John Boyega deserves better movies than the ones he’s been getting ever since his brilliant breakout in the fantastic Attack the Block. I mean, he’s certainly not suffering one bit as one of the stars of the Star Wars franchise and it’s very easy to see what interests anybody with the movies he’s been working on, so it’s not like he needs a new agent. But, I think just once he deserves a movie that matches his charismatic talents where they don’t need to be carrying the whole thing*.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is absolutely one such movie where the only joy in watching it as how Boyega takes the role of Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s character in the predecessor film), a young hotshot pilot with everything to prove in the face of the now-rebooted Kaiju monster attack on humanity. This is a hell of an upgrade from the block of wood that was Charlie Hunnam, to be honest. Boyega’s presence is the only thing that gives life to the most commonplace character traits a lead actor can be saddled with these days (though I also think it’s a stronger character for him to work with than Star Wars‘ Finn) and sells every inch of the scenario of Uprising‘s screenplay by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, director Steven S. DeKnight, and… oh god, The Maze Runner‘s runner T.S. Nowlin back to haunt my soul with over-labored storytelling and diminishing return. Which means Boyega’s had his work cut out for him with this movie.
Suffice it to say four different writers means at least four different tangents on which Uprising wants to latch itself onto and none of them with any elegance: the training of a brand-new team of heroes by Jake and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), the re-introduction of a familiar face from the previous Pacific Rim as the new antagonist, the introduction of automated Jaeger drones as a possible replacement to the contingency, and the imminent return of the Kaiju threat long after Jake’s father Stacker and adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi getting treated dirty by this movie) thought they sealed that deal in the first movie. Actually, these are really subplots – many of them are supposed to feel like a thoroughline with one leading to the other and so on. DeKnight being a veteran of television with this being his feature film debut, he handles this with all the clumsiness of a television trying to pile on as many arcs for its imminent first season, calling attention to the clunkiness with which these plotlines collide over each other and their incompatibility in some places.
And I’m honestly having trouble remembering any performance except Boyega, Eastwood, and the first movie’s alumni (Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman), let alone thinking highly of them. Most of them are just muted underwhelming plays at the most common character types – Plucky young bloods with their own high schooler drama. Eastwood’s attempt at grizzled by-the-book disciplinarian (between this and The Fate of the Furious, I’m starting to feel like he just sucks the air out of any dramatic moment in popcorn cinema). Mako has no character to work with whatsoever and what the movie lands on her feels slightly contemptuous on the part of everything her character grew on. Day and Gorman are the only ones whose characters seem to have developed into a schism in their previous partnership in the wake of their dive in a psychic Kaiju brain.
This hardly matters, to be honest. Pacific Rim itself was not an examplar of great dramatic writing or character work, it was barely survivable in that area. Probably what sticks in my craw is more how much effort it appears that Uprising put into trying to develop its own new threat through complicated swims of Kaiju brainwaves and digging into the politics that it all turns into a slightly better (read: shorter) version of Independence Day: Resurgence.
No no no, what does matter in the end with Pacific Rim Uprising is what we’re here for: The visuals. Not particularly the production design which is much less revelatory this time around beyond a brief introduction of a man-made mini Jaeger and a chase through the remains of a demolished one (the cities especially are utterly disinteresting to look at after the cool glowing streets of Tokyo in the rain in Pacific Rim). I mean that sweet nectar of Mecha and Kaiju monster action. And thankfully, Uprising is not really short in that department, though the quantity of Jaeger and Kaiju setpieces does not factor against the lack of variety between them as they all just seem to be framed in a lazy manner not calling attention to the fact that these are HUGE GIANT ROBOTS dwarfing us, but more as though these robots were having a civil dialogue scene with sedate camera movement. Or the lack of poppy color and within them beyond one hella cool shot in red smoke as we witness a Kaiju’s evolution into something even more menacing, totally blanketed in crimsons**.
Or the ballsy but fatal mistake for them to set all the CGI battles in broad daylight, giving them a slight bit of flatness that makes it impossible to recognize these as more effects than physical beings of cold steel. Y’know, say what you will about Pacific Rim‘s decision to include shadows in its fight scenes but it gave these beings shape and visual power while Uprising resembles a rejected episode climax from an episode of Power Rangers. A more polished one and one that gets the job done in distracting me long enough to get through a very rushed button ending, but everything about Uprising in the end seems to feel like an obligatory attempt at continuing a franchise while leaving behind the beating heart that was at the center of the film that started it all.
*And I am definitely aware that this is an unpopular opinion, especially when it comes to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though I will concede they are the best of his post-Attack The Block movies with enough in favor of them.
**Although this shot may have won me for reminding me of another better monster movie, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake.