“Pacific Rim: Uprising” is no “Pacific Rim.” It’s not even comparable to a movie in the character-focused “Fast & Furious” franchise. It’s closest to a Saturday morning cartoon, something best consumed while eating crunchy, sugary cereal so loudly you can barely hear the words, but you don’t mind because the plot doesn’t really matter — it’s all about the fighting robots.
Recent Oscar-winner Guillermo Del Toro made the brilliant “Pacific Rim” in 2013 as a surprisingly human tale of giant robots, Jaegers, fighting giant monsters, Kaiju. It bore homage to a wide variety of stories, from the innumerable entries in the “Godzilla” series to Japanese animation, all the while delivering a rollicking good time at the movies. He was unfortunately unable to direct the sequel, so he passed it off to Steven S. DeKnight, a television veteran. In the blockbuster sequel, DeKnight rips out Del Toro’s stylings and replaces them with his own, for better and worse.
John Boyega heads the film as Jake Pentecost, son of Idris Elba’s deceased character from the first film. It’s been 10 years since the events of “Pacific Rim,” and the world has enjoyed a period of peace. After he’s caught stealing old parts of broken Jaegers, Pentecost is blackmailed into joining the Jaeger program, along with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), a child who somehow built her own Jaeger out of spare parts. Pentecost is assigned to teach a team of cadets, including Namani, with old acquaintance/rival Nate Lambert, played by the ruthlessly uncharismatic
The first 45 minutes or so of the film are an exhausting exposition dump, introducing the audience to the many characters of the story while teasing us with cameos from fan-favorite characters from the first movie, including Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day).
Under the hands of a better director and a better team of writers (of which there are five here), this opening act could have functioned as an engaging look at the mechanics behind a post-Kaiju world. Unfortunately, DeKnight and his team deliver a slog, bouncing back and forth between incomprehensible technobabble and flat readings of stilted dialogue.
Right as the film seems to set up a boring, predictable narrative arc, complete with corrupt Chinese business-people, the whole movie gets twisted on its head. In a twist that shouldn’t be spoiled, DeKnight takes the story in exactly the wild, wacky direction the film needed to head in the first place. It results in elevated roles for Gorman and Day for the rest of runtime, which is a very good thing. Along with the predictably great Boyega, they’re the only actors who go all out, delivering the nonsense dialogue with such conviction it’s almost like they’re in a Del Toro film.
It comes as a major relief when this particularly convoluted plot takes predictably frequent breaks for action scenes, when DeKnight sets out to prove why he was chosen to direct the film. His visual sense fits the series like a glove, providing the Jaegers with a kinetic agility they did not have in the first film. This freedom allows the giant robots to do wild, kung fu-like moves on giant monsters, which never gets old.
The proficiency of the many action scenes brings up a particular question: How do you rate a movie like “Pacific Rim: Uprising?” It’s certainly not a “good” movie, in the vein of “The Shape of Water” or even the first “Pacific Rim.” But it accomplishes its primary purpose — delivering beautiful, awesome scenes of giant robots beating the snot out of giant monsters. Odds are, if you’re reading this, you already know whether or not this movie’s gorgeous nonsense is for you.