Pacific Rim Uprising is pretty much the opposite of Pacific Rim

Don’t expect to see anything you liked  about Guillermo del Toro’s unlikely blockbuster in this sequel (well, except the robots and monsters).

Cailee Spaeny and John Boyega in Pacific Rim Uprising

Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is an outlier in the huge blockbuster world: it’s a movie mainly about giant robots that manages to feel created rather than assembled. Though it’s inevitable that hundreds of suits had a hand in shaping any $190-million movie, Pacific Rim very much feels like a Guillermo del Toro movie. His great strength (and I say this as someone who has never really loved any of his films) lies in crafting a world and an atmosphere, which is no small feat when you consider that Pacific Rim is basically just grafting together the worlds of Godzilla and Macross.

Suffice to say that while it seemed inevitable that a Pacific Rim sequel would be made considering the film’s box office success overseas, chances were low that anyone could recapture the particular scrappiness of the first film. It isn’t a great film, but at least it’s a memorable and idiosyncratic one. Pacific Rim Uprising is, in fact, as close to being the very opposite as it can be while remaining a movie about giant robots wailing on giant monsters. Where the first film made odd choices, Uprising makes the safest ones; where the first film found comedy relief in bizarre supporting characters, Uprising finds it in a whippersnapper tomboy character that fell off the back of the truck on the way to the next Transformers movie.

Ten years after the events of the first film, the world has returned to relative calm. The kaiju are under control and, while portions of the world were destroyed irreparably, life goes on. Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of the late military hero who gave his life at the end of the first film, makes a living providing Oreos and sriracha to decadent Rich Teens of Instagram who spend their days partying in ruined mansions. He has a more lucrative hustle in finding and selling parts of jaegers (the mind-controlled robots that humans used to fight the kaiju) to the highest bidder. That’s where he meets Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage tech wizard who lands them both in hot water. They’re arrested and Jake is more or less forced back into military service by his adoptive sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) instead of serving jail time.

Pacific Rim Uprising is a sequel and a sequel inevitably means more: more robots, more kaiju, more characters, more locations, more flashbacks, more explosions… but not necessarily more ambition. Everything that’s different about this sequel – the character interactions, the backstories, the villains, the humour – is different in a more generic, more familiar way. (The exception might be Amara’s orphaning story, which is basically taken beat-for-beat from Mako’s in the original.) The introduction of a whole heaping fuckload of bratty teen cadets (one of whom is played by Sonny Chiba’s actual son) brings the average quality of interaction way down, inserting generic YA conflicts into what is already, must I remind you, a movie about big robots. (And one that stars Scott Eastwood, to boot – though I will admit he is less of a goober here than in his other blockbuster incursions.)

Many people compare Pacific Rim to the Transformers franchise – those people must be lucky enough to never have witnessed a Transformers film, because even the limited pleasures of Pacific Rim Uprising feel like Bergman compared to the indistinct cacophony of the Bay-led robot franchise. New director Steven S. DeKnight (who has worked mostly in TV, notably on the Spartacus shows, Daredevil and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) fares relatively well with the action scenes, which are about as clear and well-blocked as two CGI robots could hope to be. (Oh, yeah: the robots fight each other a lot here, which they did not do at all in the first one; the reasons behind it would bust my word count.)

The problem is with everything else: the anemic humour, the bloodless performances, the indifferent stakes. The truth is that I actually really like the world of Pacific Rim. I like the choices it made for its particular peccadilloes, I like the weirdly borderless world it inhabits (though the heavy Chinese content is likely a box-office consideration this time around) and I like the glee behind the mash-up. It’s the rare huge-ass sci-fi property that I’d like to see more of, simply because it seems there’s so much space for weirdness in here. There’s almost none to be found in Pacific Rim Uprising, which ticks the boxes so joylessly and dutifully, you almost forget Guillermo del Toro ever had anything to do with this. ■

Pacific Rim Uprising opens in theatres on Friday, March 23. Watch the trailer here: