You could hear the cries of lament from space.
Guillermo del Toro has chosen not to helm the sequel to his intelligent, bombastically brilliant 2013 film Pacific Rim, a critical and commercial hit that saw the Earth attacked by fearsome giant monsters known as Kaiju from the dimensional beyond and respond with its mechanised robotic behemoths known as Jaegers, and all was lost!
As gnashing of teeth and rending of fan boy clothes go, not to mention wallowing in ashes of sorrow, went, it was all pretty impressive if you like that kind of thing; but as Pacific Rim Uprising demonstrates almost immediately, fairly pointless.
Directed by Steven S. DeKnight to a multi-person penned screenplay, this is one sequel that makes the most of what preceded it, honouring its narrative antecedents while advancing things just enough that it never feels like it’s bitten off more than it can chew.
The Kaiju however? Well, as expected they bite off pretty much everything in reach, including great swathes of Tokyo which is reduced to rubble while its citizens hunker down in bunkers far below.
Subtle it is not but Pacific Rim Uprising surprises more often than you might expect with nicely well-rounded characters – John Boyega as Jake Pentecost, the son of Pacific Rim‘s hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is brilliantly realised as is the return of Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who is hilariously eccentric as ever – some genuinely touching moment and deep grounding in believable world-building.
Ten years after the great battle between the Kaiju, sent by an avaricious alien race known as the Precursors, and a united Earth which has somehow managed to stay reasonably cooperative in the aftermath, the Earth is an understandable mix of rebuild and ruins.
In these ruins, a range of have-nots and criminals abound, living in half-ruined mansions, their grounds decorated by Kaiju skeletons, bartering for hard-to-find foods and supplies and on the make for Jaeger parts to sell on a thriving black market.
It’s a pleasing take on the world post-invasion because it grounds what is, after all, a quite fantastical premise in an authentically human context – we won against the aliens sure, and we have rebuilt in part and the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) continue to build Jaegers and trains pilots such as the raft of new recruits we’re introduced to, but is everything sweetly perfect and bucolically innocent once again?
Far from it, and as we meet Jake, living in the ruins of coastal anywhere, and Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who has built her own off-the-grid Jaeger called Scrapper and has attitude to burn, we understand in ways that aren’t laboured and through exposition efficiently and elegantly executed, exactly how precarious life on Earth remains.
People want to believe the worst is over but no one really believes it, their paranoid suspicions given form when the Kaiju return from a wholly unexpected place and with someone from Earth pulling the strings and the battle for our planet is renewed (with a group of people who actually look like they represent all of humanity; sure they were likely picked for global marketing purposes but the faces of the resistance at least mirror the people of the entire Pacific rim, adding a believability to the fightback).
There is still the issue of why the Precursors are taking such a long meandering and needlessly inefficient route to world domination but really they’re not the focus here, not really, bar some spectacular final act squabbling in the streets of a deserted Tokyo, are the Kaiju (though they do make their presence felt so everyone can relax: the franchise has not sold its monster-battling soul, all claims to the contrary).
What is front and centre are the people of Earth themselves – discontented Jake who despite leaving the PPDC finds himself back there alongside his estranged Jaeger pilot buddy Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), a slew of new recruits such as Amara, Suresh (Karan Brar) and Viktoria (Ivanna Sakhno), Jake’s sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who returns from the first film, and business tycoon Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) whose new drone tech might just put the Jaegers out of business.
Each of these people are given room to define themselves and develop, well as much as you can in the confines of what is affectionately a big, dumb fun blockbuster – this is not a pejorative; it knows what it is, makes merry with it and executes it very well – giving Pacific Rim Uprising the kind of emotional resonance that the first film has in spades.
Granted no one will win an Academy Award for their work – not because the performances are bad- far from it they’re uniformly good; but because it’s not that kind of movie – but the film is a definite cut above the blockbuster hoipolloi that manages to tell its simple but engaging story in under two hours, a near-record for a cinematic behemoth.
It’s this narrative discipline that particularly serves Pacific Rim Uprising well.
It doesn’t seek to guild the lily, pad things out or bloat proceedings to a needless degree; rather it efficiently tells a streamlined story that knows it only needs to make one point – that the monsters are back but at humanity’s hand this time and that the world must band together once again to save the day.
Nice, clean and easy and save for some cheesy, trope-heavy sequences where you can practically smell the gorganzola reeking off the screen, Pacific Rim Uprising sticks to its narrative guns, telling a direct, straight ahead story, letting the characters breathe and shine and advancing the franchise to an expected third film – there is a mid-end credits scene that all but proclaims one is in the offing – with a minimum of fuss and lots of camaraderie and fun.
Can you actually have fun when so much is at stake?
Jake Pentecost will have you believing you can, his character replete with the expected angsty rebelliousness his part calls for but also a great deal of intelligence, insightfulness and a refreshing lack of CW-level posturing which is a blessed relief in a genre littered with overwrought protagonists.
Pentecost is existentially fraught sure, but in Boyega’s sure hands, he’s also grounded and real, the kind of protagonist you can relate to because the reasons for his departure from PPDC make sense as does his accommodation with his unwilling return.
All of which means that Pacific Rim Uprising doesn’t sink beneath the weight of its own melodratic angst – in fact, the screenplay goes to great lengths to subvert and play with it, including a gem of a post-fight scene between Jake and Amara – and moves along at a briskly enjoyable, meaningful pace that balances action and emotion, substance and kickass, over-the-top action sequences with impressive ease.
There will, of course, still be fan boys mourning del Toro’s absence but Pacific Rim Uprising acquits itself very well in his absence, delivering up a blockbuster that knows its big, dumb and fun, that owns its out-there premise, its time-honoured tropes and bombastic action and romps off to supremely engrossingly enjoyable places with it (Sydney, Australia which gets trashed but happily loses an urban eyesore in the process) joyously taking us all with it in such convincing fashion that suiting up for film number three seems like a no-brainer.