation. And the battles themselves lack atmosphere and coherent staging, though individual actions remain clear and fun innovations in jaeger weaponry keep things lively. It’s hard to feel like we’re fighting for the fate of the entire world under a beautiful sunny sky.
And yet there is a moment in this movie where all the characters realize that it’s Save the World Time, and it is immediately followed by a montage of all the characters Working Very Hard to Prepare to Save the World, accompanied by a new arrangement of the main theme from Pacific Rim, and it is awesome. If you’ve thought to yourself, “Man, I really wish they’d do [insert wild idea about how to make a robot fight a monster] in Pacific Rim Uprising,” it’s reasonably likely that you will recognize that idea in the movie itself. It is hard to believe that any new jaeger combat trick or kaiju biology twist the production came up with was left on the cutting room floor.
Pacific Rim Uprising does what so many mediocre big-budget science fiction movies forget to do these days: It never, for even a moment, acts as though it’s ashamed of its own mythology. It never attempts to justify why you should be interested in watching giant robots punch giant monsters in order to save the world; it assumes your interest as self-evident.
If you haven’t already bought into it, Pacific Rim Uprising makes no effort at all to justify why you should. But if you can make that leap, it will weld a booster rocket onto a jaeger’s hand and send it flying into battle just to entertain you.