Movie review: ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ falls short of original, offers minimal monster mayhem

There’s a moment in the original “Pacific Rim” where one of the Jaegers (a giant, human-piloted robot fighter) picks up a cargo ship — an actual, full-size cargo ship — and uses it to take a swing at an attacking monster (a.k.a. Kaiju). This giant robot vs. giant monster battle is a moment of sheer, giddy delight — one that makes you feels like a kid again, no matter how old you are.

Sadly, the new sequel, “Pacific Rim Uprising,” doesn’t have a moment that captures this same level of magic. Overall, the sequel feels more like a half-hearted cash grab than a true follow up to Guillermo del Toro’s original film.

The first “Pacific Rim” wasn’t necessarily an instant blockbuster, at least here in the U.S. However, it got a decent score from critics (71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and has since become a favorite of many geeks. It doesn’t have the deepest plot (or characters, for that matter), but you can tell Del Toro had a blast making this movie, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch. I love watching “Pacific Rim,” especially with friends, and it has a special place in my film collection.

Del Toro didn’t direct the sequel, and unfortunately, “Uprising” is missing the style and the weight of the original. There are too many competing ideas and story lines that never fully coalesce. In case you haven’t seen the first “Pacific Rim,” this new movie takes place after the humans have (presumably) defeated all the Kaiju that had invaded Earth from another dimension. John Boyega (best known as Finn from the new Star Wars trilogy) plays Jake Pentecost, the son of one of the original Jaeger pilots, General Stacker Pentecost, who sacrificed his life in the last film. Jake is called into service to train a new generation of Jaeger pilots — just in time, as it turns out, because the Kaiju are back, and more dangerous than ever.

I’m a big fan of Boyega’s — I think he has a lot of talent and charisma, and he’s definitely capable of carrying his own franchise. Sadly, the script for “Uprising” doesn’t do him a lot of favors. The idea of Jake struggling with — and rebelling against — his father’s legacy is an intriguing one, and it’s a theme the film doesn’t fully explore. Instead, too much of the run time is taken up with other side plots. I would have loved to see this movie dig a lot deeper into who Jake is and why, and develop his tense friendship with fellow Jaeger pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood).

While Jake training young cadets could have been an interesting plot point (tying back to his father’s legacy), I just wasn’t as invested in it. This isn’t the fault of the young actors, who did a good job with what they were given. However, the “unusually gifted teenager with an attitude problem” trope was never my favorite character archetype and, again, distracted from Jake’s story.

Without going into spoilers, there are a lot of other plot threads, some of which make more sense than others. There’s a (sort of? maybe?) romance; an evil corporation; a surprise villain twist; and name drops to people and events from the first film. Some of these callbacks feel authentic and some don’t.

I also don’t feel the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights were at the same level of the first movie. As I mentioned before, maybe slightly deeper characters could have made the first “Pacific Rim” an even better movie. But the film definitely had plenty of heart, and you could tell it was a labor of love for the people who made it. I had a huge grin on my face throughout all the action scenes and couldn’t believe I was seeing something that cool on the big screen. “Uprising” doesn’t capture that same feeling, and takes too long to get to the final Jaeger vs. Kaiju showdown.

I remember one of the criticisms about the original movie was that most of the fights took place in the dark, so sometimes it was hard to pick out all the details. However, after watching “Uprising,” where most of the fights take place during the day, I think I actually prefer the night ones. I can’t quite describe why, other than a vague “I thought it looked cooler.” But it was cool to see the Jaegers fighting the glowing Kaiju amidst the backdrop of skyscrapers lit up at night. Overall, “Pacific Rim” had a more unique style, while “Uprising” feels a little too much like a Transformers spin-off.

I really don’t like having to write negative reviews, and it hurts to be a downer about a sequel to a movie that I really, really loved. But the first “Pacific Rim” felt like something special to me, while I probably won’t be watching “Uprising” again.

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