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Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
~Review by Grawlix (April 2018)
Giant monster movies can be separated into two broad types. The first are the more artsy, allegorical movies where the creature is (ostensibly) a metaphor for a larger concept or ideal. Typically, the movie’s title consists solely of the monster’s name, and often their only major adversary is the human race. The second type are the rock‘em, sock‘em monster battles where two (or more) giant creatures throw down in a no holds barred rasslin’ match, usually with a recognizable major metropolis serving as the ring. Movies of this type usually have “Vs.” in their title and typically espouse no higher ideals than the sheer visceral joy of mass destruction. Naturally, there are exceptions. Some of the creature features of the 50’s seemed to exist for the sole reason of putting an over-the-top spectacle onto a big screen (ideally, a very big drive-in screen) and the only lesson one could possibly take away from 1998’s Godzilla would be to never trust Roland Emmerich with anything valuable, but on the whole these descriptions tend to hold true.
Certain critics have a tendency to laud the former type, and crap on the latter. This is probably because, in the case of the former, the monsters are usually standing in for something else: the dangers of nuclear proliferation, scientific irresponsibility or some similar abstract concept. But in the latter, they’re just monsters, and their sole purpose is to smash people, things, and each other. It is apparently the mark of the true intellectual to evolve beyond such childish sensations as awe and fun as if they’d never once knocked over a sand castle, jumped into a pile of leaves, or tipped over some dominoes.
Like the original Pacific Rim, Uprising is unashamedly of the second type. Set ten years after its prequel, it stars John Boyega as Jake Pentecost. Jake is the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, late of the first film, but an early voiceover makes it clear that he is NOT his father. As there has been no kaiju activity in a decade, Jake has eschewed the military life and instead spends his days partying in abandoned mansions (prior human casualties apparently having far outpaced property damage) and occasionally leading illegal salvage jaunts into scrapyards of mothballed Jaegers to make some scratch. On one of these forays, he encounters Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) another orphan scavenger who has been covertly constructing her own unlicensed Jaeger (apparently an uncommon but popular pastime). When things subsequently go sideways, the pair are arrested by the military and, as Jake is on his last strike, he is forced to re-enlist to avoid jail with Amara drafted into the cadet program for good measure.
Wait, re-enlist? So, yeah, it turns out that, earlier in life, Jake did give the Defense Corps a shot but, while he proved to be a talented Jaeger pilot, his poor attitude and problems with authority led to his dismissal from the program. In other words, he’s every rebellious prodigy from 80s action cinema. Honestly, Boyega is punching well below his weight with this role, but I guess it’s not every day one gets to pilot a giant robot.
Scott Eastwood plays Iceman to Boyega’s Maverick as Nate Lambert, a military lifer and your standard square jawed, buttoned up authoritarian buzzkill. The two of them are made responsible for the current crop of trainees, of which Amara is now a part, so we do get to see the obligatory training scenes from both the top and the bottom, which is nice. But the cadets are just your standard multi-cultural grab bag consisting more of generic archetypes than actual characters and most get very little screen time. Amara does the whole streetwise rulebreaker thing, but even though this centers the action on her a good amount of the time, Spaeny also seems to be chafing against the limitations of the role despite the actress’s relative inexperience.
Rounding out the main cast are the returning Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the bickering scientists Gottlieb and Gieszler. Their antics were a highlight of the first movie and not only do they, again, inject some much-needed color to the human interactions, but their history, both with each other and from the prequel, is the closest Uprising offers to an actual character arc. Rinko Kikuchi does return as Mako Mori, but her participation is disappointingly limited. And conspicuous by his absence is Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, which is a shame since, along with Gorman and Day, he was far and away one of the more memorable characters from the first movie.
But, look, we know why we’re all really here, and thankfully the movie does too. There’s some business about a Jaeger drone program threatening to replace human pilots, and that goes about as well as it usually does (See Stealth, Neon Genesis Evangelion, et al.) although, to the movie’s credit, it’s tied a bit closer to the overall story than it probably really needs to be. But I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say that the kaiju return, setting up not only the usual monster battles, but some bot on bot action as well. Rarely does more than ten minutes go by before the klaxons start blaring and it’s robot fighting time. Those who were inclined to notice these things have pointed out that the first movie took its share of shortcuts to hide weaknesses in the CG effects. Most of the battle scenes were staged in rain, darkness, or both. Not here, though. Most of the battles in Uprising are held in broad daylight, the sun shining on every detail of the massive robot models. It’s clear that this is where most of the films budget went, (besides the largely forgettable cast, some of the physical props seemed a little dodgy, particularly the pilot suits) and it was money well spent. The robot designs are also more varied with each being given much more personality (noticeably more than their pilots, if I’m being honest). Viewers had wondered why there wasn’t more use of the giant sword in the first film; Uprising has no less than three robots wielding bladed weapons with others sporting flails and all matter of new toys. The kaiju designs were always pretty creative and Uprising carries on that tradition although, I guess since there have been so many of them, they perhaps didn’t feel as distinct this time around. But they do break out a few new tricks of their own including one for the final battle that I won’t spoil but I will say that, for veteran watchers of giant robot and monster shows, it takes things to their long overdue logical conclusion and it is glorious.
There’s honestly not that much more to say about the battle scenes other than that there are tons of them and they are consistently well done. The original Pacific Rim did mix things up with some human scale fisticuffs, but all of the action here is robot based although there are still some differences in scale owing to the participation of Amara’s DIY mini-Jaeger and the varying classes of Kaiju. They vary the settings as well, with some battles taking place in a snow field or underwater before moving the action to – where else? – Tokyo for the final confrontation at Mt. Fuji.
Giant Monster movies have had what can best be described as an inconsistent run in recent history. Godzilla and (especially) Mighty Joe Young effectively killed the genre for a few years in 1998, but after slowly building itself back up with the King Kong remake in 2005, The Host a year later, and especially Cloverfield, the time seemed right to spring the original Pacific Rim on the world. Thus, it was with some confusion as fans watched it stall at the American box office and ultimately limp its way to profitability largely on the strength of the foreign market (most notably China). I mean, it’s not like there isn’t a market for this stuff. There has almost never been a time in America in which kids were deprived of giant robots and monsters growing up, whether we’re talking about Anime and Power Rangers, or going back further to Ultraman, Space Giants, Johnny Sokko, or Saturday afternoon Creature Features.
The cinematic climate in America has changed considerably since the first Pacific Rim was released. Godzilla and King Kong have been rebooted into a promising and profitable shared universe and Transformers, on its fifth installment and counting, continues to print money. But, though I usually try to avoid this kind of information before writing a review, initial response to Pacific Rim: Uprising appears muted. And as a huge fan of giant robots and monsters, this disappoints me. Yeah, it’s true that the dramatic bits are weak in comparison to the action, but I sometimes feel there’s a double standard at play. After all, no one complains when the action parts of a dramatic film fall short. Pacific Rim: Uprising, as they say, ain’t Shakespeare, but it never claimed to be. It’s a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. There’s plenty of robots, plenty of monsters, and plenty of fighting. As far as I’m concerned, Mission Accomplished.
Final Score: B
Pacific Rim: Uprising knows what it is and, more importantly, what it isn’t. It knows what its audience wants to see, and it gives it to them, in spades. If you liked the first movie, or any of the other things to which I’ve compared it, you will be entertained.
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