Spoiler alert: There will be spoilers and a plot review in this write-up.
The original Pacific Rim (2013) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Yes, as a sci-fi and fantasy fan, I realize that a live-action film about robots fighting giant lizards from another dimension sounds like something scribbled in the margins of a bored fifth-grader’s spiral notepad. However, Pacific Rim was the culmination of childhood fantasies for anybody who grew up watching ’70s or ’80s anime, Transformers, Voltron or Power Rangers. Director Guillermo del Toro took a silly idea and took it seriously with beautifully directed fight scenes, predictable but earnest drama, and world-ending stakes that gave Pacific Rim heft that it had no business having.
Pacific Rim Uprising, the sequel, manages to undo every single good thing about the first movie with a running time of just 20 minutes shorter than the original (Uprising clocks in around 1 hour and 50 minutes). The only saving grace of this horrid film is that it’s a pretty good film for black people, which is rare in a big-budget Hollywood movie.
Pacific Rim Uprising is what happens when nobody expects a sequel and none of the actors, directors or producers of the first movie are available, but greed and hubris compel a sequel to be made. The first Pacific Rim was a relative dud at the American domestic box office but a huge hit in Asia, and is lauded as the first failed domestic blockbuster to get a sequel based on foreign sales.
If the original Pacific Rim was the perfect mixture of Cloverfield’s monster horror and Transformers’ mechanized CGI action, then Pacific Rim Uprising adds a little too much toward the Transformers end of the spectrum. There are too many forced attempts at humor instead of world building, and there is actually very little robot-on-monster fighting. When it does occur, the cinematography is more reminiscent of ’80s anime than a state-of-the-art action film in 2018. The lack of a coherent plot doesn’t help matters, either.
In the beginning we’re introduced to Jake Pentcost (John Boyega), the never-before-mentioned-at-any-point-in-the-previous-movie son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The elder Pentecost was the director of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, the collection of pilots who drove giant robots called Jaegers that battled giant amphibious monsters known as Kaiju.
From the first Kaiju appearance in 2013, Pentecost and his team battled Kaiju until he sacrificed his life to seal off the dimensional portal that had allowed the Kaiju to attack the Earth in 2020. Pacific Rim Uprising takes place 10 years later as a new and younger generation of pilots are being trained in case the Kaiju ever return. Jake, of course, is the classic über-talented wayward son who struggles with his father’s legacy despite being a pilot prodigy in his own right.
After a run-in with the cops, he’s given a chance to redeem himself and train a new generation of pilots, which, of course, he resists because that’s what the hero always does in these kinds of movies. Instead of giving the viewer an interesting deep dive into the post-Kaiju-attack world, or a look at the ethics of training high-school-age kids to fight in multibillion-dollar death machines, Pacific Rim Uprising gives us one of the oldest tropes in sci-fi: Will human-piloted Jaegers be replaced by drones?
We’ve seen this man-vs.-machine story done better, with Jamie Foxx in Stealth in 2005, the Robocop reboot in 2014, even in Avengers: Age of Ultron in 2015, when Tony Stark considered making the Avengers obsolete with rescue robots. No one except the actors in the movie is surprised when the drone Jaegers go rogue (they show you this in the trailer), and it’s up to our heroes to figure out why and stop another Kaiju invasion from new dimensional portals.
It’s not a crime that Pacific Rim Uprising is derivative—it is a sequel—but there’s a line between making an homage to previous films and full-on Taylor Swift-ing every single sci-fi action film over the last 20 years. The movie literally has all the classic sci-fi tropes: Spunky genius street kid who’s somehow as smart as trained experts three times her age? Check. High-school-based teen rivalries during training that somehow get resolved during the climactic battle despite nothing really happening? Check. The sexist trope that a woman must die to motivate the hero, and the lovable loser having to die to motivate the team to come together when things are looking grim? Checkity-check.
The lone saving grace of Pacific Rim Uprising is John Boyega as Jake Pentecost, who is an action star in search of a franchise. Jake is a fully realized four-dimensional, straight black male lead in a blockbuster science fiction film, which is still rare. He has a redemption arc, he saves the day and even has a flirtatious love interest. Basically, Pacific Rim Uprising is everything Boyega is not allowed to do as Finn, the blatantly emasculated Han Solo archetype he plays in the Star Wars films. Pacific Rim still has its racial problems, of course, but they’re on par with most of Hollywood today.
The casting of very suburban-Missouri-white Cailee Spaeny as a character named Amara Namani gives off a distinct whiff of whitewashed casting for a character that should probably have been a person of color. Uprising also has a flirtatious love triangle involving Lambert (Scott Eastwood), Jake and Jules Reyes (Adria Arjona) that is so strained and contrived that it’s reminiscent of those horrible ’90s action films. When movie studios want a black guy and a white guy to compete over the same girl, they always cast a Latina, because, y’know, they’re fair game for everybody, amirite?? (Remember Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lopez in 1995’s Money Train, or Will Smith and Kevin Kline and Salma Hayek in 1999’s Wild Wild West?)
The movie also takes great pains to give Eastwood some screen time to have other characters fawn over his “sexiness” and “good looks” because the fragile white-male-filmgoer ego has to be pandered to if a black man is going to be the star of the film. Nevertheless, Boyega still manages to shine through, and that’s no small feat given what a mess the film is otherwise.
Does that make Pacific Rim Uprising a good movie? Not in the least. It’s still dreck and isn’t much fun to watch at all. However, if the movie analysts are right and this is the first movie to knock Black Panther off its six-week perch as the No. 1 film in America, there is no need to fear. At least Pacific Rim Uprising is a movie where the black guy gets to be the hero and save the world, and there’s always room for more of those kinds of movies.