In 2014 while writing about the Godzilla reboot, film critic David Ehrlich dubbed the Warner Bros. monster movie “the first post-human blockbuster,” suggesting that Hollywood had finally crafted a summer flick in which the puniness of the human characters was a feature, not a bug. “Here is a $160 million studio tentpole,” Ehrlich observed, “in which perspective stomps over plot, and characters are defined not by their actions, but by their insignificance.” Godzilla’s individual protagonists and their meager story arcs were nothing in comparison to the mighty havoc doled out by that towering beast—our job as audience members was simply to sit back and marvel at our new kaiju overlord.
A year earlier, director Guillermo del Toro presaged this new blockbuster reality with Pacific Rim, a giddy battle between big robots and big monsters in which human beings were barely periphery participants. Pacific Rim didn’t have much depth to it—the characters were dolts and the performances mostly cartoonish—but the film’s unabashed spectacle had its adolescent thrills, similar to when you smashed your toys into one another, reveling at the carnage.
Del Toro is only a producer and “visual consultant” for the sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, which like its predecessor rarely brushes up against anything remotely human. Themes of grief, community, redemption and the tension between fathers and sons: All of them are merely waved at as the new film charges headlong into its next action sequence. Pacific Rim Uprising isn’t really interested in any emotional response beyond viewers muttering variations of “Badass!” or “Cool!” Here is a $150 million sequel in which bigness reigns supreme, and the characters are subservient to the tech. Watching this movie is to see a cinematic future in which the flesh and blood of human drama means very little.
The film is set 10 years after the mighty wars between Earthlings (equipped with their colossal Jaeger robots) and the fearsome Kaiju alien creatures. John Boyega plays Jake, the irresponsible son of Stacker (played by Idris Elba in the original), who bravely gave his life at the end of the first movie so that humanity could survive. Jake has descended into booze and partying because he couldn’t live with the burden of being his hero father’s son, but soon he’ll need to grow up when he’s brought back to the Pan Pacific Defense Corps so he can once again be a Jaeger pilot, a role he felt unworthy of taking up.
With shades of Top Gun, Star Wars and, of course, Godzilla, Pacific Rim Uprising positions Jake as your standard directionless hotshot who must get his act together—and who also has to help mentor some aspiring young Jaeger pilots, particularly the scrappy orphan Amara (Cailee Spaeny). We’re introduced to Nate (Scott Eastwood), a fellow hotshot Jaeger pilot who must work with Jake, even though they don’t much like one another. Several of the characters have tragic backstories, but director and cowriter Steven S. DeKnight (the man behind the Starz series Spartacus) renders them in perfunctory flashbacks or bland exposition—basically, as just messy, meaningless details that interrupt the smooth precision of his pristine, flashy digital effects.
As far as actual plot goes, what’s important to know is that a ruthless CEO (Jing Tian) has created a fleet of drone Jaeger robots, which will eliminate the need for human pilots. But in one of the movie’s faint attempts at asserting the importance of people, her perfect creations turn out to have major downsides, requiring Jake, Nate and Amara to save the day.
There are twists and surprises—some of which involve Charlie Day’s annoyingly conniving scientist Newt, back from the original film—but Pacific Rim Uprising knows that its reason for being is the large-scale fights that will take place between robots, and eventually against terrifying new Kaiju.
The fanboy glee that del Toro brought to the first movie is somewhat in evidence here—you could practically hear him chuckling with glee behind the camera at being allowed to play out this prepubescent battle-royale fantasy on a studio budget—but DeKnight doesn’t have quite the same eye for widescreen grandeur. There’s still some residual pleasure to be had in watching the movie’s rock ’em, sock ’em spectacle—and a tip of the hat to whichever of the four credited screenwriters came up with novel new places to put awesome guns on the Jaegers—but there’s a stultifying bloodlessness to the proceedings that no amount of superficial excitement can shake.
Boyega has become a household name thanks to the new Star Wars movies, and here he plays some of the same action-hero notes, balancing self-deprecation with moments of stirring intensity. But Pacific Rim Uprising’s jokey tone fails to leaven the movie’s leaden clatter, and so any attempt on Boyega’s part to be heroic feels a bit shrouded in irony. But at least he registers: Eastwood may be even duller than Charlie Hunnam was in the first installment, and Spaeny plays the spunky Amara with maximum attitude and a paucity of charm.
So, it’s up to the CGI to make us care. As a rule, gigantic robots wielding laser swords will always delight the perpetual 11-year-old boy inside me, and galumphing monsters with lots of eyes and jagged teeth will trigger old childhood fears. Pacific Rim Uprising doesn’t skimp on what’s primal about watching two skyscraper-tall brutes pound the stuffing out of one another. But it’s telling that during the movie’s climactic skirmish across a sprawling metropolis, a side character dutifully informs us that the city has been evacuated. This is meant to reassure a skittish audience that, don’t worry, no innocent bystanders will be crushed in the melee. But the filmmakers needn’t have bothered: By the end of Pacific Rim Uprising, any thought of living, breathing humans is the furthest thing from our minds. Sentience itself seems to be beside the point.
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Writers: Steven S. DeKnight & Emily Carmichael & Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin (screenplay); Travis Beacham (characters)
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Jing Tian, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Max Zhang, Charlie Day
Release Date: March 23, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.