On summer movies with personality, John Boyega's charisma, and the Pacific Rim franchise defaulting to Transformers mode
Pacific Rim: Uprising Universal Pictures
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Screenplay: Steven S. DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin, based on characters created by Travis Beacham
Starring: John Boyega, Cailee Spaeny, Charlie Day, Jing Tian, Scott Eastwood, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman and Adria Arjona
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 51 minutes / 2.39:1
March 23, 2018
(out of four)
You never go full Transformers.
Guillermo del Toro's original Pacific Rim may have drawn just that comparison - what with the giant robots tearing apart cities and all - but in truth it was a goofy, personal, eccentric movie that, whatever its (many) flaws, unmistakably rode its own wavelength. Inspired by monster movies and anime and pulp - and taking on the affected manner, in performance and design, of those influences - the film was, in summer blockbuster terms, both familiar and foreign. At a passing glance it more or less looked like Godzilla vs. Megatron, until you looked just a bit closer and saw all its dangling idiosyncrasies and oddball obsessions.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is what happens when you take the weird out of the equation. It's what happens when you want all the toys del Toro played with but without the del Toro - when you're a studio executive and you see Pacific Rim and your observation is, "There are robots and monsters in it. Let's make more robots and monsters." Universal's launching of a franchise - largely on the strength of the original's performance at the Chinese box office - requires a certain willful misunderstanding of what made that movie what it was, for better and/or worse. (Or, to look at it more cynically, a more honest assessment of what wide global audiences really wanted out of Pacific Rim, or saw in it all along.)
But here it is, this Uprising, a deeply streamlined version of its predecessor - with the robots-to-monsters ratio tilted heavily in favor of the former - as if this were really its true form all along. At a passing glance it more or less looks like Megatron vs. Jaeger, and then you look a bit closer and that's pretty much exactly what it is, and absolutely nothing more, and also boring as shit. And let me clarify that when I say boring, I'm talking Scott-Eastwood's-Screen-Presence boring. The real shit. When I say boring, I mean the characters spend half the movie uttering the phrase Rare-Earth Elements - the rare-earth elements, you see, are the key to the villainous Kaiju plan, on account of the way rare-earth elements react to Kaiju blood - as if the four credited screenwriters couldn't even be bothered to pick one of the rare-earth elements, like specifically, as their chemical MacGuffin. Or invent one, even. Or, since Kaiju blood isn't real, pick any other existing rarity and decide, "Yes, this is the thing that has a violent reaction to Kaiju blood, because this is a made-up concept and we can decide that a made-up thing reacts violently with anything we want without any inherent discrepancy." But no, instead, Rare-Earth Elements is the terminology they decided to have their actors throw around. It's like the Bluths holding that fundraiser to find a cure for TBD.
I mean, say what you will about Unobtainium, at least there's a sort of panache to it.
Uprising is course-correction in the wrong direction. For those who mistook the original for a Transformers-like spectacle, the producers have seen fit to give them a Transformers-like spectacle as a follow-up. Sorry about that personal touch, you guys - here's that generic action flick you expected. In order to accomplish this, Steven S. DeKnight - a TV writing and producing veteran with a few episodic directing credits to his name, and zero feature-film experience - was brought on to take over for del Toro behind the camera. And boy, credit where it's due, DeKnight really TV-veteran-with-zero-feature-film-experiences the shit out of this thing. Passably shot without ever being memorable, mostly coherent without ever being interesting, this movie is like a perfectly bland amalgamation of the summer blockbuster template. It looks exactly like you would expect a $150M+ budget action movie about giant robots to look, it has exactly the tone of voice and character dynamics you would expect a $150M+ budget action movie to have, without any distinguishing features getting in the way. Uprising shows the creative fatigue of a much older franchise.
DeKnight often seems to think he's following in Michael Bay's footsteps rather than del Toro's, with several of his camera angles and wide compositions looking more reminiscent of Transformers footage than the more intimate, wide-eyed grandeur del Toro offered in Pacific Rim. Then again, whatever directorial personality he chose to try on in one sequence or another is not enough to give the direction as a whole any actual flavor. It's all aftertaste.
The film's autopilot narrative focuses on a disaffected former pilot, who is supplied with both an estranged ex-partner and a plucky kid sidekick. He also enjoys ice cream. (You know, for depth.) The disaffected former pilot and his estranged ex-partner are supplied with a Very Beautiful Woman to bicker over and get jealous about even though neither of them ever seems to say more than one sentence at a time to her. The plucky kid sidekick is supplied with a resentful Russian rival to fight with. The plot is supplied with a sinister corporation that is Probably Doing Something Naughty. (Or is it?) And finally there are our returning champions, the scientist duo who, after working together to save the world last time, find themselves with competing agendas this time around. (One of them has been brainwashed by the Kaiju, so you can't really blame him.)
The film's preamble actually suggests a more interesting (though not as summer-friendly) movie, focusing on what the world has become in the ten years since Stringer Bell canceled the apocalypse. A collective euphoric release, a decadent celebration amidst a civilization living on indefinite borrowed time. Kaiju bones become collectors' items, trophies, found-art sculptures for the affluent - the perfect visual centerpiece for your pool party. Scrapheaps around every corner, Jaeger machinery resting side by side with the rubble left over from years of destruction. It's 2035, a strange wasteland of wartime memories and technological upheaval, a world of jaded revelers on high alert.
But this backdrop - this decade of decadence - is simply montaged as a path from one movie to the next, and primarily in order to introduce us to Stacker Pentecost's son, Jake* (John Boyega), who's been living the rogue life since quitting the Jaeger program, spending his days on the hustle around Jaeger graveyards selling machine parts and nuclear cores. That he will wind up back in the place he left - and where his father left such an impossible legacy - is obvious, but before he gets there he has to get paired up with Amara (Cailee Spaeny), an orphan thief and tinkerer who sees Jaegers as symbols of humanity's capacity for greatness. The two get caught trying to steal the same piece of equipment, and after Jake's sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, in a too-brief reprisal of her original role) pulls some strings, they both wind up back in the Jaeger training program. Heading up that program is none other than the aforementioned ex-partner, Nate (Eastwood).
* As if someone named "Stacker" would ever name his kid "Jake."
Its other issues notwithstanding, Uprising is the best use of Boyega's natural energy and charm since his breakout role in Attack the Block, and when the movie works - to whatever extent it works - it's on the strength of his presence. (He's been quite good in the Star Wars sequels and other recent films, but those roles have generally required different modes from him - the neurotic, unsure, foolish courage of Finn; the quiet resolve and contemplation of his security-guard role in Detroit.) His Jake Pentecost is ego and smarts and toughness, the kind of guy who can persuade any hardened crook he can get him what he wants, then takes the utmost pleasure in outsmarting and outrunning that same crook. He enjoys the reputation he has in the circles that know his name, even if it puts a constant target on his back. He enjoys the target, too.
It's doubly important that Boyega carry the load given that he so often plays opposite Scott Eastwood. If you didn't think it would be possible to get a performance more wooden and uncharismatic than Charlie Hunnam's lead turn in the original, Eastwood took that doubt as a personal challenge. Eastwood in Uprising makes Hunnam in Pacific Rim look like Brando in Streetcar.
Most of the original's stars are gone; Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau - and the black-market corner of the world he so grandly inhabited - is a deeply felt absence. But Charlie Day and Burn Gorman return (Gorman strangely, and disappointingly, abandoning the heightened cartoonish persona he gave us in the first movie in favor of a more toned-down version, more in line with traditional Hollywood middle-aged scientist-nerd comic relief), while Jing Tian joins the cast as the regal but ruthless CEO of the Shao Corporation, which is on the verge of deploying a controversial Jaeger drone program. On the recruit side of things, the young Spaeny goes toe to toe with Russian Elizabeth Olsen Ivanna Sakhno in a subplot that plays more like an outline for a screenplay about hotshot military trainees than a fully formed story of its own. God help us if that turns out to be the starting point for another unnecessary sequel.