Shortly before I headed to a screening of Pacific Rim Uprising, a Vulture colleague wondered aloud in a meeting, “What’s the difference between the robots in Transformers and Pacific Rim?” to which I emphatically responded, “They’re not robots! They have people inside!” It’s true that the giant Jaegers are not robots, but is that really all it takes? Is the narrative suggestion that there are little humans inside those otherwise generically hulking, dusky CGI carapaces enough to imbue Guillermo del Toro’s mecha with sufficient soul to carry us through two hours without a crushing, alienated headache? Weirdly, I would say the answer is yes. Even more surprisingly, it’s even enough to carry us through some — but certainly not all — of director Steven S. DeKnight’s dumb, formulaic, but still ineffably zesty follow-up.
Uprising is set some ten years after the events of the first Pacific Rim, after the war with the giant kaiju that has left all Pacific coastlines from Sydney to Santa Monica in ruins. Idris Elba’s impeccably named Marshal Stacker Pentecost is long gone, but his son Jake (lol) Pentecost (John Boyega) is living as a smuggler and Jaeger parts dealer, crashing in abandoned mansions and attending rubble-pile raves. During a deal gone wrong, he runs into a young orphan and prodigy pilot named Amara (Cailee Spaeny). Their daring escape draws the attention of the inter-Pacific military, from which Jake defected years ago. Begrudgingly, he returns to the fold to help his old piloting partner Nate (Scott Eastwood), and Amara goes into pilot training.
Meanwhile, in China …
This is meant as no ding whatsoever, but Pacific Rim Uprising has to be the most China-bait blockbuster I’ve seen to date, and I have seen all of the Transformers movies. The first film was a modest success in the States but killed overseas (it had the sixth-biggest Chinese box-office opening for a Hollywood film) and that bears out in the sequel, which has entire plotlines in Mandarin, and substantial roles for Chinese stars Zhang Jin and Jing Tian. The result is a more cynical, market-driven version of the kind of international popcorn fare that Luc Besson and Bong Joon-ho have come up with in recent years, but I found it disorienting in a not-at-all-unpleasant way. I’ll put it this way: No other U.S. studio movie outside of the Pacific Rim cinematic universe is going to have an Asian woman executing the Han Solo–saves-the-day move in the final act, and I’ll take it for now.
Anyway, in China: Shao Industries, headed by the ruthless Liwen Shao (Jing) is busy manufacturing drone Jaegers that will supposedly be more efficient in the event of another kaiju breach. But Shao has been infiltrated via Dr. Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day), who, the film is more than happy to remind us, mind-meld “drifted” with a kaiju in the first Pacific Rim and may now be more than a little sympathetic to their cause. This all plays out how you might imagine, but some of the steps along the way are delightfully pulpy in their embrace of practical effects, especially once it’s time to slice open some giant kaiju brains.
Other times — and probably too many other times — the steps are just locksteps. There’s a redemption arc for Jake that you can guess in its entirety from the first shot of Boyega; there’s some hint of a love triangle between Jake, Lambert, and a woman played by Adria Arjona about whom I couldn’t tell you the first thing. Uprising’s script isn’t great at jokes or nuance or originality, but it’s pretty good at shuttling us from one set piece to the next. And when those set pieces are good — as is the case with an early Jaeger fight in Siberia, or the gee-whiz silliness of the climactic battle in Tokyo — it’s easy enough to overlook.
When they’re bad, however, you do find yourself asking what the difference is between this and any other clanging, soulless CGI spectacle. I guess that’s the not-quite-drift-compatible problem at the center of the Pacific Rim movies — the humans inside the giant suits are what make it more palatable, but the movies are pretty bad at giving those humans anything interesting to do. But when they’re locked in drift mode, battling giant monsters like some kind of VR interpretive pairs skate, it’s pretty undeniably thrilling. Universal can make the third installment entirely in Chinese and replace everyone with Scott Eastwood if they want, but as long as it ends with some glowing giant monsters and a synchronized dance routine, I’ll find it hard to complain.