Horror is a genre where a film can sustain a dubious premise for at least one feature-length story, but the flaws in that premise become more and more glaring with each subsequent installment. Pacific Rim Uprising takes what in Guillermo Del Toro’s original Pacific Rim was a delightfully silly idea and reminds you just how stupid it actually is. Writer-director Steven S. DeKnight, taking over for the recent Oscar winner, mostly ignores all of the tangible details that made the first film such a preposterous charmer, inexplicably crafting a sequel too fixated on corporate intrigue and other surface-level contemporary ideas to effectively serve what would otherwise be a futuristic blockbuster narrative where robots semi-regularly square off against alien monsters.
John Boyega (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) plays Jake Pentecost, the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker, a scavenger and ne’er-do-well who flunked out of jaeger training to become a hustler of black market goods. Nabbed by the authorities while trying to hijack a mini-jaeger built by resourceful teenager Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny, the upcoming Bad Times at the El Royale), Jake lands both of them back in jaeger training, this time with him as instructor and her as an unwitting recruit. There, Jake rekindles his rivalry with fellow pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) while Amara struggles to connect with her fellow recruits; meanwhile, corporate industrialist Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) introduces a plan to create an army of drones that will protect the planet from kaiju, shuttering the jaeger program in the process.
After a rogue jaeger unexpectedly disrupts a photo opportunity, provoking a fight that lays waste to Sydney, Australia, Liwen receives authorization to initiate her drone program despite reservations by Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a liaison between the jaeger program and world governments. But when Amara and Jake make some disturbing discoveries about the technology used to implement the drones, the world finds itself vulnerable to attack from kaiju once again, except now with only a few seasoned pilots and a handful of recruits available to stop them from destroying the world’s cities.
Far be it from me to ask real logistical questions about how jaegers are built and operated, much less why the world’s armies don’t just bomb the living shit out of the kaiju and the “breach” from whence they come given that the battles mostly level the cities that are meant to be protected. But DeKnight, collaborating on a script with Emily Carmichael (the future Jurassic World 3), Kira Snyder (The Handmaid’s Tale) and T.S. Nowlin (the Maze Runner films), seems as uninterested as I am in exploring those foundational ideas – much less oodles of intriguing minutiae – as attempts to make Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham’s skillful world-building his own. Emphasizing new jaegers whose names are forgotten before they’re finished being uttered while completely ignoring both the mechanics and metaphors of how and why they require two pilots, DeKnight creates a story that is “toyetic” as hell but offers almost nothing in the way of emotional substance, and worse, a complete absence of visceral intensity.
John Boyega is a fine actor, but he’s no substitute for Elba, and like in the Star Wars films, is most appealing when he’s trying to act cool and failing. That said, the script’s efforts to find a Whedonesque balance for Jake between taking this business seriously and acknowledging it’s all kinda goofy does his inevitable redemption story no favors. Eastwood is unfairly asked to command the attention of the recruits in one of his earliest scenes, and it’s hard to imagine a less convincing authority figure than him; though Charlie Hunnam was a different sort of charisma black hole in the first Pacific Rim, Eastwood is a special sort of bland, and he especially feels like a Paul Walker-lite trying to spar with the more naturally appealing Boyega – or really anybody else with whom he might share a screen. Spaeny, meanwhile, has an energy that evokes the spunky insolence of somebody like Hailee Steinfeld, but she kind of weirdly repeats the emotional journey taken in the first film by Kikuchi, who deserved a bigger role here but largely gets relegated to exposition duty.
Then of course there’s the film’s conspicuous catering to international audiences, which DeKnight does not only by casting Kong: Skull Island’s Tian Jing and a roundup of Chinese actors, but by pandering to that country in particular – where Pacific Rim was a runaway success – by unambiguously reassuring their government censors that no matter what happens, no Asian person will end up being a villain. But then again, one supposes it’s good that the filmmakers felt compelled to cater to anyone who actually liked the original Pacific Rim (much less yours truly, who was a fan), since everything else feels so engineered by committee that it lacks any specificity, and any personality to distinguish it from anything else angling for moviegoer eyeballs. Ultimately, Pacific Rim Uprising is to the first film what the later Paranormal Activity sequels were to Oren Peli’s original: the desperate and unnecessary expansion of a beautifully self-contained world that underscores why it was perfect in a single serving, no matter how eager some audiences seem to be for more.