This harebrained, visually unremarkable wannabe doesn't know how to have a heart—even one inherited.
It's a trend in Hollywood blockbusters. From Godzilla to Jurassic World to Kong: Skull Island, studios chose for the director's seat a fresh face who made one acclaimed movie or two. The project could be their big break. Because indie darlings are reputable for their intimate beats of emotion, said directors should be enough to handle the tacky writing. However, they are also baffled by the sheer scale of said blockbuster production. The movie is obliged to follow the direction of studio executives, the director's personal vision unnoticed.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is the same case. Okay, director Stephen S. DeKnight has no cinematic qualification, only packing under his belt a few TV credits (Starz's Spartacus, Netflix's Daredevil). What worsens this drawback is that Guillermo del Toro's 2013 Jaeger-Kaiju flick Pacific Rim is fresh in our collective mind. The famous director of macabre and whimsy leaped to blockbuster filmmaking with zeal, confidence, and a masterly control of his unique craft. Out of fanboy love, he took a niche of pop culture—mechs battling giant monsters, as an arrogant excuse for humankind to build giants in our earthly image—and created a memorable spectacle.
Ten years after the apocalypse is canceled, a new generation of pilots and technological leaders replace the old farts. Like the title format, this setting reminds us of Independence Day: Resurgence. Jinx! Our protagonist Jake (John Boyega, with his Attack the Block accent) was always expected to be great because he's the (out-of-nowhere) son of war hero Stacker Pentecost. So Jake rebelled at the Jaeger Academy and was expelled. After a while, his inconsequential life of hedonism and smuggling Jaeger scraps comes to a predictable halt. When searching a tube of Kaiju-blood fuel, Jake meets Amara (Cailee Spaeny) and her Transformers-sized Jaeger named Scrapper.
When they are arrested, Jake's adopted sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi—the only thing new or notable about her is the makeup for an older appearance), now Secretary of Pan-Pacific Defence Corps, forces him back to training Jaeger pilots. The life at the China-based Academy initiates a new escapade, where DeKnight seesaws between Jake's first failure and Amara's unsuccessful integration into her group of fellow trainees. The cadets are a personality-free group with two members sticking out like stereotypically sore thumbs: an aggressive Russian girl and an anxious Indian boy. Using them, Uprising insults the fond memories of its predecessor by throwing away the drift-compatible concept. It swaps and shuffles the young pilots in and out of the cockpits without any worthwhile relationship.
With the background noise of Kaiju worshipers and private corporations, the writing (credited to four writers) is messy and trivial, except for one effort to not reiterate the inciting conflict about The Breach. PDDC's Jaeger program competes with the drone initiative from China's Shao Corporation, of which steely tycoon Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) sees the business possibility in this recovering world. Globally controlled mechs seem intriguing when compared to the inconvenient scheme of dual piloting. I won't start any more Jing Tian Cinematic Universe joke; she's not that bad at acting, but this Shao lady is woven into the movie with meager, questionable intentions. Her sketchy threat lacks immediacy when it should be a motivating factor for the lead characters. With Jing and some big mainland names, Legendary indulges the Chinese market after the first movie killed their Crimson Typhoon's triplets.
Fan favorites Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) return, their friendship radically different. Though not everyone accepts their "drifting" apart in this brave new world, the change is believable when we re-watch Pacific Rim. While Gorman has the chops for this role, Day relies more on the writing than his comic forte to conduct Geiszler's character development. Uprising also shows a wretched flaw early on when it ditches and scatters the old cast to expedite a crazy plot twist. I'm not talking about the glaring shots of rocket-toting hybrids in the trailers; the true surprise hides in plain sight.
As Jake, Boyega is not at his best. He delivers visual gags, one-liners, and weird contemplation about manly sexiness to mine laughter from the impressionable masses. His Jake is a familiar character in terms of magnetism and enthusiasm—Chris Pine's Captain Kirk is tenfold more captivating. And I would argue that Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Beckett doesn't need charisma as criticism at him suggested. Jake's relentless quips summarize his companionship with Nate Lambert (a squinty Scott Eastwood, sharing the roles of this bland type with Liam Hemsworth). Nate is the square bro of duty, and Jake the sardonic pessimist. These men are clung together by, aside from missions, a love triangle with Jules Reyes (Adria Arjona), which plays for more witless laughs.
Though engineering prodigy Amara belongs to an agitating type that is emerging in Hollywood (like in Transformers: The Last Knight), Spaeny's spunky performance promises a bright mainstream career. With the most watchable acting in this shiny hodgepodge, she somehow reminds me of a younger Shailene Woodley, from their abilities and appearances to involvements with YA franchises. For Amara's backstory, one leap of faith defines her psyche and solidifies her brother-sister relationship with Jake.
The spectacles fare even worse than its textual counterpart. Uprising hinges on its modernized advancement—instead of del Toro's pulpy and vibrant style—to justify its artificial look. Thus, the cinematography of Dan Mindel (a familiar name in blockbusters) is similar to Warcraft's bromidic visuals. Be gone the moody texture of city lights, rain, and roaring seascapes; these new battlefields are in clear daylight to ensure the cineplex audience that tons of metal only causes breezeless bareness. Whereas the Kaiju are decent in design, the compositing of cityscapes, military bases, and the Jaegers is sterile, flimsy, and hollowed out. That's what happens when this sequel refuses to re-imagine, or at least copy, del Toro's revel in the giants' heft and enormity. As ridiculous as I may sound, the old Jaegers have personalities.
The giant-sized combats are, by default, crowd-pleasing but not creative and boldly absurd enough for viewers to talk with their friends after leaving the theaters. The only thing refreshing here is clarity in action sequences. The Jaegers and Kaiju are products of CGI, but DeKnight, from a background of action directing, keeps their movement and stance easy to observe. Environments become a part of the fights—and not just for destruction. For example, Jake and Nate use the open field to achieve victory in the rematch with a formidable foe, and the final act brings all parties to Japan, home of the classic kaiju and mechs. That said, they matter little in the grand scheme of money-making.
We deserve a better kind of mindless entertainment than Uprising, which was only greenlit by Legendary's new Chinese owners because the first movie performed well in China. This harebrained wannabe doesn't know how to have a heart—even one inherited. The idea of drift-compatible is already handy for both controlling the giant mechs and elevating the small group of characters. The rest of Pacific Rim is fleeting entertainment, yet I still remember Gypsy Danger's make-shift baseball bat made from a cargo ship, among other shots. DeKnight can't reach this visual dash even when he imitates that scene with a gravity gun.
It's bewildering to see Uprising spends its first half trying to build characters, with no Kaiju in sight, and still fails to strike the right chord of echoed humanity. Which is what the first movie accomplishes even when it opens right in the midst of the action.
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