Pacific Rim: Uprising review

The first Pacific Rim was an all-out, no holds barred, maximalist sci-fi spectacle that, despite the allure of the ‘giant robots vs. giant monsters’ premise, never quite found its audience. A few years on, Pacific Rim: Uprising is back hoping to be one of the year's biggest films, with a new director, a new star, and a new premise: ‘even bigger robots vs. even bigger monsters’.

  • Release date: 23 March 2018
  • Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Charlie Day, Cailee Spaeny
  • Director: Steven S. DeKnight
  • Book: UK tickets or US tickets

With original director Guillermo del Toro busy winning Oscars for films about sexy fish men, Steven S. DeKnight has stepped up for the sequel. It’s his big screen debut, but he’s already established a reputation for genre work on the smaller screen, most notably showrunning the spectacular first season of Netflix’s Daredevil.

With him comes a new star: John Boyega, fresh from The Last Jedi, taking over from Charlie Hunnam, a fantastic actor whose passive performance didn’t quite hit the mark in the first film. Boyega brings with him much more dynamism: his Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s character from the first entry) has more than a touch of the charisma of Finn from Star Wars, but paired with a reckless, rebellious streak, a frustration with the expectations of heroism.

Naturally he has to face up to that when he’s dragged against his will into the Jaeger program. For those who missed the first Pacific Rim, Jaegers are the giant mechanical weapons humanity uses to hold off the giant monsters (Kaiju) attacking from the Pacific.

Del Toro’s smart innovation was the idea that Jaegers are so vast and complex that they require two human pilots, mentally linked together, sharing every thought and emotion along the way. This drove the first film’s persistent emphasis on the importance of empathy, the idea that this might be what separates man from (giant, alien) beast.

Uprising doesn’t drop the concept of the ‘drift’, but does downgrade it to mere background exposition, and the film certainly loses something along the way. There are gestures to themes ranging from family and heroism to the rise of drone warfare, but these are just window dressing for what Uprising is really about: whopping great fight scenes.

Even more than the first film, Uprising is really just a giant excuse to make big things fight bigger things, and on that front it delivers. With new Jaegers, new Kaiju, and a few new things entirely that we won’t give away here, one of the film’s biggest strengths is its commitment to upending expectations in its biggest fights.

It says a lot that in a film ostensibly about robots fighting monsters, there isn’t a straight-up Jaeger vs Kaiju fight until the final act, with the film instead using a remote-piloted drone program as an excuse to pit robot against robot in various configurations up to that point.

DeKnight has also remedied one of the most common complaints about the first film - that its dark fight scenes were hard to follow - by shifting almost all of them to brightly lit daytime. It makes the super-scale combat easier to follow, and allows the camera to revel in the unhinged destruction for a little longer.

The downside is that, together with a faster pace to the fight scenes, it detracts slightly from the mythic quality of the first film. del Toro’s creations moved slowly, shifting oceans around them, grinding gears with every swinging punch, and their weight was palpable. Here they’re faster, more agile, opening up the potential for slicker, more mobile fight choreography, but losing some of the astonishing heft they once had.

It doesn’t help that Uprising’s creations are also just a little less characterful. Beyond Boyega none of the Jaeger pilots are as colourful this time around, while the Jaegers and Kaiju are almost interchangeable. In Pacific Rim each monster was utterly unique and memorable, clearly the product of painstaking design, while here they’re basically the big one, the spiky one, and the fast one.

As for the cast, while Boyega is a delight from beginning to end, the other newbies are a mixed bag. Scott Eastwood is especially generic as Jake's grouchy co-pilot, though the young Cailee Spaeny's spiky turn makes her one to watch. Fortunately, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman all return to roles of varying sizes, Gorman in particular earning his place through his commitment to the bit.

Finally, while I’m griping about how much better things were in my day, Lorne Balfe’s score is perfectly competent stuff, but only really soars when it remixes the main theme from Ramin Djawadi’s original score (which, incidentally, remains one of the single best bits of blockbuster music in absolutely forever).

If this all sounds like a lot of moaning about the film, it’s only because in its own idiosyncratic way, the original set a high bar to follow. Uprising is probably one of the most fun blockbusters this year, but that’s all it tries to be.

SHOULD I BUY PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING?

At the end of the day, Pacific Rim: Uprising achieves exactly what it sets out to do: pit giant robots against giant monsters on an even bigger scale than before. The plot is (obviously) daft, and it’s lost some of the heart of the original, but John Boyega is enough of a bonafide star to carry this through to the end regardless.