How big was Pacific Rim, really? Do we even know? The internet reports that the sci-fi monster movie from five years ago – directed by this year’s Oscar winner, Guillermo del Toro – made just over $400 million worldwide on a budget of $200 million, which is barely break-even money. (Indeed the studio presumably lost money, when you add marketing costs and other factors.) Has the franchise found a following on DVD, or Netflix or whatever? Is it now a cult? Are there sub-reddits devoted to discussing it? Is there, in short, some reason to explain this expensive sequel, made without the original stars or director?
One reason is presumably China, soon to be the world’s most lucrative movie market. A franchise set in Asia – or at least around the Pacific, with Tokyo bearing the brunt of the damage – is unusual enough to stand out, and the popularity of Kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters) surely extends across the East China Sea. The film adds a few Chinese actors in sizeable roles, notably Tian Jing who was also in The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island; quite a bit of dialogue is actually in Mandarin with Greek subtitles, though Anglophones won’t miss anything too essential.
Then again, why be cynical? Maybe Pacific Rim is indeed a cult movie, fondly remembered by all – though in fact I was shocked by how little I remembered, watching the sequel. I’d even forgotten the central idea, which is actually quite interesting – viz. that pilots who go after the Kaiju (they ride giant robots called Jaegers) are “in each other’s heads”, having to connect through a “neural handshake” and move/think in sync in order to navigate – though maybe I’d forgotten it because the franchise does so little with it. The whole idea of ‘drifting’ together has obvious emotional resonance (our hero Jake, played by John Boyega, says he used to dream of drifting with his late father, as a form of bonding), yet it doesn’t seem like you need a very deep connection to drift. Teenage cadets are bundled together two-by-two in the climax, and make the handshake without any trouble. Feisty young Amara (Cailee Spaeny) does struggle for about half a minute, distracted by childhood flashbacks – but the flashbacks pass, and she’s off to destroy some monsters.
‘Destroy the monsters’ is about the limit of the flimsy, forgettable plot, complicated slightly by Charlie Day as a comic-relief professor who turns out to be taken over by ‘the Precursors’. It behooves us to point out, in this gender-sensitive cultural moment, that the script was written by two men and two women – but maybe they cancelled each other out or something, because the result is unmemorable.
Never mind the script, that’s not the point here. Never mind Pacific Rim either, because it makes no difference if you saw (or recall) the original. Uprising works entirely as sensation, its MVP being whoever’s responsible for the garish colours that adorn every shot. There are neon signs, pools of bottle-green and hot orange. The Kaiju are veined with blue goo. At one point, when Day’s character talks with another scientist, there’s blue light on their faces and a sort of lurid-pink wave undulating on a screen behind them. The fight choreography is fun too, especially when the combatants are giant robots with names like Sabre Athena and November Ajax (the Transformers influence is obvious); robot monsters swing each other by the feet, then punch so hard they launch their opponent vertically upwards, like in a cartoon.
Boyega brings a sense of humour, or at least a jokey streak. Scott Eastwood (son of Clint) doesn’t really joke, but he acts so much like his dad it becomes a kind of unspoken joke. Spaeny is also amusing, in the scrappy manner that’s become de rigueur for female heroines in otherwise-apolitical movies. (This week’s new releases also include Sherlock Gnomes, a kids’ cartoon with garden-gnome characters that nonetheless includes one female gnome reminding another that “men don’t make us stronger”; Frozen has a lot to answer for.) Uprising is a trivial entertainment mostly aware of its own triviality, filling the void with random spectacle – like a giant triceratops coming out of the sea – and random comedy, like a smelly Russian cadet being reminded to shower more.
The Russians, of course, are the faintly obnoxious, easily-mocked members of the team, just as the Chinese are super-capable and slightly (but conspicuously) apart from the rest of the movie. Blockbusters always tend to reflect their political moment – all that’s missing here is a Trump facsimile – adding some distraction before the climactic orgy of destruction. It probably won’t take long to forget Pacific Rim: Uprising – so let me just confirm, before I do, that the film is good-looking and mildly enjoyable, a waste of time but mostly harmless. Did Pacific Rim even need a sequel? Let’s not go there.
DIRECTED BY Steven S. DeKnight
STARRING John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny
US 2018 111 mins