Thursday, March 22, 2018
Review: "Pacific Rim: Uprising"
I approached "Pacific Rim: Uprising" with a mix of fear and optimism. I absolutely adored the first film from five years ago, in which skyscraper-sized monsters and robots face off against each other. It was like turning the dial back to my childhood, watching Ultraman paste some prehistoric critter, but with 8,000 percent better production values.
But I was surprised a sequel was even being made. The first one did not do spectacularly well at the box office, though I think it did better on video. Director Guillermo Del Toro is not involved, other than the obligatory producer credit and presumed check, with TV/streaming veteran Steven S. DeKnight ("Daredevil") taking over the helm. He brought in his own writing team, none of whom worked on the first film, and shares a script credit himself.
All that is not exactly... reassuring.
As I settled in to watch, I was anticipating how the new set of filmmakers would address the obvious challenge of a sequel: how the world would suddenly have more jaegers, the giant metal machines controlled by twin human pilots, now that the kaiju creatures had all been defeated and the breach into their universe sealed at the end of the last movie.
After all, it's easy to come up with some science fiction-y reason why the breach could be reopened and new monsters roam the Earth. Less simple to explain how mammoth jaegers that probably cost hundreds of billions of dollars and years to build suddenly materialize, especially when they're no longer needed.
Curiously, the approach the creative team used to overcome this storytelling obstacle was... to just ignore it.
As the movie opens, it's 10 years later and there have been no new kaiju. The busted-up parts of civilization have been rebuilt and peace is at hand. And the reconstituted jaeger program is up and running smoothly with dozens of new models and pilot teams.
Why the frick would nations devote large chunks of their economies to a military option that is now unnecessary? It's almost like the entire international community was anticipating a movie sequel.
It seems mostly what the new jaegers do is patrol junkyards of old jaegers to keep miscreants from stealing parts to build their own much smaller, crappier jaegers, which they then use to... well, we're not actually told what they do with them. Rob banks? Impress their neighbors? Guard still smaller junkyards against the possibility of even tinier scrap jaegers?
The whole concept is like its own infinity loop.
One of the rascals building their own jaegers is Amara Namani, a teenage castoff played by Cailee Spaeny, who looks like some studio chief hollered, "Get me a Hailee Steinfeld clone, but younger!" Her jaeger, which she has dubbed Scrapper, can roll himself into a ball and do all sorts of parkour-style flips and tricks.
In general, the jaegers look much less like the clanky robots built by humans from the first film, and more like free-flowing action heroes. Basically, the franchise has gone Transformers.
Amara runs in with Jake Pentacost (John Boyega, back to his hard-to-understand natural British accent), who from his name we know is the wayward son of Stacker Pentacost, the badass jaeger chief played by Idris Elba. He used to be in the program but got kicked out, spending his days hunting jaeger scrap to fund his partying. But much like Charlie Hunnan's Riley, he gets an improbable jump to the front of the line and finds himself back in the pilot's seat.
(Speaking of Riley, no word on why he's not in this movie. Spoiler: His partner, Mako Mori, gets one of those walk-on-and-promptly-die treatments.)
Scott Eastwood plays Nate, the new head jaeger ranger, who has history with Jake that will get played out in a lot of Y-chromosome quips and strutting. Amara joins the crew of cadets, who are a nice spectrum of brown skin tones, except for Victoria, the snarly Russian she clashes with. I learn Victoria is played by Ivanna Sakhno, after I had assumed the Olsen sisters had spontaneously created another sibling to keep he chain going.
The only characters from the first movie back in a meaningful way are the two dweeby scientists, Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Gottlieb is still working for the jaeger program, while Newt has sold out to be an expert with Shao Industries, whose imperious CEO (Tian Jing) wants to replace the jaeger pilots with remote-controlled substitutes.
The action scenes are still a lot of fun, and we get to see teams of jaegers go up against a group of kaiju, which isn't something we really got to see before. We get to ooh and ahh at all the new variants of monsters and robots. Disappointingly, I registered a steep drop in the level of kaiju blood 'n' guts compared to the original film.
"Pacific Rim: Uprising" isn't a terrible sequel, but one that wears its commerciality without much camouflage. It's pretty rare to make a great movie, have almost everybody involved in it leave and come up with a decent sequel. Especially when you don't even bother to explain the premise.