The first Pacific Rim had to die in order for the series to morph into its new dumbed-down sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising. Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro’s “giant robots versus giant monsters” movie back in 2013 was inherently stupid, but the director imbued it with so much love and passion that those towering metal Jaegers had heart. The sequel, which was not directed by del Toro, isn’t lacking heart so much as it is actively heartless, going out of its way to either kill or demean Pacific Rim’s survivors so that a new, underwhelming cast of caricatures can spring into (admittedly thrilling) action.
Uprising picks up just 10 years after the events of the first film, but the sequel feels far more distant in ways you can’t chalk up to a decade passing. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), one of the two main heroes from the first film, is totally MIA. Instead, we follow Stacker Pentecost’s much more normally-named son, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), as he gets roped back into the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Together with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a young girl who built her own tiny Jaeger before getting drafted into the Corps, Jake needs to figure out where a rogue Jaeger came from, and if a new fleet of remote-piloted drone Jaegers could bring about a Kaiju resurgence.
They’re joined by a crop of cadets who have the characterization of a Starship Troopers soldier, minus the satire. One minor character’s arc revolves around wondering if he should keep trying to be a Jaeger pilot or if he should drop out and be a plastic surgeon like his dad — a “boob doctor,” his fellow recruits bafflingly say more than once. As Jake, Boyega is leagues better, thankfully. He’s charming, playing a character who is much closer to his Star Wars foil Poe Dameron than he is to Finn.
Still, Boyega feels like a replacement for characters from the first movie, a problem that lots of sequels have to grapple with. Pacific Rim Uprising does this by tearing down old friends, Kaiju-style.
The characters in the first Pacific Rim weren’t exactly Shakespearean, but Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori had enough of a sense of purpose and depth that she inspired an alternative to the Bechdel test, the aptly named Mako Mori test. She has her own narrative arc that doesn’t depend on helping a man, so what happens to her in Uprising is a letdown. Her story ends so that two new male characters can go investigate an abandoned base. There are only two other returning faces from Pacific Rim: scientists Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Without giving too much away, let’s just say that one of those two characters isn’t as heroic in the sequel, and your mileage may vary on whether or not the twist is worth it.
Pacific Rim Uprising is about how war never stops, and how all of your heroes will either die or fall, but it’s also really dumb. That’s not a terrible thing by any means, because dumb can be fun. In addition to moving away from old characters, Uprising also moves away from the first film’s dark, “naturally” lit aesthetic. This allows for action scenes that aren’t as stylized, but easily surpass the gloomy fights from the original in terms of sheer thrills.
Aside from being about robots kicking monster ass, though, Pacific Rim was about relationships, going so far as to make those bonds part of the plot via “the Drift,” the connection two people need to have in order to co-pilot a Jaeger. The connections between Stacker, Raleigh, and Mako, as well as Hermann and Newton’s odd-couple side story, gave Pacific Rim just enough emotional depth that it felt like more than just a beat ‘em up romp. The closest thing Uprising has to any of those relationships is Jake’s bond with Mako, his adoptive sister, and the film snuffs that out almost instantly.
As only the second outing in the Pacific Rim franchise, Uprising falters like a Jaeger piloted by two people who have a weak neural handshake. By callously casting aside the emotional core of its very recent backstory, Uprising relies only on the aesthetics of the first Pacific Rim, rather than its heart. Sure, it’s fun to see these Kaijus and Jaegers dialed up to 11, but something meaningful has been lost in the drift.
Pacific Rim Uprising opens on March 23.