Pacific Rim Uprising movie review: At the very least, it’s the best Transformers movie in years
Pacific Rim Uprising
Director - Steven S DeKnight
Cast - John Boyega, Caeliee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Adria Arjona, Burn Gorman, Zhang Jin, Charlie Day
Rating - 2.5/5
When Guillermo del Toro made the first Pacific Rim in 2013 - back when he wasn’t the Academy Award winning Guillermo del Toro - it was his biggest film by far. For a director who had been working with modest budgets for the entirety of his career, the freedom that $200 million can bring sort of overwhelmed him. Pacific Rim has since been declared the most unremarkable of del Toro’s movies, too generic for fans of his brand of grotesque fantasy and too weird for fans of, say, Michael Bay. But, sneakily, it succeeded in the only department that matters in blockbuster moviemaking these days: China.
Regardless of your feelings about Pacific Rim - personally, I found it to be a great, big monument to del Toro’s famously infectious giddiness - the new one, Pacific Rim Uprising, isn’t likely to win this unlikely franchise any new fans. Del Toro didn’t return to direct this one but he is, however, credited as a producer - although it seems more like a legal courtesy than a creative collaboration.
You see, from the very first scene, it’s quite evident that debutant director, Steven S DeKnight, is not trying to replicate del Toro’s rather inimitable style - Uprising is a brighter, louder, and for the lack of a better word, more dumbed down version of the first movie. But what it doesn’t deliver in terms of sheer density of imagination, it more than makes up for in pure spectacle - which was arguably the biggest problem fans had with the first film. No matter how epic the action, every scene felt like it had been condensed down to the bare essentials; as if piles and piles of material had been left out in favour of more monster mayhem.
In that regard, Pacific Rim Uprising doubles down on that front, ignoring every opportunity to build character (and worlds) when the option of pitting giant robots against one another rears its head. It almost seems to be making up new rules as it goes along, rendering everything that has happened earlier worthless. This isn’t the best way to go about things, especially when the biggest criticism of the first movie was that it always felt like it was straddling two very different worlds, unable to decide whether to take the risk and deliver a rich story that would please fanboys or whether to simply target the Transformers crowd. In the end, it did neither. So for example, when a certain character is revealed to be the bad guy in Uprising, it comes across more as a desperate (and temporary) diversion tactic than anything else.
Children would perhaps not mind the diluted storytelling - certainly, the first movie was hardly for them - and it is visibly brighter, almost cartoonishly so; while the first Pacific Rim felt very much like a response to Christopher Nolan’s style of blockbuster filmmaking, this one is shameless in its adoration for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But we’re all just kidding ourselves when we pretend that Uprising has noble intentions. It doesn’t care about honouring the legacy that del Toro has built, it is unconcerned about whether or not it is too stupid for adults or too scary for children, and, frankly, what the fans think; all that matters is how much it makes in China. We’ve seen Hollywood be obnoxious about this before - the most notorious examples I can recall have to be Now You See Me 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction - but it’s never this earnest about it. Because in addition to casting several Chinese actors in pivotal roles (and setting a significant portion of the movie in the Middle Kingdom), Uprising features characters from Japan, Russia and even India. Without reading too much into it, we should take that as a sign of confidence.
Sadly, in a movie that is this blatantly capitalistic in its motivations, to talk about the actual story feels almost redundant. Can you honestly say that you care about what happened to the main characters after the first movie? Raleigh Beckett, Mako Mori and Newt Geiszler, characters for whom del Toro probably had dossiers of backstory written. Do you even remember that Stacker Pentecost, celebrated general and talented speechwriter, sacrificed himself to save humanity at the end of the first film?
Jake certainly does. He’s Stacker’s son, a rebellious young man who turned his back on his duties because he couldn’t handle the pressure of being the son of a war hero. But fate (and lazy screenwriting) brings him back to the Jaeger programme, where he must learn to accept his responsibilities and become the beacon of hope that his father was 10 years ago. When new threats emerge - first from the skies and then from the Pacific Rim - he finally accepts his true calling. And you don’t need me to remind you just how charming John Boyega can be as a leading man. His arc in this movie is hardly as resonant as that of Mako Mori’s from the first movie, but it solves the problem of having to pad up the film’s already short runtime between all the scenes of large-scale mayhem.
It ends with a particularly long drawn-out sequence that is a reminder that, despite what the film would have you believe, bigger isn’t always better. There are moments in which Uprising flirts briefly with the more wonkier aspects of del Toro’s original, but Steven S DeKnight - whom you’d maybe know from his work on Marvel’s Daredevil and Spartacus - wisely recognises that his strengths lie not in the cerebral (how ironic, given that’s how Jaegers work) but in throwing everything he’s got onto the screen and not worrying about what sticks and what falls. His direction is strangely jittery, and as a result, the film is paced like an episode of TV, jumping from one moment to the next almost as if DeKnight had been ordered to stick to a time limit.
On a side-note, since no one is going to say it, I will: Ramin Djawadi’s music for the first movie was tremendously memorable, so it was slightly baffling that his rock-infused themes were all but absent from this one. Instead, the film has as an especially bland score by Lorne Balfe (a Hans Zimmer minion), probably composed in two weeks. But that’s the sort of movie Pacific Rim Uprising is; unambitious, inconsequential, and in the end, utterly unmemorable. But never outright terrible.
Watch the Pacific Rim Uprising trailer here