Sometimes in Hollywood the journey of a film from idea to screen is as storied as the film itself and whilst not all reach Apocalypse Now levels of infamy and mythos the history of cinema is littered with films that fell by the wayside due to creative disagreements, politicking, funding issues and a plethora of other derailment causes. Even now, in an age where every studio is looking to recreate the Marvel/Harry Potter franchise magic, there is many a cautionary tale, and it is with some luck that we finally get to see the much troubled Pacific Rim Uprising reach our screens.
After almost five years and numerous setbacks, the changing of distribution companies, losing its director, rewriting the story when key actors dropped out, it’s not without some surprise that we see the Jaegers piloted once more, not only to battle their great monster nemeses the Kaijus but also a constantly evolving cinematic landscape that will soon see a saturated April/May release schedule featuring the Marvel heavyweights the Avengers and Deadpool and the release of the Dwayne Johnson’s Rampage which together will surely determine whether this series sinks or floats.
Set ten years after the events of the first movie, Uprising takes the grey, muted apocalyptic feel of the original and turns it on its head. With a world apparently now almost fully recovered from the Kaiju attacks, cities are bustling again, but it is the smaller coastal regions that still harbour the scars from those days.
It is here where Jake Pentecost (The Last Jedi’s John Boyega), the son of Idris Elba’s character Stacker Pentecost from the first film, scrounges a living in the ruins and tries to forget the past, and it is on one of his scavenging runs that he is beaten to the punch by plucky street-kid Amara Namani (singer Cailee Spaeny) who is also after Jaeger parts for her own homebuilt model, “Scrapper.”
After putting up a fight against the police the two are briefly incarcerated before Jake’s family connection to returning character Mako Mori (47 Ronin’s Rinko Kukuchi) offers them both a choice: come back to the Jaeger programme as teacher and cadet respectively or face jail time. However, both soon find out this will be no easy alternative, as a returning Jake faces hostility from former partner Nate Lambert (Suicide Squad’s Scott Eastwood) and Amara is chucked in with a group of cadets who aren’t thrilled by her sudden inclusion.
Also returning are Doctors Newt Geizsler (Horrible Bosses’ Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Crimson Peak’s Burn Gorman), once again obnoxious scientists who are either “mad” or just slimy, however when Newt’s new boss at Shao Corporations looks to take over the Jaeger program tensions rise even before an unknown Jaeger attacks a conference discussing the future of Earth defence, the heroes left wondering whose who their true enemy is.
Simplistic, yes, however Pacific Rim Uprising expedites the heavy exposition and the audience are left to assume a lot of things until the twists are revealed and the light story merely serves as precursor to the large set-pieces the film is dying to show, but therein lies the biggest fault in this sequel as it eschews the scant positives from the first movie and in doing so also sheds a lot of the gravitas it held, becoming child-friendly popcorn fluff in the process.
Whilst the budget for this film was reportedly $40m less than the estimated $190m of the first it appears the majority of that was spent on digital effects and the rest on securing rising star Boyega as a draw; whilst the effects are not so awful as those of Transformers the fact that the fights occur in clear day with considerably more colour than the original gives the film a much more vibrant feel, lending itself a more childlike, toy-marketing approach. The mechanical, oily, dirty lo-fi aesthetics that made 2013’s original a qualified success gone, Pacific Rim Uprising looks like every other run-of-the-mill summer blockbuster.
The conspicuously young cast also feels like an attempt to bring in an audience who could see these stars as peers akin to the other wannabe teen franchises be they Hunger Games, Ender’s Game or the Maze Runner and whilst they do well they aren’t given much to work with in terms of direction; in what feels a lazy exclusion one of the cadets who feuds with Amara, Viktoria (The Body Tree’s Ivanna Sakhno), is given no backstory while the others are so meaningless they may as well be “unnamed henchman” come the credits and Kong: Skull Island’s Jing Tian is utterly wasted as Shao boss Liwen Shao.
It feels like there several threads of fallen victim to post-production cut and pasting with the only remit of coherency being for the set pieces, but that’s not to say it’s without some rough charm. Boyega does command a presence onscreen and has some great comedic moments too, and newcomer Spaeny does well as a relative rookie. Lorne Balfe’s score is fine, his time working with Hans Zimmer showing, and Dan Mindel’s cinematography is acceptable given that it is a lot harder to make effects work look good in broad daylight.
So does the director make the difference? On this occasion, yes. Whilst Pacific Rim had renowned visionary Guillermo del Toro at the helm, Uprising has Steven DeKnight, who has worked on a handful of television shows, mostly as writer and producer, and has only directed for the small screen, and whilst having worked alongside Joss Whedon on Angel and Dollhouse this feels like a more inexperienced take on a sequel to a film which was clearly a labour of love.
That’s not to say this is a bad effort, just a very different movie and more a soft reboot than a straight sequel, but one wonders with the egregious amount of product placement (not quite Power Rangers levels, but bad enough) how much the studio forced DeKnight’s hand into how safe to play what should have been more exciting and dangerous.
Pacific Rim Uprising is now on general release and also screening in 3D and IMAX