Ok – a quick rundown of the plot. The monstrous kaiju’s at the ending of Pacific Rim have been stopped thanks to Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost sacrifice. His son, Jake (John Boyega), sees the hero status of his dad as being one that’s a touch too much to live up to, so doesn’t try to give living up to it a shot. However, plot nuggets think differently, and eventually Jake is in the pilot seat of a Jaeger, and would you know it, instead of battling kaiju’s, he’s now got a rogue Jaeger to deal with. Chaos ensues. Dun dun dunnn.
Pacific Rim Uprising puts forward the case that maybe, just maybe, imitation is no longer a sign of flattery. Steven S. DeKnight takes the directors mic from Guillermo del Toro, and attempts to imbue this entry in the saga of giant robots versus giant monsters with as much del Toro’ness as possible. Well, at least I’m sure that was the intention when DeKnight and his team of three extra writers sat down and nutted this thing out.
What makes Guillermo del Toro such an interesting, wonderful director to engage with, is his love and admiration for the history of cinema. Stories like The Shape of Water or Crimson Peak have taken elements and stories from cinematic history and given them the del Toro spin – namely, full of love and respect and admiration for the original text. His 2013 effort, Pacific Rim, was an imitation of the multitude of kaiju stories that have come from Japan, as well as the paintings of Goya and George Bellows. del Toro’s love for all things monster stretches back to when he was a kid, and it’s quickly apparent from his films and the way he talks that this is no mere admiration – this is a love affair with monsters.
Pacific Rim was an affectionate imitation of what has come before in the realm of giant monsters. Pacific Rim Uprising takes that films conclusion and tries to ‘yes, and…’ its way into a plot that it thinks makes some kind of sense. As the ‘plot’ ratchets along at a rollicking pace, you can almost feel the writers room getting giddy and light headed with each development, never stopping to actually take a breather and assess whether any of it coheres to some kind of internal logic.
Yes, and instead of kaiju, they battle a rogue Jaeger! Yes, and instead of putting people into the Jaegers, let’s power them by drones! Yes, and someone is having a relationship with a…
…well, now we’re heading into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say that this is a film that goes into some very weird places, even if the film itself is not aware that it’s doing so. Some of the third act revelations are so ludicrous that they make Anthony Hopkins kung-fu British butler in Transformers: The Last Knight seem downright logical and sane. Needless to say, the writers room surely had noble intentions of creating entertainment that actually entertained, with characters that were actually interesting, but neglected to actually engage with what they were writing on a level beyond ‘this might look cool’. Maybe I’m asking too much from the ‘giant things beating up other giant things’ films (after all, they’re not exactly known for Terence Davies level character exposes), but I at least want someone who feels like a tangible character.
However, it’s not as if there isn’t precedent for this second entry to go to some weird places. After all, the core concept of this series is that two people connect their minds to operate a giant robot. The tagline should simply be: don’t think about this, just enjoy the noise.
One of the major criticisms of the first film was the way it threw elements in the last act that visually looked cool, but left the audience thinking, well, why didn’t they do that earlier? Thankfully, DeKnight and co took this on board and made sure that all Jaeger’s were using everything at once when appropriate. So, when Sydney and all its landmarks cop a battering thanks to a Jaeger on Jaeger tussle, we’re witness to all manner of digital noise that looks good, but is constantly muttering to the audience ‘don’t think about this. Don’t think about this. Don’t think about this.’
For all the brow beating and ballyhoo that went on after the destruction of Metropolis in Man of Steel, one has to ask… where is the concern for buildings and those inside buildings (you know, people) when it comes to a city battle? Sure, a Jaeger slamming two giant raging swords into buildings to steady themselves looks cool, but it’s also a damn lot of dead workers that are getting shish kabobed. During the climactic skirmish, it’s briefly shown that there are emergency kaiju attack underground bunkers for civilians to escape to, but given the immediacy, and the unexpectedness of the attacks, it’s simply not possible for towers full of people to get to safety in time before their digs are used as a battering ram.
But whinging about collateral damage in these kinds of films has become rote. After all, they’re not real people fleeing for their lives, so… no consequence. You know exactly what you’re going to get, and you’ve already adjusted your enjoyment level for the wondrous sight of seeing pixels beating up other pixels – if that’s your thing.
Wall to wall pixels can be nauseating, so naturally the real life human characters have to step in to provide some semblance of ‘character’ and ‘humanity’ to the mix. del Toro’s Pacific Rim didn’t exactly have the best written characters, but it did at least provide the cast with enough dressing to hang a performance on. John Boyega headlines this one, with first timer Cailee Spaeny tagging along for the ride as an orphan junk collector. Scott Eastwood appears as Generic Military Man, and as a reminder that Clint’s son is attempting an acting career and that nepotism still exists. Returning to the fray is the criminally underused Rinko Kikuchi as first film survivor Mako Mori, and the exuberant duo of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as genius scientists.
Really, names don’t matter here – even though Spaeny’s Amara is able to rattle off the redundant names of all the jaeger’s (gotta collect em all) when she sees them for the first time. It also seems that dialogue really doesn’t matter either, as it appears that the majority of John Boyega’s dialogue was made up on the spot through the magic of improvisation. Boyega is a charismatic actor, and thanks to Star Wars, he’s certainly been given an opportunity few actors get – namely, take the lead of a big budget action film and get to do whatever he wants to do. It quickly becomes apparent that Boyega is only as good as the script in his hands and the person he’s acting against, and try as Spaeny and Eastwood might, they simply don’t give Boyega enough to bounce off. So much so, that Boyega’s quipping had me convinced there would be a comedic outtake reel over the credits and that he would be credited as a mysterious fifth writer.
For all the bombastic nonsense in Michael Bay’s Transformers films, he does at least manage to imbue a modicum of energy into the mix. Whether it be Anthony Hopkins truly bonkers robot butler, or the ever moving camera that is always sweeping and swooping, the Transformers films are nothing but Red Bull driven energy. Now, if only Pacific Rim Uprising managed to install just one ounce of that energy, it could at least be marginally entertaining. It’s never fully aware of its madness to properly embrace the crazy. Sure, there are flashes where it has a vague idea that it really could go crazy – a moment where the meme creating Trololol singing man appears is uniquely bizarre – but instead, it’s just achingly dull.
Which is to not say it doesn’t at least try to tick some positive boxes. The cast that make up the Jaeger pilots are definitely multicultural and varied, and there’s even a hint that one of the characters might be polyamorous. But, it’s simply not enough to have a multicultural cast – you actually need to write interesting characters for them to portray, and give them dialogue that feels genuine to the world they inhibit. Case in point – one character almost goes so far as repeating the famed ‘cancelling the Apocalypse’ line, but then just kind of peters off.
Look, the first Pacific Rim is a visual treat (and also a great reference quality 4KHD disc) that never takes itself seriously. Pacific Rim Uprising isn’t even aware it can have fun, or that it doesn’t need to take itself seriously. Sure, it’s visually exciting at times, but the hullabaloo that goes along with the gradually increasing nonsense is not enjoyable or engaging. It fails to allow any of its noise and nonsense to create the illusion that it’s making any kind of coherent sense, and in turn, falls apart under the strain of pixel overload. One for the monster mash completists only.
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Cast: John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Scott Eastwood
Writers: Steven S. DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, T.S. Nowlin