Giant Robots: Check.
Giant Monsters who need their faces punched in: Check.
So why did I feel side-swiped by this breakneck Technicolor hurricane of circuits and CGI? Maybe because, to enjoy Uprising, you have to accept this was made as a kid’s film as an homage to an obscure semi-genre of live-action Japanese television. The director, Steven S. DeKnight, deliberately saturated and zazzed-up visuals and the pacing to be on par with a late ‘90s game show.
The contrast comes from the gritty, epic scale and deliberate pacing of the original Pacific Rim. Giant monsters named Kaiju came through various portals along the Pacific Rim volcanic fault line to destroy cities. To fight back, humanity constructed robots so large it took two people mentally linked to pilot these Jaegers, operate their weapons, and ultimately run a bomb into the final gate, cutting off the Kaiju from our world and losing Idris Elba in a textbook Pyrrhic victory. Every screenshot was a lingering pan of the camera, a methodical zoom-out to wow the viewer at the sheer scope and size of both the lumbering monsters and Jaegers alike. Aside from Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as competing eccentric scientists, Newt and Herman, the movie moved like procedural syrup.
Comparing Uprising, visually or tonally, with its predecessor, 2013’s Pacific Rim, is like comparing the Ghostbuster franchises. The robots are brighter, faster and execute insane gymnastics reserved for James Bond stunt doubles. This is almost a totally different beast altogether from five years ago: it has grown, it has evolved, and it’s coming in hot. As long as you don’t think about the disregard for the limits of time and space – and between the editing and actors’ speedy dialog you are never given a chance to think – you are in for a fun, fast, and colorful ride on par with the Speed Racer remake so many moons ago.
In Pacific Rim: Uprising, we begin 10 years after the war with the Kaiju. John Boyega plays Jake Pentecost, the biological son of Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba in the original film), a Han Solo-style scrapper and brat, making his criminal way in a post-Kaiju economy. His character keeps a problem for the universe, because Boyega’s character was never mentioned in the first Pacific Rim film. Turns out his adopted Japanese sister, Mako, the original film’s protagonist, is on the warpath to find and recruit him. She appears just long enough to get Jake back into the Jaeger program as a mentor for the next generation of teenage pilots, including 15-year old scrapper/hacker prodigy Amara Namani, played by Cailee Spaeny.
You’ll be able to glean an ounce of rapport between Boyega with Spaeny amid the witty banter and hamster ball psychics. From there you have to stomach his game of acting wall-ball against the staunch barking of his previous Jaeger co-partner Nate Lambert, played by cardboard cut-out Clint-wannabe, Scott Eastwood. These two partners are quick to step into their old Jaeger, Gypsy Avenger, and act as parading frontmen for an upcoming demonstration.
From there, the audience is strapped, flipped, and vaulted into the Jaeger training program where the established giant robot company squares off against a pilotless program tested out by Shao Industries, headed by Tian Jing and Charlie Day, returning from the first film.
Giant robot and Japanese fans have waited five years for this sequel. Original co-writer and director Guillermo Del Toro rolled into the producer chair to work. The team, which picked up Pacific Rim: Uprising, certainly hold substantial nerd credit under their belt, writer/producer/director Steven S. DeKnight has produced Netflix’s Daredevil, TV’s Buffy, Angel and DollHouse. DeKnight’s team learned from the first film’s mistake by doubling down on the film’s diverse cast. They have a colorful onscreen team, who does their best to not be marginalized by the hologram of neon blue-blooded special effects.
But this film offers no time for sadness or resignation. Bravery in the face of war trauma was a pillar of plot in the first Pacific Rim, but here, with brand new pilots and characters, we don’t have time to grieve. Even after Makoto’s helicopter goes down in a rogue missile attack by an unknown Jaeger, Pentecost is given a second to acknowledge her death. Without Spaeny’s anxiety-inducing flashback for her to overcome, there wouldn’t be a moment of pathos or character development.
The monsters, though, look amazing, and the final encounter will have both casual and diehard anime fans either laughing or face-palming over the last-minute mighty morphin’ fusion scene employed by Charlie Day. Will you catch all the references? Try to catch ‘em all.
This was no easy year for Uprising to be released, especially between Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Any nerd will tell you how impossible it is to please nerds. But Uprising is a kinetic flurry – and a funny, badass one at that. My hope is that younger viewers sop up the Spielberg-level schmaltz, take heart in a diverse team of teenage pilots, and make the Pacific Rim franchise their own generation’s Godzilla. Let go of the past, trust your team, get in the robot.