Sunday 6 May 2018

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Ten years after the Kaiju first attacked Earth, Jaegers have become a standard part of Earth’s defence initiative with Shao Corporations, led by technology magnate Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), working on a series of drone Jaegers. However, when one of their drones goes rogue, it seems that the world may be under threat once again. As Pan-Pacific Defence Corps conscripts Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) and Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) are brought into the fight, the Precursors lay in wait to once again launch an assault on humanity and bring it to its knees.

Boyega playing the estranged son of Idris Elba’s Marshall Pentacost is a pretty easy sell, and thankfully Boyega manages to show a certain level of Elba’s hardened charisma, mixing it with some roguish charm. Spaeny just barely manages to sell some in-universe mechanical wizardry, but otherwise comes across like the kind of plucky younger sidekick you would expect to find in an 80’s-90’s action flick. Her performance is fine; it’s just that the character doesn’t necessarily need to be performed in the first place. Legendary Pictures regular Jing Tian gives off some nice quiet authority, and even gets her own moments of kick-ass, but after seeing her be the excellent female action lead in The Great Wall, this is another underutilised role that I honestly hope doesn’t end up spelling the pattern for the rest of her career.
Scott Eastwood is blander than dirt, Adria Arjona as a fellow officer somehow makes being the stereotypical love interest look like an upgrade compared to the nothing she’s given here, Burn Gorman and Charlie Day tap back into their winning chemistry from the first with sadly diminishing returns, and everyone else in the cast manages to exist and little else.

This is Steven S. DeKnight’s first feature film. Not just as a director; outside of sitting in the writer’s room for the Transformers Cinematic Universe (let’s hold back the sighs of annoyance at that thing even existing to begin with), this is the first time he’s touched a property that isn’t a Spartacus TV show. That larger familiarity with television rather than film becomes painfully obvious right from the start. Partly because he managed to make even the studio logos into an eyesore, and partly because the pacing here is awful.
DeKnight and fellow TV regulars Emily Carmichael and Kira Snyder, with Maze Runner adaptor T.S. Nowlin in tow, manage to put together an incredibly lulled experience of a narrative. Long stretches of nothing populate the landscape, broken up only by the decent but few-and-far-between fight scenes, with everything here feeling incredibly surface level. I’d chalk this up to a lack of development with all the new characters found here, except even the returning cast are depressingly subpar. Why did they even bother to bring back Mako Mori, the best character in the first film aside from Pentacost, when they do absolutely nothing with her? Add to that the incredibly plain ‘military training’ antics involving Namani and the other cadets and the mentioned-in-passing-but-never-actually-addressed character backstories, and you have a very undercooked script. Not the kind of thing that holds a candle to GDT and Travis Beacham’s original.

But here’s the really disappointing part: What made the original film work is actually really straight-forward. It didn’t sport incredibly complex characters or anything particularly deep as far as themes and subtext; it set out to be an action flick about giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters, and so poured everything it had into making that work. GDT succeeded because he put a lot of effort into the little details, from the culture that had been created around the Jaegers and the Kaiju to the under-the-surface similarities between the two, even taking one of the main conceits of the Drift system and using it as a means of showing traditional close-quarters comradery. Showing people needing to work together against a common threat, while emphasising the need to understand their brothers-in-arms on a personal level; it took underlying character relationship building most commonly associated with military cinema and, while taking time to intentionally leave the military out of the equation, rejuvenate those bonds. All while still delivering on that bombastic thrill of watching a nuclear-powered mech tear monsters to pieces.

I bring all of this up because the world-building at play with the first film is a key ingredient in what made it work, rather ridiculous nomenclature aside. This follow-up basically has the easiest job in the world when it comes to building off of that, seeing as GDT and Beacham did all the hard work for them. And yet, they still screwed it up by largely abandoning any of the details that made this world fit. Instead, we get a bunch of recycled ideas (not modified, but recycled whole-cloth) from the first film, combined with story tropes that might have been acceptable if any effort was put into them beyond your regular action clich├ęs. It introduces some mildly-interesting ideas, like the scrapyard racket that has sprung up after the initial war where Jaegers are being stripped for parts, and the advent of drone Jaegers that only require a single, remote pilot to operate them.
There’s a fair bit of real-world Americana that can be tapped into to make the stripping-robots-for-scrap idea work, and I’ll even admit that Scrapper, a Jaeger made entirely out of spare parts, is easily the coolest thing to be found in this movie. Hell, considering the fears surrounding drone combat nowadays, there could even have been some points made about the difference between automated and manned warfare. Shame these ideas aren’t given nearly enough breathing room to work in, same with pretty much all of the big change-ups that take place here. It’s predictable as fuck, and it doesn’t even make the process of getting to the developments that are predictable as fuck worth it.

On a certain level, though, I think DeKnight and co. knew that they had a lot to live up to. Along with the rest of the potentially-interesting ideas presented that the four co-writers somehow didn’t find enough to work with, one of the bigger themes of this film is that of legacy and living up to what came before. Jake spends most of the film with a chip on his shoulder concerning his father, seeing him as someone he wants to escape the shadow of and make his own mark on the world. The introduction of new technology by Shao and her company show a move to one-up the technology of old, just in case the Kaiju decide to visit our humble planet once again. Hell, it even taps into key plot points from the first film to establish the new threat, complete with a heel-turn that irritates me for reasons I honestly can’t put my finger on.

A lot of this film is pre-occupied with wondering if it has the capacity to outshine its predecessors, and yet not that much time is spent actually setting out to do so. I get that trying to one-up the original film would have been a tall order; right before The Shape Of Water came out, I would have eagerly declared the first Pacific Rim as my favourite GDT film. It did that well with its main ingredients. However, improving on what came before isn’t as easy as just widely ignoring that past, considering said past includes a lot of what makes this film worthy to exist in the first place. It laid out a new road to follow; this film was set up to build the settlement at the end of that road, establishing both of them as fixed points in our pop culture and a testament to what modern cinema is capable of. But instead, it just wallows in that shadow rather than trying to step out of it and succeed on its own merits.

All in all, it’s rather disheartening to know that Michael Bay isn’t the only one who can make giant robot fights as boring as tar. The acting is mostly basic with only a couple decent performances, the writing spends more time meandering than it does delivering on what audiences loved about the first film, and while the effects work is still on-par with the legitimately impressive efforts of the past, it lacks that same sense of world-building that made us invested in seeing the fight scenes come to fruition. It might work out okay as a switch-your-brain-off action flick, but the very fact that I have to qualify it as such only goes to show how much this does not hold up as a fulfilling sequel, or even all that interesting of a singular feature. The worst thing that an action movie can do is be boring, and that’s just about the only thing this film succeeds in doing on a consistent basis.

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