Let us consider the giant, person-shaped robot. Call them mechas, or zords, or evangelions, or, in the case of the Pacific Rim movie series, Jaegers: skyscraper-sized, sometimes nuclear-powered metal humanoids usually tasked with fighting something else that’s very big. What is it that appeals about such an impractical contraption, which can barely throw a punch in a crowded city without taking out a tower block? Perhaps it’s that very impracticality, and the sheer romance of building a mechanical monster of such limited purpose and terrifying scale. Why else do I feel a shiver of excitement any time a Transformer gets ready for battle, or a Jaeger knocks its chrome hands together with ominous might?
After all, I’ve been watching these kinds of movies, TV shows, and children’s animation for many years. I know what to expect, and Pacific Rim Uprising, the mildly anticipated follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 action epic, is very much in line with my expectations. There are big robots, monsters, and plenty of battles between the former and the latter; and there’s the barest dash of exposition about the emotional lives of the puny people inside the Jaegers. What more does one need? Well, at least for me, a semblance of stakes might make the whole thing a little more enjoyable.
But it’s tough to detect any real tension in the Steven S. DeKnight–directed sequel, which is produced by del Toro but feels about as paint-by-numbers as a movie about enormous robots fighting monsters can. DeKnight comes from television; he created Starz’s Spartacus show and directed an episode of Netflix’s Daredevil. Pacific Rim Uprising feels straight out of that world, a disposable new miniseries updating viewers on the continuing adventures of the oversized warriors, who are—you guessed it—still fighting monsters.
But not at first. Uprising is set 10 years after the first Pacific Rim, in which the Jaegers stood their ground in cities all around the Pacific Ocean and defeated the evil kaiju, alien invaders from another dimension beneath the ocean (but don’t think too hard about it). In the intervening years, the Jaegers (which need to be piloted by a pair of humans) have become giant cops, built up by various world governments against the threat of another invasion. Many of the original film’s heroes are either deceased (in the case of Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket and Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost), or semi-retired (Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, who no longer pilots Jaegers and has moved into more of an admin role).
Into this void steps three new heroic pilots. Easily the most charismatic is Jake Pentecost, Stacker’s son, played with relaxed charm by John Boyega, who’s getting to use his English accent in a blockbuster for the first time. Jake is a washout Jaeger pilot who’s whiling away his days partying and selling old tech on the black market. But then he gets mixed up with a plucky young girl named Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who has built her own miniature Jaeger, and soon the two humans are pressed into service. Their boss is Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), a pathologically boring character who seems to exist only to call Jake a carefree rebel over and over again.
Various subplots bubble in the background as everyone waits for the kaiju to come back. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman (who were the best part of the first movie) are still on hand as the vaguely mad scientists researching monster behavior. The Chinese star Jing Tian plays Liwen Shao, a businesswoman looking to turn Jaegers into remote drones, a strategy fraught with moral quandaries. But all of these side stories feel like filler episodes of TV before the big finale. Once Pacific Rim Uprising reveals the means by which the kaiju might return, I was briefly delighted; there’s one strange twist that’s perfectly executed. But quickly enough it was time for 30 minutes of competent, clanging CGI action, and my brain turned right off again.
I do, as previously mentioned, enjoy the giant, person-shaped robots. There’s something so plainly and amusingly egotistical about man creating a colossal machine in his own image. Why shoot a bomb at an invading sea creature when you could land a few hard punches to the jaw? But even with that childish joy in mind, Pacific Rim Uprising doesn’t do anything to really justify its existence. If it’s been too long since you saw a metal man sock a 300-foot crocodile in the snout, the film is probably worth the ticket price. But if you aren’t pining to relive that experience, maybe leave this one at the bottom of the ocean.