Pacific Rim: Uprising
About five years ago, Guillermo del Toro delivered Pacific Rim - a giant monsters (Kaiju) vs. giant robots (Jaeger) movie with a gargantuan budget. It was... fine. Del Toro's geeky love for the genre and skill with set-pieces elevated it, and the result was fun, but uninvolving, due mostly to structural issues. The first act was a mess, with far too much voice-over exposition and a wandering focus that didn't get us really invested; the second act was essentially just one incredibly long (and awesome) fight scene; and the third act promised a desperate final action, but the rousing second act ultimately felt so victorious that the stakes didn't quite resonate right. There's an interesting emotional core to the film, focused on the heroes dealing with loss and survivor's guilt, but it never really clicks.
Most strangely, the one character who seemed to be the perfect audience POV character, with a relatable arc and engaging personality, Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori, was largely shuffled to the background. Why her flashback was relegated to near the end of the film instead of the opening scene (which would have negated the need for most of the voice-over exposition to boot) was particularly strange. Given Del Toro's history, I truly wonder if she was supposed to be the protagonist, and got shuffled to the back due to studio changes. At any rate, it was a fun ride that make an okay amount of money, but not near enough to justify its budget.
... except in China, where it cleaned house. It ranked #5 for the year there, and second only to Iron Man 3 for American releases. So, with China an increasingly crucial part of the worldwide box office and theater owners there clamoring for a follow-up, Warner Bros. dropped the cash to make a brighter sequel, with a bigger star for good measure.
And it's... adequate. If you're a kid looking for nothing more than robots and monsters punching each other. If you want anything else, it doesn't deliver. And even on that level, it really doesn't do it any better than a Power Rangers episode, and those are shorter and cost roughly 0.1% of this.
If I seem like a grouchy old man, I should be fair and note that the film got on my bad side early with a major pet peeve of mine, so it's possible I was more harsh on this than it deserved. Slightly. Specifically, Mako Mori returns for a couple of scenes of exposition, before getting killed as the act one turning point.
There are few things I hate more in a film than when the female lead from the last movie is fridged at the beginning of the sequel. That's a trope from bad slasher sequels that's somehow escaped that dead genre to infect action movies. It's especially egregious here, since she was the best character in the first film, and Kikuchi is a terrific actress and presence who's rarely been used to her full abilities in Hollywood. (and certainly isn't in her few moments here) A movie has to be quite good to get me back after that. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows managed it. The Bourne Supremacy didn't manage it until the final 10 minutes.
But where those are debatably good movies, Pacific Rim: Uprising is the soulless, uninspired cash-in its history would suggest. The action is watchable, but until the climactic third act (the only straight-up Kaiju vs. Jaeger action, the rest either being Jaeger vs. Jaeger or an extended monster rampage), none of it feels like there are any stakes at play. It doesn't help that these skyscraper-sized hunks of steel seem to have all the weight of the equivalent handheld plastic toys. Del Toro, of course, was busy making the world's unlikeliest Best Picture winner, so the reins were handed to Steven S. DeKnight, a TV guy who wrote some Buffy and Angel episodes before creating the Spartacus show. He does all right for a TV guy, but doesn't transcend being a TV guy.
A good comparison of the difference is in a variation of the same gag - a falling Jaeger creating a mass swath of destruction, then barely touching an object, the punchline being this object's reaction to a minor disturbance. In the first, it's a gigantic fist obliterating an office before tapping the last desk, setting off the Newton's Cradle. In the latter, a punched jaeger collapses on and slides down a street, tapping a car and setting off the alarm. It's a good gag either way in concept. But Del Toro stages it to carefully watch the tremendous destruction wrought and sheer distance traveled by the fists, and zooming way in on the final tap. The giant buildup vs. tiny payoff is in perfectly ridiculous proportion. In Uprising, the gag is shot perpendicular to the action with a long (simulated) lens, meaning there's not a whole lot of buildup or sense of how much destruction is happening before the punchline. It's not actively bad, just weak.
Which might be okay if the characters were compelling. Unfortunately, these characters are so thin most don't even register as types, let alone actual characters. It's not really the actors' fault. John Boyega is a great movie star, and mostly covers his character's arc from burnt-out rogue to heroic leader in such a way you'd think there was an arc instead of him magically shifting from one to the other halfway through. Scott Eastwood provides a point of interest in how he looks and sounds kinda like his father at the beginning, then gradually morphs more and more into him until by the end it looks almost like a scene from A Fistful of Dollars got spliced in by accident. This is lucky, since the character has no other points of interest. Cailee Spaeny has great energy and presence; she's in four other movies this year, and will probably really break out if any of her roles there are good. Best of the newcomers is Jing Tian, presumably here as the token Chinese character for Chinese audiences. Unlike most of these, she has an actual role in the film, and Tian exudes pure cool. Every moment she's in gets a needed burst of charisma.
Charlie Day and Burn Gorman return as their comic-relief scientists; whether or not this is a good thing depends heavily on how charmed you were by their antics in the first. I enjoyed their shtick myself, and it's fun to see them back. The characters have gone through a role reversal, with Day's Newt reveling in a position of power and respect, and Gorman's Gottlieb having lost his smugness and just being happier to see Newt than Newt is to see him for mysterious reasons. Day and Gorman are having the same sort of good time they had the first, and while their dynamic was more interesting there, they still add a jolt of their own.
The opening scenes do hint an an intriguing post-Jaeger world, with some eking out an existence in the ruins of destroyed cities, and a near-dystopic Jaeger-lead military government clearing them out. This is almost immediately abandoned in favor of jingoism, albeit jingoism deep in a sci-fi context. The subtext here, that you should totally serve your totalitarian dystopic overlords without question, definitely doesn't reek of making nice-nice with the Chinese censors at all.
While most of the film has pretty generic action, the climax, at least, has some nice bits. It goes on far too long, but there's still some fun to be had in the closing disaster porn. After a rather dull hour-plus preceding it saved only by the charisma of its actors, it's not enough to save the movie, but does make the ultimate effect a watchable one.
All that said, there's a very real rebuttal to my indifference: to my left in the theater I was at were a couple of girls, probably 14ish, who were completely into the film - laughs at all the gags, gasps at characters getting hurt, and walking out of the theater pumped up. It really works for kids. And that's okay; a movie doesn't have to be for everyone. I'm almost tempted to bump my rating up a half-star simply for knowing it works so well for some.
On the other hand, they fridged Mako Mori. This sucker can burn.
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Producers: John Boyega, Cale Boyter, Guillermo del Toro, Jon Jashni, Femi Oguns, Mary Parent, Thomas Tull
Writers: Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, Steven S. DeKnight, T.S. Nowlin
Cast: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Zhang Jin, Charlie Day
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for CGI robot-on-monster violence and a touch of profanity. Other than an obscene gesture (from a robot), it's a PG movie.
Budget: $150 million
Box Office: It opened with $28 million domestically, $150 million worldwide. Its domestic performance should get it around $80-$90 million (just under the first one), worldwide somewhere over $400 million (more that the first)