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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Pacific Rim: Uprising movie review: robot smash

Pacific Rim Uprising yellow light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Enormously likable characters make this feel like a big friendly rambunctious dog that you can’t help but get a kick out of, but it fundamentally misunderstands the appeal of its predecessor movie.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love the first film
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

There aren’t enough monsters in this giant-robots-fighting-monsters movie.

Wait, what?

Yeah. *sigh*

Someone somewhere fundamentally misunderstood what the appeal of Pacific Rim is. Well, actually, there are two bases for geek appeal in the first film. One is the sci-fi amping up of the brothers- and sisters-in-arms war-movie platonic-romance stuff, what with the pilots of the Jaegers, the monster-fighting robots, required to operate those robots via a neural link that connects them intimately not just to the machine but to each other. The Jaeger pilots know each other better and much more closely than, say, WWII flying buddies could have, but their careers are as short as those of WWI aces: very short indeed. Flyboys and -girls living hard and dying fast, sacrificing themselves for the whole human race? The potential for juicy angst is enormous here, and Pacific Rim only scratched the surface with it.

“That’s right: a black man and a little white girl gonna save the world. You got somethin’ to say about that?”

“That’s right: a black man and a little white girl gonna save the world. You got somethin’ to say about that?”

Uprising does almost nothing with this.

What’s left, then, is the other matter of geek appeal: giant robots fighting Japanese-monster-movie style creatures, or Kaiju. By the time I was starting to glance at my watch during my Uprising screening, muttering for the movie to bring on the monsters already, we come to a scene in which it seems to be finally in the offing: the setup is ripe for a “surprise” monster attack after many years of a Kaiju-free Pacific rim. And… we get a “rogue Jaeger” attack: someone or some entity — like maybe an evil corporation? — is using Jaeger tech to do bad things. Like whack the shit outta Sydney, while the few Jaegers on ceremonial standby whack back.

And so Uprising turns into a giant-robots-fighting-giant-robots movie, and that’s simply not as exciting. No, not even the fact that they sometimes fight with giant laser swords and giant laser whips is enough to up the coolness quotient. Visually, it’s just less inherently interesting, lacking that mecha-versus-organic aspect when Kaiju are in the mix. And thematically, it’s much more difficult to justify the entertainment value in what seems like humans fighting humans (from inside giant robots). In Pacific Rim, monsters — and the mystery of their appearance through that wormhole at the bottom of the Pacific — were the enemy. Here, is it just a profit-above-all corporation that’s the villain? I mean, not that profit-above-all corporations don’t deserve to get their asses kicked, but perhaps not literally, with massive collateral damage to both people and property?

Uprising falls right into the trap that Pacific Rim avoided: it withholds its SF speculation until its too late to adequately explore it.

Now, there is a bit more than that going on, but Uprising doesn’t set up its conflict in a way that makes for an understanding of the stakes that we need. Everything seems way too small… until it suddenly gets way too big. (The only Kaiju fight is the finale.) In fact, one of the things I loved about Pacific Rim was that it did not fall into that trap of too many science fiction movies that save their speculative twists until far too late in the film to explore them adequately. But that’s exactly what Uprising does: it thinks it’s being clever by saving its cool ideas until the end, when it would have been a lot more fun for the movie to be playing with them all along.

In my review of Pacific Rim, I called it the kind of movie “that inspires people to play in its universe — to want to play in its universe — long after the movie ends.” Uprising starts out with a little bit of that playfulness. Set 10 years or so after the end of the Kaiju War, it features wrecked cities in “relief zones” where there are plenty of people partying and hustling in the rubble and amidst the skeletons of dead monsters (though the smell! it must be awful). One of them is the son of the first film’s hero: Jake Pentecost (a thoroughly charming John Boyega: Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Detroit) scavenges for Jaeger parts, because “nothing pays more than stolen Jaeger tech.” In the ruins of Los Angeles he meets teen Amara Namani (awesome newcomer Cailee Spaeny), who has built her own little Jaeger that she can operate on her own. She’s a terrific character: smart, tough, independent. She and Jake live in a world that is an intriguing extension of the events of the first movie.

“Does this chin strap make my chin look more chiseled?”

“Does this chin strap make my chin look more chiseled?”

The movie overall is full of likable and/or compelling characters with a gender and racial mix that looks like the real world. (That shouldn’t have to be a selling point. I look forward to the day when it no longer is.) Tian Jing (Kong: Skull Island, The Great Wall) is the prickly head of the Chinese company that looks like it could be behind the rogue Jaegers, perhaps as a false-flag operation for the remote-operated drones she is pushing for to replace the Jaegers entirely. Rinko Kikuchi (Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, 47 Ronin) returns as Mako Mori, who pretty much stole the first movie. Scott Eastwood (Overdrive, The Fate of the Furious), suddenly with a sense of humor about himself that he has not previously displayed, is head of the Jaeger operations that Jake and Amara get recruited into. It’s the characters who save the movie from itself: even with all the story problems happening around them, spending time with them, even the difficult ones, is fun. It’s because of all of them that Uprising feels like a big friendly rambunctious dog that you can’t help but get a kick out of even as it knocks into the furniture and spills your drink.

I still have no idea what Uprising refers to, though.

see also:
Pacific Rim review: the world goes to war

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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yellow light 3 stars

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Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) | directed by Steven S. DeKnight
US/Can release: Mar 23 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 23 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat, injury detail, rude gesture)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

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