2013's Pacific Rim was a strange thing of beauty. Equally gleefully bombastic and indulgent heavy metal action and a loving ode to a director's childhood passion, it stood strong on its own terms and. Now, five years on, and without Guillermo del Toro at the helm, Rangers, Jaegers and Kaiju are back on the silver screen in a sequel that still hurls itself into the fray and packs a potent punch in its own way - but doesn't come out of the fight unscathed.
The year is 2035. A decade after the apocalypse was canceled, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the estranged son of Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost from the previous film, gets by as a petty crook, taking up residence in an abandoned mansion and making a living from what he can salvage or steal. In an errant quest to locate a Jaeger power core, he runs into Amara Namani, played by newcomer Cailee Spaeney, a fellow orphan and a gifted mechanic who has single-handedly constructed a single-pilot Jaeger from spare parts, an act of technological wizardry that would leave Mr. Stark himself impressed. From there, run afoul of the law, they find themselves roped into the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps. Jake butts heads with old rivals while struggling with his past, Amara must learn to adapt to an alien environment, and a new vanguard must be trained as the ever-present threat of the kaiju returning to earth looms over them, all while shady corporate dealings take place behind the scenes.
For all the doubt that was cast onto this project when it was learned that del Toro would not be directing as initially believed, Pacific Rim: Uprising does seek to defy expectations in a number of areas- and succeeds, at least in some ways. Almost from the outset, for instance, it tries to pitch a plot that is comparatively more intricate than that of its predecessor; as well as the looming threat of the kaiju's inevitable return and interpersonal drama that Pacific Rim also possessed, there is an honest stab at some sense of political intrigue through the inclusion of Shao Industries and their representative Liwen Shao, played by Tian Jing in the last of her three-picture deal with Legendary Pictures. A strong advocate for autonomous drones in place of piloted mechs, a sense of conflict between her company and the PPDC higher-ups is felt across the opening act of the film, and the sense of intrigue is further intensified through the destructive appearance of certain other elements, namely a mysterious Jaeger by the name of Obsidian Fury. There's some twists and turns, none too bold or adventurous save one which shall go unmentioned, but it serves its purpose of building to a climactic and explosive resolution to the second act before the bot-on-beastie action can truly commence, even if it can become a touch disjointed at times.
It also attempts to do more with the overall setting, but this gesture is hit and miss. Alongside containing multiple references to the preceding film, most of them small, Uprising tries to expand more on the setting. In its scale, the film is certainly more far-reaching; while the first movie was chiefly confined to Hong Kong, here the film hops from America to China to Russia to Japan, also giving us a distinct look at how some parts of the world are thriving in the wake of the devastation of the last conflict, and how others aren't so fortunate. However, much like the last film, certain interesting elements are only fleetingly touched upon before being dismissed, such as Kaiju 'worshipers', tangentially related to the kaiju cults the last film displayed. This leaves one wanting more, wondering what could have arisen from just a bit more focus - or even feeling out of the loop, as references are made across the film to the tie-in novel that preceded its launch without much explanation for those unaware of its existence.
The CGI is believable even with the film's considerably smaller budget compared to what came before, and the sound design renders kaiju and Jaeger alike that much more powerful. The new Jaegers don't all necessarily share the unique auras that so keenly defined the last film's quartet - the sleek sophistication of Striker Eureka, the rugged hardiness of Cherno Alpha - but the designs are sufficiently striking and they are given a respectable sense of weight in motion, for the most part. A handful of sequences in the climactic battle feel more like something out of a traditional wuxia feature, with Jaegers leaping off of buildings and performing gravity-defying stunts, but in all honesty: it's giant robots. Such feats of derring-do only serve to make the action on offer all the more gripping, and it's both effectively choreographed, suitably engaging and satisfyingly heavy, albeit somewhat sparse until the close. The kaiju are also suitably intimidating, even if they are admittedly less varied in terms of design than those seen across the first film, instead looking to evoke more traditional images of devilish horned beasties. To compensate, however, they're given more unique tricks this time around, and watching them plow through buildings with reckless abandon as they tussle with their robotic adversaries - in broad daylight, this time, as opposed to brawling while shrouded in darkness - elicits a sense of raw joy to watch.
The quality of the acting does vary, and contrasts somewhat with the first film where the performances were generally solid across the board. The assorted cadets who eventually wind up piloting most of the various Jaegers we see don't really have much time to truly assert themselves as an on-screen presence, despite the film's attempt to actually give them more flesh while the pilots of the secondary Jaegers in the first installment mostly fell by the wayside. Some of them are further expanded on in supplementary material, and Suresh (Diary of a Wimpy Kid's Karan Brar) and Vik (Ivanna Sakhno) are the most outstanding among the bunch in the film proper, primarily by virtue of either having the most lines or being the focal point of certain scenes. Still, though, little of what makes them outstanding in the novel is referenced, and as a result they are only given so much in terms of time and personality. Day's performance, reprising his role as scientist Newton Giezler, is probably the most questionable. Oftentimes he just seems to grate on the nerves in this outing, even factoring specific developments into the equation, and although he is the dispenser of a couple of chuckle-worthy zingers the majority of his humor either falls flat or comes across as weirdly offensive and outdated. Rinko Kikuchi returns as Mako Mori, once a pilot and now the commander of the PPDC, but she is shockingly underused in a disservice to all her character accomplished in the previous film, even if Kikuchi herself tries with what she has. Scott Eastwood, who shares top billing with Boyega, is perhaps the biggest waste. His character is generally devoid of interesting features barring a rather stale sense of antagonism towards Jake for an undefined past misdemeanor and a generic 'oorah' attitude, and Eastwood's performance is painfully one-note.
On the other end of the spectrum, however, Burn Gorman is the third member of the old guard to return for the sequel and is perhaps the most humorous character of the bunch. Rather than mostly act zany and spout rapid-fire dialogue like Day, he is also given a few moments of emotional sincerity, and in this regard, his performance is strongly believable. Boyega serves his role well as the troubled rebel who eventually comes to embrace the cause that he once abandoned, and it cannot be denied that the man himself is smooth and charismatic with occasional dashes of wit. He's clearly enjoying himself, both out of a love of the genre and because evidently, Uprising represents something dear to him - he is credited as a producer as well as owning top billing, after all - and there are moments where he stokes up a fire similar to that which Elba once displayed. Even Tian Jing puts in a firm effort, rebounding from her absolute lack of presence in Skull Island. The true standout, however - indeed, somewhat to Boyega's detriment - is Cailee Spaeny. Amara swiftly stands out as perhaps the most unique character the film possesses, a talented child prodigy and victim of war. I was initially intensely skeptical; a child genius is always something to be wary of in a film, let alone one who can build her own war machine. However, my doubts were soundly dashed. Spaeny plays her part with pluck and conviction, establishing an honest rapport with Boyega, and even if the arc she goes through is somewhat cliched - grappling with her fears and emotional blocks, learning to gel as part of a team and all the rest - there is this constant air to her which makes her all the more compelling and endearing. At many points throughout the film, I actively wondered why she was not the main protagonist. Boyega's Jake is affable, but also rather plain despite his best efforts. Spaeny injects earnest emotion into her performance, sprinkled with a dollop of snarky humor doing her utmost and as best as the script allows to make Amara feel rounded and genuine, and she emerges as undeniably the most human and believable character in Uprising's cast. My reservations were soundly shattered by an actress and a character that I sincerely wanted to see more of when the credits rolled, and if a threequel comes calling, I can only hope that will be the case.
It is an up-and-down assessment for this aspiring sequel. In some ways, it does have an edge over its predecessor, and in others, it falls short, or even falls victim to the same failings that plagued Pacific Rim. But even with its bumpy patches and rough edges, it is exactly what it strives to be - pure entertainment strongly supported by good technical effects, a solid enough plot, high-octane action with an explosive finish and some standout performances. It is fun, summarised in a single, simple word, and in being that it accomplishes its aims completely. Uprising may be a follow-up to del Toro's child, but Steven DeKnight and his crew treat the man's work with respect and reverence while striving to be its own love letter to the genre that del Toro was so deeply fond of. Whether we will see more of Pacific Rim's world in the future is a question only time can answer - but if that answer is 'yes', I shall wholeheartedly be there to greet it when it comes.