Monday, March 26, 2018

Robots And Monsters Fighting Aren't Enough To Keep Pacific Rim: Uprising From Being Underwhelming

I loved the first Pacific Rim from 2013. I know some didn't care for it because they thought it was too goofy or messy, but I thought it worked like gangbusters. Guillermo Del Toro's ode to the monster movies that shaped his entire cinematic sensibility was full of lovingly rendered awe-inspiring imagery and an uplifting message of unity that resonated deeply with me. The prospect of returning to this universe was a tantalizing one for me, especially since Del Toro publicly said he had plenty of ideas for follow-up stories in this universe. We've finally gotten a sequel in the form of Pacific Rim: Uprising, though not with Del Toro either writing or directing the project (he only produces) and boy does that make all the difference in the world in terms of quality.

Set ten years after the first movie ended, the world of Pacific Rim has mostly settled into normalcy except for a number of the coastal cities that all the Kaiju monsters from the first movie destroyed. It is in one of these cities that Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) lives out his days stealing things for money. Jake is the son of Stacker Pentecost, the character Idris Elba played in the first movie, and Jake has gone through great pains to emphasize to people that he is not his father, not in the slightest. But now he's being recruited by his older sister Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to help train new Jaeger (the name for the big robots that fight otherworldly monsters in the Pacific Rim movies) pilots. All of the responsibility Jake has been running away from is now catching up with him all at once.

That's not a bad story at all conceptually to come up with for a new Pacific Rim movie, but it doesn't take long for the script (credited to four different writers) to reveal itself as heavily cluttered. Much of this cluttered nature stems from the fact that Jake and fellow new character Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) are set to work together with about eight other new young wannabe Jaeger pilots, all of whom are disposable individuals that range in quality from bland to boring to irritating stereotypes. The surplus of pointless new characters gets reinforced big time in the climax, when Jake, Amara and their "friends" all suit up for battle, but really only Jake, Amara and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) really needed to come along, no one else has any impact on either the final battle or the viewer whatsoever.

As you can imagine, this lackluster approach to characters means that the assorted subplots & conflict emerging between the new characters come and go in an awkward fashion. For instance, instead of Jake and Amara's friendship being something that works in tandem with their individual plotlines, it instead feels like Jake's whole story gets put on pause anytime he interacts with Amara. To boot, the majority are portrayed by actors giving listless performances under the subpar direction of Steven S. DeKnight (making his feature film directorial debut here and not making a great case for him getting further work in this field), especially Scott Eastwood, whose acting is so awful here that he makes the worst Sam Worthington performance look like a top-caliber Toshiro Mifune performance.

Luckily, we've got John Boyega around in the lead performance and if we should take anything away from Pacific Rim: Uprising, it's that John Boyega has the movie star goods. He's the only one who knows how to do proper comedic timing in his dialogue deliveries and he even manages to deliver an inspirational speech with some oomph. Boyega deserves way better than this, but thank God he's around to deliver some lovable humanity in a mostly lackluster cast. The assorted big robot/monster duels are another one of the better elements of the film, even if the best of them simply rise to the level of "competent".

Some fun moments are to be had in a big climax set in a Japanese city that involves the robots and monsters just flinging entire buildings at each other, thank God this series decided to embrace goofiness instead of going for a darker tone. Meanwhile, a big set piece that closes out the second act involving drone Jaegars involves enemy forces who are easily the most inventive thing in the entire movie. Sadly, even major fight scenes aren't as exciting as they could have been thanks to a lack of theatricality in the staging of these brawls as well as frequently underwhelming VFX work used to render the robots and monsters. The spotty CGI used throughout Pacific Rim: Uprising is especially egregious for CGI backgrounds, the numerous heavily detailed practical sets of the first Pacific Rim have been swapped out for assorted CGI backgrounds that the live-action actors interact with so poorly that it's a wonder they didn't just go full-on 1945 on this production and use the rear projection techniques for these artificial environments.

Of course, even worse than the recurring use of subpar VFX in the aforementioned big action set pieces are the largely disposable characters, who aren't interesting enough for one to become engrossed in the various Kaiju/Jaeger fights. If only they had devoted a portion of the shockingly large amount of screentime devoted to cringe-inducing jokey dialogue meant to replicate the comedy stylings of the Marvel movies to actually fleshing out the ensemble cast of characters, then maybe Pacific Rim: Uprising could have had action sequences worth getting invested in. You can thank John Boyega and an agreeable lighter tone for making sure Pacific Rim: Uprising is generic mediocrity rather than slipping into being outright bad, but both the original Pacific Rim and general audiences deserved better than this.

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