Pacific Rim: Uprising review – John Boyega adds fettle to the metal

This slow-coming sequel does indeed uprise on Guillermo del Toro’s bland robots-and-monsters original, thanks to a less belligerent attitude to plot and human characterisation.

Kim Newman

from our forthcoming June 2018 issue

John Boyega as Jake Pentecost in Pacific Rim: Uprising

John Boyega as Jake Pentecost in Pacific Rim: Uprising

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

Though palpably delighted by the opportunity to pay homage to Japanese giant monster/giant robot movies and anime, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) emerged as the monster-loving auteur’s least personal film – too often interrupting the large-scale devastation to indulge in Top Gun knock-off fighter-pilot soap opera, as if the director were ordered to make a movie that espoused the values of the gung ho paranoid patriotic villain of The Shape of Water rather than indulge his habitual sympathy for the outcast.

A medium-sized hit, with an especial appeal in the Far East, the film didn’t immediately start a franchise from scratch. This sequel has been long in development while competitors based on established IP – the Transformers sequels and the ‘monsterverse’ series (Godzilla, Kong Skull Island) – have got busy trampling over similar territory. Even the ridiculous cheap imitation Atlantic Rim (2013) managed a follow-up, Atlantic Rim Resurrection (2017), before the blandly-titled Pacific Rim Uprising made it to screens with Steven S. DeKnight, whose background is in TV superheroics (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Daredevil), at the helm. The result is lightly likeable which, in the circumstances, is a pleasant surprise.

Tian Jing (centre) as Liwen Shao

Tian Jing (centre) as Liwen Shao

The original film was so intent on its battles that it left much of its plot vague and contradictory, but this revision streamlines the premise – and makes something coherent out of what seemed to be a random monster attack. Similarly, it sidelines the messy business about giant robots needing two pilots who can sync their brains to control their clanking avatars in favour of a more reasonable conflict between old-fashioned fighter jocks who want to be inside their big tin cans and an apparent Dragon Lady who favours remote-piloting the machines to eliminate pilot casualties.

It might well be a sop to the Asian audience that the apparent villain, icily played by Chinese star Tian Jing (veteran of The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island), turns out to be a good guy, literally letting her hair down to help out in the final scrap, but the reversal is still a pleasing shake-up of expectations. Similarly, the comic relief boffins held over from del Toro’s film – Charlie Day and Burn Gorman – get different roles to play in the drama, allowing for surprise twists – including a genuinely creepy reveal about Dr Geiszler’s new wife Alice – and, at last, an explanation of what’s been going on all along.

Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)

It’s long been noted by Hollywood that any franchise in danger of flagging can be perked up no end by casting Dwayne Johnson as a newbie character who raises the energy levels and adds self-deprecating humour. Here, John Boyega – cannily cast as the son of the character Idris Elba played in Pacific Rim – proves that he can pull off the same trick, playing off straight-arrow foil Scott Eastwood or spunky kid robot-fan Cailee Spaeny with a mix of knowing cliché and inspired mock vanity. In his Star Wars outings, Boyega has basically been comedy relief, but here he makes his leading man bones – managing to show more personality in one unambitious but efficient sequel than entire casts have managed in five Transformers movies.

This entry slightly favours robots in the monsters vs robots equation, though it comes up with imaginative variants in the hybrid cyborg kaiju. Nostalgically, the climax returns to the genre’s spawning grounds as a many-eyed gargantuan composite creature rampages on the slopes of Mount Fuji, site of the primal epic battle depicted in Ishiro Honda’s King Kong vs Godzilla (1962).

 

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