Pacific Rim: Uprising review

You say 'dumb' like that's a bad thing.

There is a case to be made for the purity of the genre film. Everything I watch these days is a blend of two or more genres, attempting to one-up the staples while subverting the norms and turning some-such narrative device on its head. I don’t get to watch enough genre films that just invest themselves entirely in one genre, and it is both relieving and clearly upsetting to other filmgoers.

Early reviews of Pacific Rim Uprising could not seem to avoid mentioning that the film was “dumb.” People leaving my theater were also loudly expressing that all of the characters were “dumb.” I don’t understand what’s wrong with dumb. I don’t understand what we’re hoping for. Especially in a movie about giant robots versus giant monsters from an alternate dimension.

My thoughts on this are perhaps best summed up in a single tweet:

What I’m getting at here is that Pacific Rim Uprising does the big summer fun and I honestly didn’t see what would make it dumb. To hit this sweet spot of pure enjoyment, it takes a specific brilliance, and to ignore that is to choose to not be happy.

Pacific Rim (2013) ended with the world being saved from Kaiju monsters. A team of pilots controlling giant robots had to work in tandem to bring these creatures down and one of those pilots sacrificed himself to close The Breach between our worlds. Now, 10 years later, the world has mostly recovered, except for a few coastal cities that were better served just being abandoned. Santa Monica is among these, and within Santa Monica we find Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) living the life of a forever frat boy in a destroyed mansion where he spends his nights partying and his days scavenging for abandoned Jaeger parts to sell on the black market. Of course, Jake is running from his destiny. His father was Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) who sacrificed himself in the Battle of the Breach in the first film. The son of one of the greatest pilots and most inspiring military leaders of all-time, Jake is living a bit of rock star inheritance while also trying to distance himself from the Literal Savior of the Planet.

It’s not hard to see immediate connections between Boyega’s character and his co-star from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rey was also a scavenger, stealing materials from the fallen machines of a dead war in order to stay alive while also dealing with some massive daddy issues. I don’t know how your mileage may vary, but the narrative of selling off the ghosts of our past to survive in an unfamiliar world is one of my favorite character tropes. In The Force Awakens, this seemed a direct parallel to the nostalgia of toxic fandom, but Uprising isn’t built on the same kind of franchise, so instead we can focus on broader concepts of modern warfare and loss. No one has to linger on this for too long, because this isn’t a thinky film, but that doesn’t mean it is dumb. There’s a lot here to pick apart and a world this fully realized is never going to let you down.

Jake, who is a bit of a puckish rogue, betrays a team of cut-throat criminals and winds up stumbling into the lab of a teenage girl named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who has built her own Jaeger from scrap parts. Scraper is a robot small enough to be controlled by a single pilot, but unauthorized Jaeger construction is sort of a big deal in the ruins of Santa Monica, and an actual Jaeger brings Jake and Amara to justice. But instead of sending the two plucky pilots to jail, they are transferred to the world’s upmost Jaeger pilot training program.

Look: if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t feel your heart grow three sizes at the promise of Giant Robot Hogwarts, I genuinely pity you. You must live a bad life and also be a bad person, but I still pity you.

Just like at regular magic Hogwarts, this team of children being taught Murderobotology 101 have a bunch of internal conflicts and it’s a great coming of age story, while Jake must also come to grips with the choices of his life and make amends with his former Drifting Partner, played by Scott Eastwood in the only role that Scott Eastwood should have ever been offered. Watching Eastwood and Boyega smolder and bicker about emotional wounds while also fighting over the proper amount of ice cream toppings in one particular nighttime sequence is the closest to the brilliant wartime homoeroticism of Top Gun and I am here *clap* for *clap* it *clap*.

This might be a good time to point out that I think Uprising is better than the original film (gasp) and that this firmly rests on the performance of John Boyega. And this is completely my subjective experience and I know it will not be not popular: I don’t love the first film. I don’t, especially, love giant robot movies. I do, especially, love Guillermo del Toro, so this was always a bit of a bummer. Upon rewatching the original, I think my problem was always the self-seriousness of an obviously silly title. I’ve also been privy to reading the multiple hundred page bible that he created for the universe before the first film, which I still find more impressive than the film itself. So, perhaps I was always predisposed to be more excited for the in-universe follow-ups.

But back to Boyega. First: just say “John Boyega” out loud. Over-pronounce it. Doesn’t it feel good? It does. And that’s the spirit he brings to Uprising. He is both a Han Solo-esque scoundrel but also a comedic mastermind who just nails every line he is given, and then seemingly improvs more to tag each joke. He is, perhaps, my favorite modern sci-fi actor because of how he plays scenes in a very specific wink-to-audience way without doing a single wink. The breakdown of how John Boyega handles this film is to play every situation as if he is invested 100% and then also acts the same way in many of these near-future situations as you would imagine actor John Boyega (or anyone from 2018) to handle these scenarios. It’s a brilliant series of choices that link an audience to a sci-fi environment with total grounding.

For example, Boyega is brought into an interrogation room at one point and his sister (Rinko Kikuchi) holograms into the room. The hologram is projected by a number of cameras in the corners of the room, and when she hangs up on him, he jumps around the room waving his hands, trying to trigger the hologram to come back. And then, direct to camera, he ekes out a frustrated “She hologrammed me!” It feels like he doesn’t understand the technology that surrounds him and ends the scene with an expression of “I’ve been ghosted” that everyone can understand, but I do not believe that anyone else in the Pacific Rim world would have reacted similarly. He’s been a rebel in this world, which allows him to maybe have lived in this level of disconnect his entire life, while also being fully aware of how to pilot a gigantic mechanized murderbot. It doesn’t undercut the character. It’s the channel by which everyone can enjoy this in a way that, say, Idris Elba would have never chute-and-laddered our way into this world.

{Serious Spoilers Follow And I’m Sorry}

The second act of the film revolves around the dangers of drones as a political means, and it plays out in a manner that’s not heavy-handed enough to drag anyone down. Did you know that drone technology might end poorly for folks? Yes, then okay, we’re on a similar page. No one is gonna be shocked by this, and thankfully this quick ethics lesson passes in a few minutes; thereby getting us back to the interpersonal relationships that make this a better movie than it should be.

Here’s what happens next: Charlie Day becomes the architect of the Apocalypse.

In the original film, an entire act was dedicated to Dr. Newt (Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann (Burn Gormann) and the scientific love-hate relationship between the two of them, which culminated in a mind-meld that forever bonded the two men. A decade later, everyone is trying to figure out what is making Charlie Day so cocaine-nervous at every point. Welp, it’s because he’s got a Kaiju brain in his apartment that he’s mind-melding with every night after work. It’s… look, it’s a scientist addicted to being in love with an alien intelligence. It’s goddamn exciting to explore on every narrative level. It could be its own movie. It’s just a tiny sliver of this film, and that refusal of larger narrative exploration is really showing off just how much story you have at your disposal.

The big twist here is that Charlie Day’s character has been helping build a Jaeger Drone empire, but guess what -- HE SUPER EVIL NOW. Yeah, Charlie Day just neuortically shrieking about how he’s bringing an end to mankind-- that’s why movies cost money. I’d pay to just see these scenes again, by themselves. It’s the greatest sci-fi heel-turn of recent memory, performed by a man that exists as a heel-turn. This is worth watching the movie for.

What happens from here is that a small collection of Jaegers that survive an initial global blow wind up representing us in a defense of why mankind deserves to survive. It’s a clean 110 minute action film that doesn’t open a line to any storyline that it cannot close. It’s a complete, beautiful realization of not adult hero worship, but rather underage potential dice rolling. It is not an action movie about winning, but rather an action movie about trying…. With all of this against the backdrop of mega-monsters destroying cities.

This is all dumb and bad. This all big and small. And Pacific Rim Uprising has few points to make about bigger concepts. What the film offers forth is the idea of “Oh wow, maybe hold me accountable to an end goal.” It’s not destiny or promise, and it’s actually a deterrent towards those characters goals. John Boyega knows that his father would have been capable of speeches, but that the best he can do is loud words. He’s right and that’s not wrong. The resistance isn’t about changing the concept of life on Earth. The resistance is about being honest to a resistance. It’s a film about knowing we’re doomed and how the folks who are doomed are pretty great for knowing it ahead of time.

The film ends with a promise that a third entry in the franchise will finally be on the offensive instead of the defensive. This matters less to me. The first film protected the Earth and the second film saw humanity betray itself. Rounding off this entire narrative is fun, sure, but this middle chapter is so much more interesting. Demanding that your namesake overcomes your responsibility: that’s a lot to put on a plate. Nothing else in Hollywood giant robot world asks for this level of emotional contribution and maybe we should wait until we have something that compares.

Verdict: Yes