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They know what y’all are here for.

All right so we all know that I fucking loved the first Pacific Rim. I’ve grown to love it even more than I did when I first wrote that review. I think it remains a severely underrated movie. Everybody overstates the dumb Saturday Morning cartoon of it all and understates the, at the time anyway, very refreshing themes and story progression. Heroes who see the world falling apart and don’t “resist the call”. People from all over the world getting together to fix a big problem that’s been insufficiently addressed. The analogies weren’t and aren’t hard to spot. They aren’t hard to spot this time around, either. This is a movie that is even more directly aimed at kids than the first was, and boy was it. Pacific Rim: Uprising ups the ante by having a significant portion of its secondary cast actually being kids, which while waving away the specter of child soldiers also feels more right given the genre origins of this movie. In the anime, cartoons, and video games that Pacific Rim owes so much to, the heroes are always teens rather than washed up 20 or 30-somethings.

But in general, Uprising gets really close to being at least as good as the first while never quite being able to make it stick. The direction is fine, Steven S. DeKnight really showing he can handle something this grandiose. There were four writers on this, though, and I’ve spoken often about what a bad sign that is. This means the movie we get is cobbled together out of several drafts and none of them quite cracked it or managed to make the movie totally cohesive. Instead, it feels like a headlong rush through too many plotpoints and character arcs, many of which are resultingly underserved. I liked the kids and I liked what the movie was trying to say about the fate of the world resting in the hands of a new generation. Too bad the test audiences probably liked John Boyega and Scott Eastwood more. There’s an unfair criticism being made, by the way, about the “focus group” visual nature of this movie. Lots of people have been dismissive of it as looking too much like Transformers or the recent (and decent) Power Rangers movie. Thing is, all of these giant colorful robot properties are echoing the same basic influences. Mostly from anime. It shouldn’t surprise people that they look somewhat alike any more than it surprises people that most first-run superhero movies are origin stories.

Flawed though it may be, Uprising is often delightful. It’s silly, even sillier than the first one, but feels a lot more in on its own fun. This manifests everywhere from Boyega’s loose, charming performance to the color palette and emphasis on daytime fights (night fights being a common criticism of the first movie’s visuals). The story might give you whiplash with its parade of reversals, last minute saves, and contrivances… but ultimately it hangs together in its shaggy way without every really rising above the more stable, but just as functional story from the first Pacific Rim. If this movie needed anything, it was a trimmed down story with more time for the elements to breathe.  That said, if you’re here for giant robots tearing shit up with everything else being somewhat secondary, it sure does deliver.w

This relationship is the heart of the movie, but unlike the first one they decided not to actually balance the movie around it.

It’s ten years after the closing of the Breach and the world has mostly moved on. Cities have been rebuilt, a new generation of Jaegers and pilots have been trained, and the heroes of the first war have moved on to different roles. We see Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as a government official, but Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) is mentioned and never seen. On the eve of a new drone program meant to replace the “Ranger” program of human pilots and personalized, highly variable Jaeger designs, a new threat emerges.

At the same time, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) winds up back in the mix after falling from grace a year before the events of the first film. Since then, he’s gotten by as a thief and fixer in the black market of destroyed cities. He sells scrap Jaeger parts to people trying to build their own. Everyone assumes the Kaiju are coming back, that the alien Precursors aren’t done with Earth quite yet. That’s refreshing, since the movie could have wasted everybody’s time pretending the coast was clear and people were starting to feel safe. Instead, there’s a tension in the air but also a sense of the routine, with everyone having gotten used to living on permanent war footing. Sound familiar? It’s supposed to.

Jake runs across Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a young (but not as young as she looks) mechanic and would-be pilot who scavenges parts to build her own small, single-pilot Jaeger. That way she doesn’t have to rely on anyone else, though learning to do exactly that is the core of she and Jake’s respective arcs. Her Jaeger, Scrapper, is a highlight of the movie. The early scenes of Jake’s hustling and getting thrown together with Amara on the run from Jaeger police, are also really great and maybe the best, purest stuff in the movie. At this point, there’s a lot of promise for a cohesive, well-drawn story about these two characters and the crazy world they inhabit.

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But then the white guy shows up. I kid. Or do I?

Unfortunately, Uprising is in a big hurry to introduce about a hundred addtional characters and get the plot in on time, so we’re whisked away from the cool post-Kaiju world and into the familiar territory of the Chinese Jaeger base from the first movie. It’s fine if the movie wants Jake back in the fold, a deal he takes to avoid jail, but I wanted to see a lot more of the training of these kids since the movie acts for a long time like that’s the kind of story it’s telling. Instead, it pushes this and any substantial characterization the Next Gen Ranger cast might have gotten in favor of familiar faces and a bunch of rapid-fire plot points and reversals. There are some pretty good twists and fake-outs in the movie, but it’s carving through them so relentlessly that it’s tough to get a moment to go “daaaaammmnnnn” throughout.

Instead, the focus stays on Jake and Lambert (Scott Eastwood) most of the time it’s not seguing to Newt (Charlie Day) and his sinister-seeming boss Liwen Shao (Tian Jing). They’re the ones in charge of the drone program. We know it’s going to go wrong, but it’s fun seeing how and just how wrong it really goes. Newt, dressed more like Hannibal Chau for some reason, has a big secret and that secret is fairly gamely played by Day (who is kind of understated here). It’s fun to see he and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) bounce off each other again, though mileage varies heavily on whether their antics are/were fun or annoying. Still, they aren’t in it much and the focus always returns to the intense, intense homoerotic frenemy-ship of Jake and Lambert.

Honestly, this movie made Scott Eastwood watchable for me and if that’s not an accomplishment, I don’t know what is. Dude keeps showing up being the blandest of blands in blandtown. Only in Uprising, of all the bigger projects he’s been in, does he seem to let his hair down and have some fun. Don’t ask me why.

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A lot has been and will continue to be made of the various themes in this movie as they involve China as a sociopolitical entity.

There’s an extent to which focusing the story more on Amara and Jake would have basically made it a retelling of the first movie. Jake is a lot like Raleigh and Amara is a lot like Mako. Jake’s a born pilot and he needs to get over his shit (more imposter syndrome than trauma this time) while Amara might be too much of a mess to actually be a pilot. She, like Mako, watched her entire family die in front of her but unlike Mako she grew up alone and without a support structure. That should be a more serious drawback than it is, but it does matter that she is shown to be bad at the training and a bit too independent to make the cut. This helps undermine the wunderkind thing they had going where she can pilot, build her own Jaegers, and seemingly outfight a grown ass man. Building her up this much then showing her as flawed and fallible is  nice, but the movie undercommits. It also undercommits to Jake’s arc of learning to give a shit and get out from under the pressure his father put on him. He’s a bit of a spoiled brat, really, and it’s great that Boyega gets that and plays the character as a cocky mouthpiece who, when the chips are down, has your back.

But really, they could have made this stuff work and given Jake and Amara enough. Instead, they round out the cast with Lambert, Liwen, a thankless tiny role for Adria Arjona that nontheless leads to one of the movie’s funniest moments, etc. None of these people is as instantly iconic as Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) or Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr.). There’s no Idris Elba in this movie, and there’s not even a Rob Kazinsky. The rivalry between Amara and Viktoria (Ivanna Sakhno) is a pale echo of the rivarly in the first movie. One way they could have used the same basic setup with Amara and Jake and expanded on it would have been to simultaneously explore more of the Drift technology and its freaky implications. Sadly, they don’t bother and it’s used in basically the same way, down to a chasing the rabbit sequence that ends in a training failure.

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Another pale echo: Boyega talking about Stacker’s speechifying, trying his hand at it, and having it land with all the impact of a bunch of goofy costumed kids on a green screen… which this is.

Still, the core theme of getting over your shit and working together as a team or family is very present in the movie. It’s also probably why this series, if that’s what it’s destined to be, is so popular in China. One of the themes that keeps coming up in the critical reception is the extent to which Pacific Rim: Uprising was written/made to appeal to Chinese sensibilities, particularly those aspects of the collectivist party ethos that some seem to think defines what films their censors allow to play over there. I don’t know enough about that to really come down on any side. I don’t think most of the people talking about it do either, for what it’s worth. I guess my tentative opinion is that Pacific Rim had those themes, became popular in China partly because of a recognition of them that was less than equivalent in North America, and more of the same was viewed by all parties to be a good thing. I’m with them on that, whatever secret handshakes supposedly went on to make this happen. I like a story that has this theme, and I really like the idea of dropping the ego like the hot, heavy rock it is. So I’m here for movies that are about fighting global threats globally.

I also dug the gleeful insanity of the Precursors’ terraforming plan, which is more directly revealed here. The whole thing being about exploding Mt. Fuji is a fun idea and one that honors the Japanese origins of basically all of the stuff in the movie. At the same time, the path there is hopelessly convoluted and full of contrivances. There’s the drones that Newt somehow infects with Kaiju brains, only for them to be conveniently self-destructed soon after. Fun as it is to have Newt go bad, and to see that the “Alice” he keeps talking about is actually a gross Kaiju hindbrain in a gross jar, he’s not very much of a step up from Pacific Rim‘s faceless, elemental adversary. Personalizing the enemy in Round 2 makes a sort of sense, but Day doesn’t exactly bring his A game (see It’s Always Sunny… In Philadelphia). The result is kind of lame, with Day seemingly disinterested in playing Newt as either particularly conflicted (two sides of his mind warring with each other) or particularly menacing. He mostly acts like a kiddie league coach, right down to standing inexplicably on a Tokyo skyscraper with his ipad playbook. Hilariously, the movie cuts to him for lines of silly dialogue (if I never hear the line “that’s what I’m talking about” in a movie again, it’ll be too soon) and reaction shots… none of which are visible or audible to anyone but the audience. It’s a weird choice and feels like the result of misguided notes about “upping that C-Day factor”.

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Speaking of upping factors, there are scenes in Uprising where the dial doesn’t just go past ten, it ceases to exist altogether.

The action scenes in Uprising are probably superior to the ones in the first movie. That said, they are a bit different and tend to be a bit less stylish. For example, there’s not really an equivalent of that bit with the Hong Kong battle with its oil tanker sword or even the character-driven pathos of Raleigh burning a whole clip on one Kaiju to make sure it’s dead. I do applaud Uprising for showing that cowboy shit will get you killed, and therefore the requisite unflinching brutality of killing off one of its plucky child soldiers. In general, I approve of the recent Hollywood trend of not rewarding cowboy assholes. See also: Poe Dameron.

The fights are also crunchier than they looked in the trailers, though there are smaller, lighter Jaegers that seem more “ninja-like” and gift-wrapped for the full-on weebs in the audience. The Naruto-bot will be obvious when you see it. A highlight in the movie’s action for me was the Jaeger-on-Jaeger combat. Seeing something new is always the way to go, and Uprising unwisely ends its big Kaiju battle on a very similar note to the end of the Hong Kong sequence from the first one. But every time Obsidian Fury shows up to fight Gipsy Avenger (the new hotness), it’s great stuff.

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Some of the weird Transformer comparisons might result from the marketing emphasis on this character, who is actually a way better version of the one in The Last Knight.

All in all, I’d say Uprising was a solid sequel that doesn’t push too hard for new stuff or better stuff, and mostly maintains the things the first one did well. I do think it lacks as solid a through-line between its themes and characters, but since they are kind of repetitive here anyway that might even be for the best. If they’re building toward a more direct sequel, with these characters again, I hope they expand on this and deepen the story as they failed to do here. I also hope they get a better soundtrack because the low key (pale echo) version of the first one’s doesn’t do it for me. Pacific Rim‘s score is an all-timer and really elevates the movie and sets the tone squarely in the kick-ass brand of entertainment its offering.

Like the first one, which I’ve said a lot, Uprising is a movie that isn’t for the cynical or jaded. It’s very sentimental, though perhaps indulging in bathos and self-deprecation a bit more often (that MCU effect). It still loves you like a big robot dog. And it still kinda reminds me of the shag and heart of the Fast and the Furious movies. Is a cross-over too much to ask? I mean Scott Eastwood is now in both franchises and, for a wonder, does not seem embarrassed by that at all (where I suspect Hunnam is a bit embarrassed about Pacific Rim). Make it happen, Hollywood. It’s the logical next step for Fast and the Furious and would be the most delicious of all possible curve balls for Pacific Rim, which, if you’re otherwise content to just echo the first one… you might as well get throwing them.

 

 

 

 

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