Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was uniquely disappointing. I loved it, but not enough. It felt like it was made for me, even though millions of others felt the same. It smashed giant robots against giant monsters with abundant, searing style. But its lack of depth held it back from burrowing deep into the forever parts of my heart.
Steven S. DeKnight’s sequel Pacific Rim Uprising is also disappointing, but for a much more uninteresting, banal reason: it’s just boring. It’s tedious. It takes almost everything that made the broad and insane concept of boyhood fantasy successful in 2013 and removes it with the surgical precision of $150 million of scattered buckshot. And it certainly doesn’t help that it avoids all efficiency of plot as it forces a slog through an unoriginal retread of nearly every plot point from before.
It nails some aspects of being a traditional action movie sequel, though. It brings in strong ties from the first movie and develops on them. To wit, we follow the life of Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of legendary Jaeger pilot Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba in the original film). He’s pushing back against the weight of his name, living as a criminal in the fringes of society. But after one particularly gnarly theft gone wrong, he’s shanghaied into reenlisting with the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps as a pilot.
There’s dramatic gold there to be mined, and it certainly establishes Jake effectively as a broken child of war (while nicely expanding on the aftermath of the Battle of the Breach). But then it gets mired in that. After the briefly exciting action sequence introducing similarly outcast youth Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) and her pint-sized, illegal Jaeger Scrapper, we are stuck establishing relationship after relationship that, in the end, don’t really matter.
One them actually does unearth a world-shattering revelation in the third act, but it fails to capitalize on it so depressingly hard that it turns that spicy discovery into something entirely flavorless and bland. And one particular relationship between Jake’s copilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) and a base mechanic does have some unexpected fun upending the cliché romance dynamics of the protagonist, but it’s a minute one-off that is hardly capable of saving the film.
It simply fails to surprise. It’s predictable to a fault. You could nail the arc of both Jake and Amara from the moment they hit the screen with the aforementioned twist actually being telegraphed by the trailers. And the story moves with reckless abandon from event to event but with little intrigue or momentum. It feels like a child talking about their day, belaboring on details that dull and bore and skimping on the parts that excite and delight.
I truly detest comparing movies of a series, but when the sequel skews so close to the original, it becomes necessary. Compare the way the Jaegers and Kaiju were filmed, composed in shots that could only come from a human perspective. From the ground or roving at truck speed along the road or anchored to the spire of a skyscraper. It deviated only as necessary so it maintained the effect of the immense scale of these impossible monsters and machines.
But that restraint is absent here far too often. The camera opts for traditional framing, trotting behind the shoulder of these giant mechs and squashing these quadrupedal creatures from on high. It feels like a Power Rangers fight, and not in a good way, swapping out the sense of scale and radioactive color scheme with the average and the muddy. And with the more mobile and capable Jaegers of this new generation, the slow but powerful motion of these behemoths is replaced with a very human scale of acceleration. At no point does it feel like these are titans in a world of ants, more like a monotonous diorama of crumbling city infrastructure.
You can even look at the names of the Jaegers and see a lack of inspiration. Gipsy Danger, the hero Jaeger of the first Pacific Rim, is one of the coolest combination of words ever created. Gipsy Avenger is…there, I guess. Cherno Alpha feels ancient and potent. Obsidian Fury is lazy. Striker Eureka looks exactly like it sounds—agile, brutal, powerful. Saber Athena is an awkward mouthful of syllabic marbles. It’s a small and niggling problem, but it’s emblematic of all the problems of the film.
It’s worse when it calls your attention to these deficiencies. Jake’s ultimate realization of his role as a hero is a huge, gigantic arrow pointing at all the hall of fame pre-war speeches. Included in that pantheon? His father’s speech from the first film in which he famously cancels the apocalypse. Jake’s speech here? A flaccid, impotent dribble of words that fills time more than it fills hearts.
If you’re hoping the performances will save the day, you’re going to be left wanting. Boyega and Spaeny work splendidly together, but even with the uninspired backstories of either one played out at a glacial pace, their characters manage to overpower their remarkable charisma and stomp them into nothing. Even the usually and uniquely memorable Charlie Day is mashed into a jumble of poor writing. (Eastwood, however, does exactly as well as you think he would, which is to say he continues to be the dullest actor in the world.)
All of this is just a lot of words to say one thing: Pacific Rim Uprising is an exhausting, bromidic film that needn’t exist. It is the alternate reality of Pacific Rim if everything had gone wrong. This is a Michael Bay Transformer movie without the Hasbro license. It is, in other words, completely unnecessary.
Final Score: 5 out of 10