'Pacific Rim: Uprising' Review: Bigger Action, Dumber Story

Pacific Rim is a cult hit piece of geek cinema now, but the film was not without its fair share of criticism when released; for many viewers, the deep mythos and slow-burn character development were distractions from the "giant robots vs. giant monsters" action they came to see. Well, if Pacific Rim: Uprising is any indication, the powers at Legendary heard fan criticisms, and tried to craft a sequel around those notes. The result is a film that does exactly what was called for -- for better or worse, it ups the robot vs. monster action and downplays the investment on story and mythos.

Uprising is set 10 years after "The Battle of the Breach," in which PPDC heroes Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) sealed the breach between worlds, and delivered a glancing final blow to the Kaiju leaders. Since that time, the world has grown lax in its vigilance, assuming that the Kaiju threat is over. Certain sectors of the population live in "Relief Zones" (i.e., areas where Kaiju cleanup was never done), and it's a chaotic world where Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) thrives. But when Jake's fast hustle lifestyle sends him crashing into amateur Jaeger builder / street kid Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), the two end up getting busted by the PPDC, and are given a choice by Jake's "sister" Mako: enlist as Jaeger pilots, or end up behind bars. For Amara, it's a dream come true; for Jake, it's a return to a lot of burned bridges, and the shadow of Stacker Pentecost. Jake assumes his new tour of duty will be boring and pointless, but when a rogue Jaeger suddenly shows up and starts attacking PPDC targets, it reveals new truths about the Kaiju war, and threatens to start it all over again.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is the directorial debut of Steven S. DeKnight, who is best known for creating Starz' Spartacus franchise, and being involved with the planned Transformers cinematic universe. As a fledgling director, Knight impresses with his visual concepts and action prowess. Pacific Rim 2 is more visually captivating than the first film in a lot of ways, as we get more Jaeger battles in broad daylight and from more traditional angles as opposed to the shaky cam "vérité" grit approach of Del Toro. While Knight's directorial style is generally safe and fairly standard in its approach, it's also competent enough to tell an interesting visual story, if only on a B-movie level. The influence of the anime genre is much more prominent in the sequel's aesthetic, which will be a live-action novelty for fans of that genre.

The money invested in better visuals must have been harvested from the script fund, because the story of Pacific Rim: Uprising is about as dumb as they come. The sad part is that the team of DeKnight, Emily Carmichael (Jurassic World 3), Kira Snyder (The 100), and T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner) actually start out strong. Uprising begins by establishing characters that are much more compelling (if not a little formulaic) than those we got in the first film, before jumping into a genuinely intriguing two-pronged storyline, which offers a solid mystery about rogue Jaegers as well as a well-balanced story about damaged pilots trying to pull together as a team. It's only when the movie moves into the end of the second act that things begin to unravel badly.

Pacific Rim: Uprising arguably "nukes the fridge" completely when heading into its final act, dropping a big twist reveal that is laughably ridiculous -- an attempt at comic book-style villainy that will make more traditional action fans roll their eyes and groan. Worse yet, the big "twist" adds little substance to the story, other than setting the stage for one last big predictable battle between multiple Jaegers and Kaiju. It's an overly elaborate excuse to bring about an obvious climax, and is nearly a death knell for the sequel, though it surely helps expand the Pacific Rim merchandise line.

John Boyega and Scott Eastwood Star in Pacific Rim 2 Uprising

Thankfully, these silly plot turns are carried by characters that are well-developed and entertaining. John Boyega is more charismatic, funny, and compelling here than any of his work as Finn in the new Star Wars movies. He carries the film on his shoulders with confidence and ease no matter how many green-screen CGI foes he's facing in what is surely some chaffing pilot armor costuming. Keeping pace with Boyega is young Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani, who has spitfire swagger to counter Boyega's smarmy smoothness. Their interaction over the course of the movie is much more entertaining than the awkward Raleigh/Mako storyline, and both emerge as worthy stars of the film.

Backing up the two leads are a few strong supporting characters. Scott Eastwood gets flack for his acting (or lack thereof), but as Jake's estranged pilot friend and PPDC commander Nate Lambert, he's actually a great witty straightman to Boyega's electric bad boy. Action scenes with the two actors are some of the best moments in the film, so it's a shame their friendship storyline takes a back seat as the story goes on. The same could be said for the lineup of new Jaeger pilot recruits that are a big part of Amara's story, but ultimately become "who are they?" faces by the time they suit up for the big battle. Most confusing of all is a love interest mechanic played by Adria Arjona; the film seems to only sporadically remember she exists, and that our two male leads are competing for her favor. Finally, returning characters like Mako Mori and Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) aren't really put to great use, as the sequel actually damages their arcs from the first film. Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) is the only returning character that gets to see his arc rise in this second chapter, as the nerdy scientist steps up to an expanded role and nails it.

In the end, Pacific Rim: Uprisingis a monsters vs. robots movie that's been streamlined to accent its biggest selling point. If anime-style action is all you ever wanted from the franchise, you arguably might enjoy the sequel more with its cooler lineup of Jaegers and monsters. If story was a problem for you the first time around, then this second chapter might make your head explode.

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Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Pacific Rim: Uprising is 1h 51min long, and is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language.