‘Uprising’ doesn’t live up to original, its own potential

Striking images, like this one of the final category six kaiju, do dot the finished film. Images courtesy Universal Pictures.

4/10 Pacific Rim: Uprising is a three hour epic adventure that’s been stuffed into a 111 minute box.

Ten years after his father sacrificed himself in the Battle of the Breach, Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, who also produces) has grown up on the street in a post-war world, the privilege of his name allowing him to spend time in and out of the military instead of prison. He’s pressed into service again after being caught in an unauthorized jaeger with its maker, a talented scrapper named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). Pentecost trains cadets — one of which is Namani — to be the last of the jaeger pilots before a Chinese drone program is approved to take over.

But, treachery! At the Pan-Pacific Defense Council summit in Sydney, a rogue jaeger assassinates Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), another hero of the Battle of the Breach and Pentecost’s adopted sister, before she can deliver her assessment on the drone program. Aboard the Gypsy Avenger, Pentecost and copilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) follow clues to Siberia and uncover a plot to re-open the breach and begin a second phase of the Kaiju War.

Released only five years after Pacific Rim, Uprising’s road to a green light feels a lot longer than that. The first movie was a domestic bomb, making only $101.8 million against a $190 million budget, but its international earnings took it to a respectable $411 million, with $111.9 million of that coming from the still exploding Chinese market. That’s the number that would eventually pave the way for this sequel.

Guillermo del Toro, who wrote, directed and produced the first movie, had already written a script for the sequel and put together a production schedule while Universal Pictures was still worrying about the domestic performance. Eventually, Universal and Legendary Entertainment, which is heavily invested in China and was all about another Pacific Rim movie, got into a spat and the sequel was delayed indefinitely. Del Toro still pushed the project, but by the time Legendary was bought by Wanda Group and ready to foot the bill, he’d moved on to his fish sex movie. Uprising ended up being directed by Steven S. DeKnight, making his feature debut after working on a bunch of television shows, off a script that was worked on by a whole mess of writers, including del Toro and DeKnight.

Charlie Day is the fucking best. How is this guy not a multinational superstar?

So despite starting life as another of del Toro’s passion projects, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a Legendary Entertainment commission piece aimed at Chinese audiences, and it shows. The runtime is kept to a bare bones minimum, with many scenes feeling like versions of themselves that have been stripped down to just the highlights. Japan has been swapped out as the primary setting, replaced mostly with China but with several other countries dotting the script. The cast of characters feels diverse, but only because there’s a contingent of Chinese supporting characters who feel like they’re in an entirely different movie and barely get any development. The trailer feels a lot like a toy ad.

What hurts this movie the most is its brevity. There are a lot of great ideas here, and a lot of characters who I’d like to spend more time with. A post-Kaiju world is a deep well to mine, and this movie does a great job of exploring it while leaving a lot of threads to be followed up on. The misanthropic Pentacost is a fascinating character brimming with Boyega’s personality, and he could have been explored from so many different angles — he has a budding mentorship with Namani, an estranged close friend in Lambert and a sister in Mori. New context is given to returning scientist characters Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day). I just wish there were so much more!

Pentecost’s 10 minute opening narration sets the tone for the movie and for the idea that there won’t be as much to it as there could be. The sequence looks like it was initially conceived as a half-hour introduction to a Los Angeles wallowing in its destruction. I want to see that! I want to see Pentecost’s relationships play out over more than a scene or two.

Directing a corporate project in his feature debut, DeKnight is an easy target — maybe he didn’t get the shots he needed to make these scenes work the way I’m imagining they could have — but there are plenty of sequences that look like real thought was put into them. Some of the fight scenes are inspired. The second act plot twist has one of the better executions in recent memory.

As many new characters and plot conceits Pacific Rim: Uprising introduces, it doesn’t get or take the chance to really explore them. The more I watched it and the more I hoped it would turn into the movie I thought it could be, the bitter war movie set in a lived-in world populated by deeply scarred characters but also with giant robots and giant monsters, the more I realized that movie already exists — it’s the first Pacific Rim. Uprising is decent, but much worse than its predecessor in every way.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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