Even moreso than the original, Pacific Rim Uprising feels like a mecha anime come to life. While Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 robots vs monsters epic took pains to present its lumbering beasts and bots as things with real heft and weight, striding through wind-swept night vistas while carefully-scaled water effects bounced off their armoured hides and halogen lamps shone through sheeting rain, under the direction of TV veteran Steven S. deKnight (Spartacus, Daredevil), part deux is a much lighter, brighter, sleeker and more colourful affair. This generation of Jaegers (the in-universe term for giant robots – there’s a lot a cool jargon) sprint, flip, bounce and occasionally wheel-kick their way through their opponents in a manner not too dissimilar to the tokusatsu shows the film also takes its cues from. Squint and you can almost believe these are limber Japanese acrobats in spandex and injection-moulded plastic, and not untold millions worth of pixel power.
The in-universe explanation is that we’re 10 years on from the events of the first film, when Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi’s dauntless Jaeger pilots managed to defeat the interdimensional giant monsters called Kaiju (again: jargon) and close the rift in the bed of the Pacific ocean from when they came. The world has moved on. For one thing, Jaegers are more advanced. For another, people have gotten used to making a living in the ruins created by the world, pillaging scraps from fallen Jaeger chassis and Kaiju corpses alike.
Such people include pilot turned scavenger Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, who also produces), who has blown off following in his father’s footsteps (that’d be Idris Elba in the first film, who died saving the world) to live large off the black market; and teen genius Amara (Cailee Spaeny), who by the time we meet her has managed to scrounge together enough bits and pieces to build her own scrappy mini-mech.
Both of their activities are frowned upon by the powers that be, so when they’re busted its off to Jaeger Pilot Academy for the pair of them – her as a cadet, him as an instructor, which brings him back into the orbit of his old mech-dancing partner Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). They’re the core of a new generation of heroes – and just in time, too, as a new threat to the world begins to emerge.
Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Beckett is out of the picture for this one, and sadly so is Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, but there’s still plenty of connective tissue present, including Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, now a high-ranking officer in the Pan-Pacific Defence Corps, and Charlie Day’s scientist, Dr Geiszler, who has moved to the private sector and is working for a Chinese company under Jing Tian’s icy corporate executive, developing a remote-piloted Jaeger drone program. One of the more intriguing elements of Uprising is the way it extrapolates how the tech and cultural changes brought about by the war against the Kaiju have affected things a decade down the track, chiefly in the way that Jaegers are still around and are now being used as a kind of UN peacekeeping force since their are no giant monsters to kick around.
…for now at least. Of course the Kaiju are coming back, and the film engineers their return in a pretty neat way it’d be a shame to spoil. Until then, we’re stuck in the giant robot version of Top Gun for a while, and treated to the welcome sight of some Jaeger-on-Jaeger combat as our heroes contend with what appears to be a rogue Jaeger on the rampage.
Uprising feels like they had a couple of options open to them, sequel-wise – privatised Jaegers on one hand, Jaeger Flight Academy on the other – and decided, taco-style, to have both. As a result, though, a few things get less screen time and depth than they should, including the multicultural class of wannabe Jaeger jocks that Amara is teamed with. Overall, the sequel doesn’t handle relationship dynamics as well as its predecessor. The franchise’s central conceit of “the Drift”, the utterly intimate technological-psychic link forged between the two pilots necessary to command a Jaeger, doesn’t feel as special or unique here as it did previously, where “Drift compatibility” was a rare commodity. del Toro used that to give his rock -em sock’em movie some an extra dimension, in the process offering up a rare intimate on screen relationship between a man and a woman that wasn’t sexual. DeKnight’s film backs away from exploring those areas in any depth, which is a bit of a shame.
Still, giant robots vs giant monsters: that’s what we’re here for, and Uprising fulfills the “bigger, louder, more” remit of the blockbuster sequel, filling the screen at one time with four Jaegers, all with different, toyetic weapons and gadgets, going up against their alien opponents. There’s a sense of sheer delight to the action sequences as the towering figures rampage through a number of environments, including Japan – because if you-re doing a giant monster movie you need to tip your hat to the King – and, a treat for local fans, Sydney. Titans tussle, buildings crumble, explosions, er, explode, and everything you want from this kind of thing is right there on the screen for you in glorious, glowing, CGI. DeKnight really threads the needle here, delivering Saturday morning cartoon action with just enough grit and grounding to make it work in live action, even though a moment’s contemplation after the credits roll will reveal how preposterous the whole thing is.
Still, it’s also preposterously good fun. Pacific Rim Uprising is a rollicking good time in and of itself, and it also expands the world significantly, leaving room for further installments in a number of possible directions – if nothing else, we’d be down for a Jaeger Academy TV series. If you’re a fan of Japanophilic heavy metal mayhem, you’ll have a blast.