clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

What Pacific Rim: Uprising gains in Jaeger-on-kaiju action, it loses in originality

The apocalypse has been renewed.

A Jaeger in Pacific Rim: Uprising
The apocalypse is back, baby.
Universal Pictures
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When the first Pacific Rim movie came out in 2013, the marketing made it look like another big, silly, ’splodey movie, in the tradition of the Transformers franchise. But there was a bit more going on beneath the hood.

Co-written and directed by 2018 Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro, the first Pacific Rim drew on the traditions of kaiju and mecha, added some funky neural science, and was gross and weird enough to be both recognizably a del Toro movie and often a lot of fun. Giant monsters created by beings called “precursors” in another realm, sent through a portal to wreck our universe, and beaten back by giant robots called Jaegers, piloted by pairs of humans? Bring it on.

Most of the fun of Pacific Rim was in the unpredictable world building, and after that, in the kaiju-Jaeger fights. It was, in some ways, the exemplary big, silly, ’splodey movie, and the thinness of the plot didn’t really matter. Pacific Rim: Uprising would either have to figure out how to replicate its predecessor’s charm or find a new way to up the ante.

Alas, under the direction of Steven S. DeKnight — who’s spent his career working in television, on shows including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Daredevil — the sequel takes the path of least resistance, becoming less pleasantly erratic, more ponderously predictable.

That’s frustrating. The world didn’t need another Transformers clone, with random slo-mo shots and scintillating dialogue like, “We only get one shot at this!” “Yeah, let’s make it count!” (Four screenwriters, and this is the stuff they came up with?)

So what’s most interesting about Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t the movie itself — it’s how the cause of the impending apocalypse has evolved from the first to the second film, and how that maps onto apocalyptic stories more generally.

John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost in Pacific Rim: Uprising
John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost in Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Universal Pictures

The differences between Pacific Rim and Pacific Rim: Uprising map onto how we talk about the apocalypse

Apocalyptic stories have been around forever, but for most of human history, they were tales about the gods visiting destruction on humans, often for their bad behavior. From Noah’s flood to Ragnarok, the apocalypse was a way for celestial beings of one sort or another to hit the cosmic reset button on humankind.

But around the turn of the 20th century, advances in science, technology, and medicine seem to have shifted the way many apocalyptic stories were told. Now, instead of being worried about the apocalypse as retribution from the gods, we started worrying that we’d be the ones who brought destruction on ourselves. It might be through zombies, or Cylons, or robots, or computers, or a “cure” that turned out to be a disease, but in the end, we’d be the source of our own destruction.

John Boyega and Scott Eastwood drift in Pacific Rim: Uprising
John Boyega and Scott Eastwood drift in Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Universal Pictures

That’s why Pacific Rim is fascinating. The series is set in the future, and the first film actually inverts this trend in contemporary apocalyptic storytelling: For once, we are the ones fixing the apocalypse with our technologies. Earth is under siege by creatures from another realm, but through first the warrior-robots called Jaegers and then the ingenuity of two scientists (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), humans are able to fight off the threat, seal off the void through which they’re entering, and — as the movie so eloquently puts it — cancel the apocalypse.

But I suppose it was inevitable that the sequel would come around to the conventional 21st-century idea of apocalypse.

Pacific Rim: Uprising lacks the originality of its predecessor

Pacific Rim: Uprising takes place 10 years after the first movie. The void has stayed sealed and kaiju are no longer an imminent threat, though Rangers still train in case of a return appearance. While some cities have rebuilt, much of the world is still a bombed-out dystopia, where scavengers roam the landscape stripping old Jaegers for parts. When Jaegers do appear, it’s for peacekeeping purposes.

Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the first movie’s Stacker Pentecost (the Idris Elba character), is one of the scavengers, until he comes upon a small Jaeger built by a teenage girl named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). The two of them get into trouble, and instead of being punished with jail time, they’re brought to the training academy — Amara as a cadet and Jake as a Ranger, with the intention that he’ll help train the cadets alongside Nate Lambert (a very dull Scott Eastwood).

Pacific Rim: Uprising hurtles along at a fast clip, throwing lots of generic big-budget blockbuster plot details into the mix. There’s a shadowy multinational company, Shao Industries, headed by Liwen Shao (Tian Jing), that wants to swap out human-piloted Jaegers for drones. There’s conflict between Amara and the other cadets. There’s Jake’s reluctance to take his place among the Rangers, where he doesn’t really feel like he belongs. And there’s a summit gone horribly wrong in Sydney. (If you’re wondering where Charlie Hunnam’s character Raleigh Becket went, well, we don’t really know either. The movie doesn’t find its former protagonist very interesting.) And there’s the triumphant return of Pacific Rim fan favorite Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who is now leading the pilot force and whom Jake considers his sister.

Rinko Kikuchi returns as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim: Uprising
Rinko Kikuchi returns as Mako Mori in Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Universal Pictures

And, of course, it turns out that the kaiju threat is back — but not in the way anyone expected. Pacific Rim: Uprising posits that this time around, it’s not really the precursors or kaiju that are the biggest threat to humanity. No, if humanity goes down, it might be because we think we can master our universe — and it’s ready to master us instead.

And that’s in keeping with the progression of our stories about apocalypse. We know “the gods” won’t kill us in some mysterious fashion; we fixed that with modern science, which lets us control our surroundings and cure illnesses. But it’s our own craving to play god that will get us into trouble, letting our science run amok and kill us.

So how do we fix it? Most contemporary apocalyptic stories suggest that if there’s anything that will save humanity, it’s our capacity for love, empathy, and human connection. That’s Pacific Rim: Uprising’s conclusion too. We need to work together to save the world.

Okay, fine. Sure. But in this case, it feels like just one more paint-by-numbers ’splodey movie, engineered to deliver maximum spectacle and rake in maximum dollars at the global box office (jokes about characters’ bad Mandarin are hardly incidental) while doing the minimum amount of work necessary to get there. It has some fun action sequences, and one scene — only one — that briefly seems to capture the weird originality of the first Pacific Rim. (It involves Charlie Day’s character, and you’ll know it when you see it.)

In the end, the apocalypse gets canceled again — solved, as in its predecessor, with a plot point that seems like an elaborate “Jaeger bomb” joke — and the movie sets itself up for another sequel, so long as this one makes enough money to merit it. But if you leave feeling simultaneously exhausted, overstimulated, and strangely bored, you aren’t alone. Maybe the real apocalypse will come in the form of death by a thousand blandly conceived, loud, ’splodey sequels.

Pacific Rim: Uprising opens in theaters on March 23.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.