Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Screenplay: Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, Steven S. DeKnight, T.S. Nowlin
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Zhang Jin, Charlie Day
Runtime: 111 Minutes
When Pacific Rim was released in the wasteland that was the summer of 2013, it was a genuine blast of fresh air. An original premise drawing from unique reference points from a visionary filmmaker with a real affinity for the material that he was working from. Although not a huge success story at the time its reputation in recent years seems to have grown with ardent fans of Guillermo Del Toro's work, and it made a great deal more money than expected at the Chinese box-office.
Although hesitant to pull the trigger on a sequel, the lure of residual monetary potential loomed large enough to greenlight this follow up feature. Sadly, this seems to have been the only thing behind the mindset of the production, as opposed to having any larger point or narrative function beyond maintaining a franchise brand, and what is left behind is one of the emptiest feeling blockbusters since Independence Day: Resurgence.
What's become even more significant on reflection is just how much Del Toro's uniquely applied aesthetic was significant to the appeal and execution of that original film. Without his eye for detail toward seamlessly integrated world-building and his breathtaking approach toward spectacle, what's left behind is nothing more than giant robots fighting giant monsters but without any of the majesty or fun that saturated the epic scale of such a titanic conflict.
This is television director Steven S. DeKnight's first feature production, and despite having on hand Dan Mindel as director of photography, from a visual perspective the film looks like something closer to a made-for-TV HBO movie than anything that belongs on cinema screens.
There's little weight or physical heft to the motion of the drastically redesigned Jäger robots, opting for sleeker anime designs with a more colourful palette to blend in with the rainbow colour of so many Chinese films of its kind like last years The Great Wall. It looks distinctly cheaper in motion despite the production costs, with a loud and familiar sound design that just overwhelms everything it's trying to show.
The action scenes are edited in a manner resembling any more conventional modern action picture, with fast cuts and snap zooms and none of the painterly frames to give a sense of scale, and as such everything feels more instantly forgettable as it moves by. The embarrassing level of destruction on the part of the heroes occasionally conjures up flashbacks to Man of Steel's horribly misjudge third act. The only incentive being to sell as many tickets as possible to 3D IMAX screens.
What's worse is that the film moves way too fast at points with no breathing room, and little time is given to its new cast of youthful - but encouragingly diverse - characters. None of which are interesting enough to warrant a focus on, even though the film is clearly aiming for a much younger demographic in a tired attempt to forge its own version of the 'passing of the torch' legacy narrative but without the background or justification for doing so.
To wit, we have our protagonist in the form of John Boyega as Jake Pentecost; the previously unmentioned son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and a recruit preparing a new generation for the possibility of the Kaiju returning to our world. Already we have a huge issue with the casting choice. Boyega is genuinely charismatic and a natural performer, but he plays the role like any sarcastic and nonchalant hero figure when nothing on paper about his character matches the persona. More dissonant is the monotonous voiceover that's played straight while Jake parties in mansions and trades goods for cookies.
Very few of the other new characters register as many of them fall into the backdrop of a plot which too much going on. Cailee Spaeny as a young mechanic gets sidelined too often, and Scott Eastwood gets the bare minimum to work with while looking and sounding more and more like his father every day. Poor Adria Arjona's character serves no purpose but to stand there and instigate cringeworthy banter dialogue between Eastwood and Boyega as to who she likes more.
The only characters that do register are the few recurring roles from the original, and even then they come tainted or malformed in some way. Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori gets nothing to do as an exposition-spouting stand-in who is out of the film early on. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the returning comic relief scientists take a more central role, but Day takes an offbeat character and turns him into an annoying and unbelievable presence, and even some of his more interesting developments later on feel wasted in their true potential with poor execution.
The worst thing about the whole thing is how thoroughly dumbed down it all feels. It chooses to construct itself almost entirely for non-English speaking countries. Right down to the interchangeability of the dialogue and the narrowing down of characters into 'take it or leave it' stock figures. It tries and fails to replicate some of the signature emotional beats from the original without any subtlety or attempts to hide its lack of new ideas.
Pacific Rim Uprising feels like a film designed in a lab for the express purpose of tearing down and hastily remodelling everything that worked about its predecessor. Where that film felt simple but sincere and efficient, this feels stupid and bloated where even the speechifying falls flat. It takes something that people loved and cuts its heart out, leaving it an empty husk with no charm or love to show for anything it's displaying onscreen.