PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING. John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Zhang Jin, Charlie Day. Directed by Steven S. DeKnight. 111 minutes. Rated M (Science fiction violence).
Four years prior to winning two Oscars for his dark fairy tale, ‘The Shape of Water’, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro co-wrote and directed ‘Pacific Rim’, an OTT love letter to old Japanese monster films in which humanity defends itself from interdimensional beasts with giant manned robots. Despite generally positive reviews, the movie limped through to profitability, relying on the huge boost it received from its bullish Chinese performance. Given its so-so box office, the announcement of a sequel was a surprise, and when del Toro vacated the director’s chair to assume a producing role, many lost interest. However, the sequel, which marks the film debut of veteran television showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, is a success. Although it takes a little to settle into its groove, it’s more broadly entertaining that the first film, while still respecting the madness of its ‘monsters vs. robots’ roots.
At the end of ‘Pacific Rim’, the portal through which the monsters, or ‘kaiju’, arrived was closed, the war over. Some years later, humanity has rebuilt, although the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps still trains recruits and builds robots, or ‘jaegers’, for their expected return. John Boyega, who takes on producing duties too, stars as Jake, son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, who died sacrificing himself to close the portal. Unlike his military hero father, Jake prefers to live on the wild side, squatting and partying in abandoned mansions while trading stolen jaeger tech for supplies. This backstory is all fed to the audience via a snazzy, fast-paced dose of exposition set to Lorne Balfe’s almost jazzy music cues, which inject a sense of ‘Oceans’-esque fun to Jake’s jaeger raids. Boyega is a strong choice to carry the franchise forward, boasting enough charisma to match the vertiginous scale of the films’ trademark fighting machines.
After Jake and young scrapper Amara (Cailee Spaeny, spirited) are arrested by the PPDC while using an unregistered jaeger, Jake’s sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) delivers him an ultimatum: return to the Corps to instruct new recruits or face jailtime. Jake reluctantly heads to the Moyulan Shatterdome, a jaeger base off the coast of Hong Kong, while Amara is drafted into their training program under Jake’s ex co-pilot (each bot is so huge and complex that it requires two pilots to function), Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, proving he can carry a film when matched with a decent foil).
Things get interesting when a meeting of world leaders in Sydney is ambushed by a rogue, non-PPDC jaeger (yes, it’s as surreal as it sounds to see the city in which you live being smashed apart by giant robots). When the PPDC realise that their foes may in fact have allies on Earth, they must scramble all their resources, including their barely-trained rookies, to defend the planet from a swarm of fresh threats emerging around the Pacific Rim.
As you’d expect from a rock ‘em and sock ‘em robots vs. monsters flick, there’s more Pan-Pacific action than you could shake a chain sword at. While Del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’ was dominated by nightmarish, neon-lit city brawls, DeKnight differentiates his film by setting most of the action in dazzling daylight, sweepingly captured by J.J. Abrams’ regular DP, Dan Mindel. Early trailers carried a worrying hint of the dull ‘Transformers’ franchise about them, probably due to their highly polished FX, but these anthropomorphic bots maintain a lumbering sense of mass that Optimus Prime and Co. have always lacked (helped in no small part by the suitably rumbling sound design).
Elsewhere, scientists Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) are back, though the pair are a little worse for wear after melding minds with a kaiju in the last instalment. By now, Day and Gorman have a fun routine down pat, the latter’s cool irascibility smoothing out the former’s manic energy. Although Gottlieb still works for the PPDC, Geiszler’s new employer, Shao Industries, is looking to muscle in on the lucrative business of saving the world, led by their CEO Liwen Shao (Jing Tian). Though Shao Industries seems at first suspicious (probably because their proposal to replace the current fleet of manned jaegers with remotely piloted drones renders our heroes significantly less heroic), the true villain of the film is far more interesting and arrives completely out of left field.
Though any spoilers here would be irresponsible, it’s creative decisions like their choice of antagonist that demonstrate how writers DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin have maintained del Toro’s trademark eccentricity through the script’s DNA. There are enough nods to the first film’s events to please fans (including a few jokes about Elba’s famously epic ‘Cancelling the Apocalypse’ speech), as well as enough innovation to keep viewers guessing. Admittedly, there is a clear sense that the first film’s success in China has forced the writers to shoehorn some on-the-nose, pro-Chinese commentary into the film, but one can’t really pin the demands of the market on the filmmakers. Blockbusters are a big business after all, and the rest of the writing is strong enough to compensate.
Overall, there’s a well-meted escalation in the film’s stakes, and this is accompanied by an improvement in quality. The film really finds its gear in the second half after the mysterious enemy has been introduced. Prior to this, there are jokes and action beats, but everything is almost too slick to enjoy for its pulpy pleasures. This is, after all, a popcorn movie of the purest kind. When it finally commits to its inherently ludicrous premise, sparks start to fly, to the point where I found this cinematic experience superior to its predecessor. An ‘Uprising’ indeed.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out March 22.