Pacific Rim Uprising has the reverse problem of its predecessor. Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 action movie features a rich and vibrant world that’s diminished by its bland hero Raleigh Beckett. The new sequel, directed by Steven S. DeKnight, has no problem putting a charismatic lead front-and-center, but all the energy and design has been excised from the picture. More concerned with cool robot fights than a world overrun by monsters, Pacific Rim Uprising is serviceable enough on its own terms, but can’t help but feel like a pale imitation of the first movie.
Picking up ten years after the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) canceled the apocalypse, we now follow Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of famous hero Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), and current scavenger of old Jaeger parts. When he and fellow scavenger Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) come across the PPDC’s radar after stealing and scrapping with authorities, they’re given a choice: join the corps or go to jail. They choose the former even though corporate titan Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) plans to put the PPDC out of business with her drone program led by Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). However, when a rogue jaeger bursts on the scene, Jake and his estranged co-pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) go looking for answers.
The reason to see Pacific Rim Uprising is Boyega. It’s unfortunate that he’s stuck in a Hollywood system that won’t just give him a blockbuster franchise from scratch and instead he has to be the star of a rebooted sequel, but he makes the most of what’s he’s given. He has no shortage of charisma, and Jake is a legitimately interesting character. Rather than the forgettable Raleigh, we get someone who understandably sits in the long shadow of his father’s success, and also just wants to have fun. He’s not a dull archetype but someone with levels and terrific chemistry whether it’s with Spaeny or the black hole of personality that is Scott Eastwood.
Where Uprising falters is that DeKnight has taken del Toro’s world and made it far less interesting. What made the first Pacific Rim pop is that there was a deep consideration for how a conflict between jaegers and kaiju would change the world at every level. Ten years later, the world of Uprising looks pretty much like ours but with holographic screens and there happens to be jaegers roaming about and kaiju skeletons littering beaches. The movie hints at scavenging for tech the same way people scavenged for kaiju parts in the first film, but that’s quickly dropped so we can get to more mech-punching.
But even the mechs themselves belie DeKnight’s limited interest in production design. Whereas each mech in the first movie looked drastically different, in Uprising you’ve got Gypsy Danger 2.0, the one with the mace, one with a laser sword, and one with a laser whip. It’s a weapon-first approach to design, and one that yields far less interesting results. When you’re watching these mechs at work, there’s nothing about their personality or nationality. They’re just giant, hulking machines that almost go out of their way to destroy every building possible.
If there hadn’t been an original Pacific Rim, then Uprising would be fine enough on its own terms. It’s nothing particularly special, but Boyega and most of the cast are good, and the film scratches the itch for a giant mech beat-em-up. But like its protagonist, Uprising is in the shadow of its predecessor, desperate to find its own way in the world. But unlike Jake, who eventually finds his footing and becomes a hero in his own right, Uprising feels like the first Pacific Rim but with almost all the personality removed.