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John Boyega as Jake Pentecost in Pacific Rim Uprising.Universal Studios

Rating:

1.5 out of 4 stars
  • Pacific Rim Uprising
  • Opening March 23
  • Written and directed by Steve S. DeKnight
  • Starring John Boyega and Scott Eastwood
  • Classification PG
  • 111 minutes

At first blush, you wouldn’t think that a movie entitled Pacific Rim Uprising (deliberately and bafflingly sans colon) would carry an existential edge. The sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s just-successful-enough giant monsters vs. slightly more giant robots has “DUMB” stamped across its forehead in genuinely giant letters. Yet sitting through its 111 minutes the other night, I found myself thrust into a dizzying state of philosophical inquiry.

Why are we here, on this Earth, if some of us are only destined to clock in the thousands of man-hours it took to render Pacific Rim’s jarring visual effects? What purpose – what intrinsic system of beliefs and values – did writer-director Steven S. DeKnight latch onto while helming the film, in order to convince his mind, body and spirit that it was all for the common good? How strong must Western society’s civic virtues be in order for moviegoers to not simply weep when confronted with such empty-hearted cultural product? Why do the robots have swords?

DeKnight and his cadre of producers should feel proud that what was so bluntly designed as a hollow exercise in commerce provoked such soul-wracking angst. But they are likely too busy paying down their mortgages to notice that they engineered so completely nugatory a film that it almost twists itself into something worthy of a metaphysical crisis. Not quite, but almost.

Picking up a decade after man-made robots (dubbed jaegers, German for “hunters”) wiped out those pesky inter-dimensional monsters (kaijus, Japanese for “strange creatures”), all seems well and good in Uprising – until it isn’t, as these things tend to go. Earth’s mightiest heroes this time consist of literal leftovers: the son (John Boyega) of the first film’s speech-happy commander (Idris “we are cancelling the apocalypse” Elba), some random kids who make no impression and, worst of all, fail to die quickly and a blandly handsome hard-ass (Clint Eastwood’s son Scott, who should’ve taken the 15:17 outta here).

At least with the first Pacific Rim, del Toro scribbled curiosity and genuine passion into his mash note to Godzilla, Gundam and H.P. Lovecraft. Sure, the 2013 movie was about the exact same thing, plus star Charlie Hunnam’s slippery American accent, but it felt like it was the product of one man’s singular imagination – even if that vision was itself only a repository of those who came before. With all due affection, del Toro is the fantasy world’s Quentin Tarantino – his originality rests in how meticulously and enthusiastically he repackages the work of others.

DeKnight has no such goals; he can’t even be bothered here to ape del Toro’s imitation game. I’m sure the latter – who left Pacific Rim’s rock-‘em-sock-’em environs for the more tasteful arena of amphibious sex – did not intend for Uprising to be such a meaningless spectacle. He was obviously impressed by DeKnight’s work on ... television’s Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, I guess? Maybe Netflix’s interminable Daredevil? Listen, I’m sure del Toro, who retains a producer’s credit on Uprising, had his reasons. Financial in nature, most likely, as the first Pacific Rim proved uniquely successful in captivating the ever-growing Chinese market (it’s no accident that there’s a hefty amount of Mandarin dialogue, Tsingtao beer and sizable roles for Beijing stars Zhang Jin and Jing Tian in Uprising).

Wherever the money trail led, the end result is that audiences have this non-entity of a followup. Yet Uprising’s biggest sin isn’t its naked commercialism – as if the first film wasn’t explicitly designed to zero in on box-office habits – but its undisguised boredom. The sequel is a chasm into which energy, time and resources are lazily chucked. Even if the idea of Pacific Rim meets Transformers meets a politics-free Starship Troopers meets Power Rangers meets Voltron meets the horrifying collateral damage of Man of Steel sounds appealing – no judgment, but also I am judging you – DeKnight strips away any notion of event or energy.

The monsters return, the robots stand tall, probably hundreds of thousands of coastal citizens perish in the mess. And although there’s a not-bad twist here as to how the kaijus make landfall after Elba and co. closed that inter-dimensional portal last time around, you could scribble the rest of the plot blindfolded while holding the stub of a crayon and still get DeKnight’s script mostly right. What’s worse is that the filmmaker appears to know how wasteful it all is and does nothing to fill the void. It is the cheapest expensive movie I’ve ever seen.

The only factor saving this from being a disaster on par with a real-life kaiju attack is Boyega. Allowed his real British accent and the most screen time since his breakthrough film Attack the Block, the actor fights mightily against the apathy of the product he’s trapped within. Surrounded by monstrous machines and alien beasts, his irrepressible charisma and sincere leading-man verve makes him the most otherworldly element in a film that’s rigidly, stubbornly mundane.