REVIEW: “Pacific Rim: Uprising” Is a Faded Shell of Its Former Glory

I love a good cheesy action movie. I love robots, I love monsters, and I love the spectacle of cities being smashed to pieces by giant forms of both. John Boyega, Charlie Day, Tian Jing, Rinko Kikuchi… I really thought I was going to like this film. Heck, I saw it on opening day. So why didn’t I?

Because this movie, while perfectly serviceable as a blockbuster, fundamentally misunderstands and, dare I say, disrespects its predecessor. Pacific Rim was, underneath all the CGI flash, a movie with an atomic cargo load of heart, a cast with genuine chemistry, and the direction of Guillermo del Toro. Without any of these, Uprising simply falls flat. And for people like me, who love and adore the first movie for what it earnestly and jubilantly is and embraces, this installment is a disappointment.

What’s worse, it starts out valiantly. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) isn’t particularly inspired or original, but he’s played him with enough charm to carry the rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold archetype. The other two leads, Scott Eastwood and Cailee Spaeny as a tough-but-kind soldier and a scrappy underdog, are both bland, but play off of Boyega well enough. The return of former cast members is promising; Charlie Day’s Newt Geiszler yet again steals scenes as the loveably psychotic, Kaiju-obsessed scientist, and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, war hero-turned-commander, continues to be regal and beautiful. The plot’s thin, but these movies have never claimed to be deep, thoughtful cinema. They’re justifications to watch giant robots and Godzilla monsters duke it out. At first, Uprising seems like it will more than suffice.

And then, well, I can’t continue this review without going into detail, so consider this an official spoiler warning.

Kaiju played “Polymerization”!

And then they destroy two of the best characters from the first film, spitting on the original’s legacy and ruining what made it good. Half an hour in, Mako Mori is killed in a gratuitous, heavy-handed, and frankly unoriginal spectacle that I could see coming from a mile away. It’s a textbook case of fridging, serving as the catalyst for Pentecost to return to the corps. But after some lip service to her death, the film moves on without a care. Mako Mori was a standout character in her own right, even inspiring a tongue-in-cheek test, à la Bechdel, for female characters given a satisfying arc of their own; for a secondary character, and an Asian women to boot, it was remarkable. They could have at least killed her off with respect, or better yet, not at all.

This was where the film really went off the rails. Struggling to find a core villain—it hints at Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) the computer heiress, with her army of drones that recycles the plot of Iron Man 2—it decides on, of all people, Geiszler, the affably off-his-rocker biologist. Apparently, he’s been brainwashed ever since he got his first hit of Kaiju brain, and has been re-dosing himself ever since with his “wife,” a Kaiju brain specimen. (As an aside, this scene is one of the few brilliant ones in the film, completely accepting the sheer absurdity of the franchise.) Acting as a vessel for the Kaiju, he’s helping them destroy the planet so they can take over. It’s not wild enough to be the  out-of-left-field sequel swerve, nor is it a logical succession to his arc from the first film. It just feels lazy, and it’s a waste of one of the series’ most enjoyable characters.

Pictured: two strong, capable, female Asian characters. Apparently only one can exist at a time.

Moreover, as an action movie alone, it’s just “fine.” The characters are okay, the script overly quippy. The big battles are fun, though the choreography is lacking. The plot’s meh, leaving a fairly obvious sequel hook for the inevitable man-vs-Kaiju franchise. But for viewers who enjoyed or even loved the first movie, it’s a total letdown. It tried to take the first film and make it bigger and better. But in doing so, it lost the soul of the original. When half a dozen new characters die, can you really feel bad about any of them? There’s only the barest mention of the mind-meld/soul-bond concept that carried the first movie, and it completely ignores its previous protagonist’s existence. Frustratingly enough, it could have been great. There are seeds left unwatered for an inventive, clever story about the perils of man’s desire to tame the primordial eldritch forces beyond our control. Instead, we got surface-level shine at the cost of everything else.

Pacific Rim: Uprising: 2.5/5, 2/5 if you remove half a star for Mako (link to Letterboxd rating)

Mako, you deserved so much better.

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