While it was exciting to know that we would finally get a Pacific Rim sequel (with John Boyega!), I had to admit some trepidation after sitting at their panel at New York Comic Con last year. Director Steven S. DeKnight—who is far better known for his well-choreographed actions sequences than deft character work—could not stop talking about how cool the new jaegers were going to be. How many amazing abilities they had, and how great the designs were, and so on. There was just one problem…
…jaegers are not what make Pacific Rim great.
[Some spoilers for Pacific Rim: Uprising.]
Sure, they are real fun to look at, and action sequences are important to action movies. But part of the reason Pacific Rim garnered such a avid fanbase was due to all the places where it departed from average action movie schlock; it prioritized character arcs and emotions, it allowed its heroes to be vulnerable, it celebrated human connection, it cared about collateral damage. In short, cool jaeger weapons are not the key to an enjoyable Pacific Rim movie. They are seasoning, but they aren’t the bulk of your meal.
Thankfully, it seems as though the jaeger stats were all hype to try and get butts in seats. Pacific Rim: Uprising has its stumbling blocks, but it absolutely replicates the spirit of the original in every place where it counts. The opening is a little wobbly—we’re introduced to John Boyega’s Jake Pentacost as something of a needs-based hustler, just trying to keep away from the big bad jaeger program and his father’s name. (That’s Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentacost, in case you’re new to this.) Catching us up to the state of the world post-kaiju is fascinating, but could have perhaps used a little more finesse to integrate throughout the script. Either way, Jake accidentally meets Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny in her very impressive film debut), a kid who has made a one-person jaeger of her own for personal defense… and when she gets noticed, they are both sent back to jaeger camp.
I say back because Jake did spend some time trying to follow in his father’s footsteps, but ended up deciding that it wasn’t for him. It’s up to big sister Mako Mori—who is the General Secretary of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps these days, and also the perfect imperious older sibling—to stop bailing out her brother and get him reentered into the PPDC. Jake isn’t thrilled, but Amara couldn’t be happier, as an obvious jaeger enthusiast. Jakes’s old drift partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) is still around, training the new recruits to take up the mantle for the sake of the future. There are tensions; apparently they both like the same girl (who is very cool and competent but also doesn’t talk much), which is confusing because they really just seem to like each other. The two quibble about throwing away one’s future while Jake makes an ice cream sundae in the middle of the night.
Of course a threat reemerges because that’s how these things work, but that tiff over rainbow sprinkles and whipped cream and Jake’s shepherding of Amara prove that Pacific Rim: Uprising is situated right where it should be. Eventually we get to whoop and applaud and watch jaegers smack around other jaegers and big monsters, but all of these people matter to one another, and that simple facet is not treated as secondary. The new recruits that Amara trains with are a delightful group, and Nate talks over and over again about how they need to become a family in order to make a difference. Jake tells them the same before the film is over. Characters who you assume the worst of come through beautifully in the end. Collateral damage is still taken into account. The universe of Pacific Rim is about cooperation and caring in the face of certain doom. Stacker Pentacost’s son is here to relearn and reaffirm that very message, along with some adorable new pilots.
For a sequel, the plot is full of fun twists that don’t undermine the original story or its conceits. A couple of the action sequences are overlong, but they are still engaging, and often over the top in just the right way. The reupping of stakes here doesn’t feel contrived or hamfisted—it comes from little pieces that the first film left over. And there is still more left to explore after this film, including characters that we don’t hear anything about; one would assume that Charlie Hunnam is out there somewhere, but not getting a chance to see him leaves us with some extra questions that could easily power another film, and that’s without taking into account how enjoyable all the new characters are. My only true irritation with the film comes from a character death that seems as though it could have been easily avoided, and doesn’t serve the story as well as was clearly intended. It seems like a rote, lazy storytelling choice for a character who deserves much better.
John Boyega continues to eke out a “sardonic and prickly but secretly a perfect squishy marshmallow” leading man spot for himself that the world has been sorely missing. Jing Tian’s turn as rich super genius engineer Liwen Shao is the true Tony Stark we all deserve, and I could not love her more. Nate Lambert’s arc is frankly fascinating, a second addition to an emerging trope (after Black Panther’s Everett Ross); white men who take a true supporting role beside people of color and women in large blockbuster films. Nate is an anchor who is there for the hero, who educates the new generation, whose story isn’t centered by the narrative. Eventually, he has to step aside for Amara to come into her own. It’s still refreshing to see, and it doesn’t take anything away from the character, who is honestly just a really good dude.
All in all, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a fun and uplifting good time. It’s optimism is soothing and its humor abounds. If you enjoy action films that showcase characters who live up to their extremely charming banter, get to a theater as soon as you can.