Much as I’d love for John Boyega to be successful in everything he touches, I felt sheepish about my issues with Detroit and hoped I wouldn’t have to harp on him again too soon. Then I rushed out to see Pacific Rim: Uprising in its second week of release, and realized…well, uh, here we go again. It’s still better than at least three of Michael Bay’s Transformers films, but that’s…well, I wouldn’t call that a “low bar” so much as it’s me whispering to Boyega and director Steven DeKnight that I won’t tattletale if they want to walk around the climbing wall and skip the bar as a courtesy.
I try not to hold MCC to too many inflexible rules, but one of the few remaining is that every film I see in theaters gets its own entry. Now that Uprising‘s home video release is coming up this month, maybe it’s past time to hold myself accountable for that promise and face down this long-delayed entry, no matter how fruitless it may end up.
(Look, I’m not a great self-promoter. Anyone who’s been here long enough know this. We persevere together anyway.)
Short version for the unfamiliar: Idris Elba is DEAD. That’s where Guillermo Del Toro cruelly left us years ago at the end of the first Pacific Rim despite his monumental “We are canceling the apocalypse!” speech. On the bright side, the portal to that weird giant-monster dimension was sealed and they all lived happily ever after. That doesn’t seem like a fair exchange, but we the audience had no say in the matter.
Our Hero John Boyega is Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s manly-named Stacker Pentecost, who’s consigned himself to a life of partying down because he knows he will never, ever measure up to Idris Elba. Poor choices lead him to threat of prison, which he ducks by accepting an alternative — conscription into military service, just like they did in the old days. With his skill set that translates into becoming a Jaeger pilot trainer, showing a new generation of scruffy runaways how to drive giant robots, including orphan prodigy Amara (Cailee Spaeny), the film’s contribution to the Nonwhite Heroine Bandwagon, who has a knack for Jaeger tech and an attitude pretty much like Jake’s. Together, they fight monsters!
Or they would if they could, anyway. Mankind has kept its Jaeger program running just in case the monsters return, but of course is seeking cheaper ways to do it. Someone’s invented a set of robot drones to take away the main characters’ jobs. This questionably economic tactic works well for about ten minutes until the drones start running amok and have to be stopped by the armored humans they’re supposed to replace.
So it’s a reboot of Iron Man 2 except Jake drinks slightly less than Tony Stark did. Oh, and eventually the monsters return. GASP.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Babel‘s Rinko Kikuchi is the only Jaeger pilot returning from the first film, now retired and doing what little she can from a diminished administrative back seat. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are likewise back as the mad scientists who helped save the day last time, though one of them has had some unusual developments.
Somewhat famous son Scott Eastwood (who had a tiny role in Suicide Squad) is another Jaeger tutor and ex-buddy of Boyega’s, who’s there to facilitate perfunctory repartee. Jing Tian (Kong: Skull Island) is the Chinesse businesswoman whose company manufactures the Jaeger drones that go rogue, which for about three seconds means she might be evil, but ultimately isn’t because Legendary Pictures, like most American studios today, craves that Chinese box office.
There’re also teen actors from Diary of a Wimpy Kid and NBC’s failed Emerald City, plus Sonny Chiba’s actual son, but they’re strangers to me.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Morals of the story include but aren’t limited to:
* Monsters are bad. ALL of them.
* We need to become our own adults and face our responsibilities instead of crumbling under the burden of our parents’ legacies.
* Orphans can do awesome things.
* Some functions are better handled by private companies rather than being handed over to governments, which don’t have the best track record for efficiency.
* China is a friend. We love China. China will save us. Welcome our Chinese neighbors and costars and dollars.
Otherwise, it’s Big Bad Battlebots all the way. Big things shooting and clobbering other big things while natural terrains are scarred and skyscrapers are demolished with reckless abandon and haste. The buildings are shinier than those in the old Godzilla flicks, less lookalike than the repetitive Hanna-Barbera backdrops of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, and probably more recognizable to anyone who’s ever been to the cities being pulverized. From a tourism standpoint, there may be notes to take for travelers with relevant future plans.
Nitpicking? Whereas Del Toro’s original love letter to mechs and their masters felt entrenched and very much of that milieu, Uprising holds its bots at arm’s length, somehow managing to make them colossal without making them cool. Whoever choreographed the giant robot fights and held back the cameras to a safe, monotonous distance failed to understand how giant robot fights are supposed to go. Each Jaeger has its own unique weapon, but they’re largely ineffective ornaments. None of them surprise us with a super awesome super-secret weapon pulled out at the very end, like how every episode of old-school Voltron would end with him unsheathing his fancy sword (the first Pacific Rim did this perfectly). What should be 200-ton martial arts on a mind-boggling scale instead comes off as generic mass metropolitan destruction with very little pizzazz or “wow” factor to them. The working theory seems to be “It is big, therefore it is neat by definition”, which is a very bad assumption for any giant robot fight filmmaker to make because it allows them to be lazy and boring.
Anyone who had high hopes for more monster mayhem will be disappointed that, by and large, the creatures from beyond don’t weasel their way back to our dimension until the film’s final act. When they do, the leviathans get in a few dynamic potshots before they switch tactics, pull a trick card from the wrong half of the Power Rangers playdeck, and upgrade themselves in a manner involving hordes of mini-monsters that evacuate their impossible hiding place like a clown car and…proceed to raise lots of questions about how exactly in the world what just happened could possibly have happened even in the most ridiculous Saturday morning bad-TV universe. And don’t get me started on how the final Jaeger wins the final fight not with a patented super-weapon, but by attempting the sort of stunt you’d never see in a competent giant robot series for basic premise reasons. The finishing move involves a hollow sacrifice devoid of the inspirational moment that every self-respecting macho robot fight story needs — that clincher that says “MY ROBOT WON! MY ROBOT WON! WOOOOO! IN YOUR FACE, MONSTER-THING!”
The anemic robots might be easier to overlook if I could say that the human stories were much more interesting. If only they had been. That’s how a lot of blockbusters go for me these days. By and large the occasional tin ear of the original Pacific Rim‘s dialogue — which was 90% heated arguments — isn’t as noticeable here, but none of it elevates any particular character above the rest. Thankfully the stale bits in the trailers are either buried or deleted, but what’s left isn’t memorable. Much as I loved Attack the Block and enjoyed his performance as our man FN-2187, John Boyega does what he can to fill the void left behind by Idris Elba, but he’s not there yet. Someday, I’m sure, but not yet, and not here.
So what’s to like? While the one-note teen trainees go through their angry cliquish hijinks in the backgrounds and the giant robot drones prove dully interchangeable and won’t stop reminding me of Iron Man 2, one actor tries harder than the rest to make something new: our man Charlie Day. Once the jittery, whiny kaijuologist that no one took seriously until he confronted a hulking Ron Perlman and got the job done, Dr. Geiszler is a changed man in more ways that one. He’s seen terrible things. He’s done things he shouldn’t be proud of. His life is in a very, very different place…from which he draws a bonkers kind of energy and tries his hardest to lift this entire overpriced B-movie onto his shoulders so he alone can carry it home and do hideous things to it. While the rest of the cast appear beholden to some misplaced sense of giant-robot-fight-movie job duty, Geiszler is the only one smart enough to see the absurdity in their surroundings and revel in it.
How about those end credits? Nope. Are we done? Can I go now?