Enslaved to its sentimentality as it was, “Pacific Rim” at least parsed out that interest. Guillermo del Toro has always understood the dignity in dopeyness, and his monster mash instead hedged its idiosyncrasies in design instead of attitude. The result was the rare auteurist blockbuster, as technically astonishing and patently clumsy as the Jaeger mechs its characters piloted. But whatever comfortable humanism that film achieved has been steamrolled by the trend-chasing myopia of its belated, belabored sequel “Pacific Rim: Uprising.”
Picking up a decade after the defeat of the giant monsters called Kaiju, which concluded the first film, “Uprising” follows Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), the son of Idris Elba’s late diaphragm-flexing general of the first film, who’s re-recruited by military forces to train young Jaeger pilots. A twist and turn later, a couple monsters pop out of the ocean, and it’s up to Jake and his ragtag bunch of trainees to rock em, sock em and save the world.
At least that’s where it ends up. Aside from two truncated battles, the main attraction is preceded by remorselessly shapeless storytelling. The film’s relatively light helping of popular cinema’s current plague of daddy issues initially leaves the plotting refreshingly unfreighted, but it’s soon revealed to be a symptom of a larger inattentiveness. Utterly arbitrary in its progression from scene to scene, there’s no sense of dramatic continuity even in the film’s boilerplate fundamentals.
Sporadic incident can make for great pulp, but “Uprising” is too characterless to find worth in such wonkiness. What few things the film gets right — the canted angles, husky cadence and ludicrous computer science — is mere leftovers from the original. Del Toro’s loving, if overdetermined, sketchbook designs have mutated to digital mishmash with nothing but the inherent bombast left to notice. Overdesigned from the opening logos onward, no attempted grandiosity ever transcends the franchise-building shoe leather thinly veiled as stoking the flames of fandom.
If nothing else (and there really isn’t much else), “Uprising” serves as the umpteenth case study of television’s ongoing coup on blockbuster filmmaking. An unexplored yet sprawling ensemble, an aversion to personal closure and a midcredits stinger are each positioned as if the project is begging to be renewed by a network. The stakes of a television series are stuffed into a plastic bag, then vacuum sealed to be small enough to notch itself into multiplex schedules.
Even the fight scenes manage to bungle the near-objective spectacle of giant robots fighting giant monsters. Not only does it take until the film’s climax for evenly matched opponents to square off, but it’s staggeringly unstimulating when it arrives. In this film’s predecessor, it took Jaegers all of five seconds to swing a single punch, whereas in “Uprising,” they’ve become borderline acrobatic, performing somersaults through skyscrapers. Considering the narrative’s emphasis on the delicacy it takes to pilot the Jaegers, it’s baffling that no single action feels deliberate or consequential.
The film is essentially sub-“Independence Day: Resurgence,” not only in its lust for a bankable franchise — even more impressive that this brand is as pungent after five years, as that series was after 20 — but also with its inadequate exploration of a global postwar generation. The overt diversity of the adolescent army grunts is undermined by how anonymous and interchangeable they are, each wearing the same chip on their shoulder.
Boyega attempts to string together some semblance of coherence by amplifying his charisma at every opportunity. His partner played by Scott Eastwood — his famed father’s spitting image sans screen presence — has a stubbornly sour visage that a smarter film would contextualize instead of impulsively vindicate. Again and again, blockbusters ask us to doubt that a grabbag of misfits can discover teamwork and, oops, they sometimes do that job too well. Boyega’s requisite “We’re a family now” speech arrives at the climactic showdown like some big fart the movie has been painfully holding in.
From the egregious ironic deflations to the substitution of a joke with the stalest of memes, “Uprising” plays exactly as its focus-grouped-to-death formula would allot. The downgrade from Guillermo del Toro to (checks IMDb) Steven … S. DeKnight — the creator of … Starz’s “Spartacus” — is felt in every possible way. Why are the most expensive visuals of this $150 million blockbuster the least dynamic, the least eventful, the least impressive? Whatever the injustice, “Uprising” has the audacity to assume we’ll look the other way.
“Pacific Rim Uprising” is currently playing at UA Berkeley 7.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].