Cinema Dispatch: Pacific Rim Uprising

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Pacific Rim Uprising and all the images you see in this review are owned by Universal Pictures

Directed by Steven S DeKnight

Hey, remember when Pacific Rim was a thing?  Yeah, it REALLY feels like a long time ago at this point, doesn’t it?  I mean, it DID come out five years ago, but with The Shape of Water showing us what Guillermo del Toro is really capable of when he puts everything he’s got into a movie (and not just special effects),Pacific Rim is feeling more and more like an afterthought in his career.  That being said, it WAS a really well made movie with a great turn by Charlie Day as a befuddled super science, and it led to him and his co-star Burn Gorman teaming up again for one of the best episodes of It’s Always Sunny; Flowers for Charlie!  Now we’ve got a sequel that doesn’t have del Toro in the director’s chair and looks to be more of a big budgeted Transformers competitor instead of the more methodical and intense vibe of the first film which certainly isn’t a BAD direction to take the series in, but will they be able to pull it off?  Let’s find out!!

The movie takes place ten years after the events of the first film where Jake (John Boyega) who is the son of Idris Elba’s General Stacker Pentecost is NOT living up to his father’s legacy and is instead bumming around one of the many cities that were more or less abandoned after being hit by a Kaiju attack.  Jake doesn’t like to play by the rules and would rather spending his time ripping parts out of retired giant robots known as Jaegers than to join the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) and continue his father’s legacy while also preparing for the next inevitable Kaiju attack.  Too bad for Jake though because he runs into a fellow street hustler named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) who’s made her own mini-Jaeger but is soon busted along with Jake for having an illegal robot which is a thing now I guess.  Anyway, Jake is faced with some serious jail time if he the cops throw the book at him, but his sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who is a General in the PPDC offers him one more chance to set his life straight.  Join back up with the PPDC and train some new recruits which will include Amara whose impressive robot making skills has caught the PPDC’s attention.  So that’s it, right?  It’s basically Top Gun but with robots!  Well… not quite.  While this is going on, we ALSO have to worry about the PPDC losing their favor with the rest of the world as a tech company led up by Liwen Shao (Jing Tian) has developed Jaeger drones that can be piloted by ONE person instead of two, and can do so remotely which will pilots from having to climb into the robots themselves.  Seems like a good idea, but if you know ANYTHING about sci-fi movies, there’s always some unforeseen consequences to overly mechanizing jobs that humans are also doing; ESPECIALLY jobs which involve deadly weapons!  Not only that, but while this squabble is taking place, there are hints here and there that the Kaiju may be returning sooner than they all think!  Can the PPDC and the Shao Corporation come to an understanding before even bigger threats will tear them both apart?  Will Jake be able to finally stop running from his TORTURED BACKSTORY PAST (mostly involving Daddy Issues) in order to succeed in the one place where he truly belongs?  Any chance we can just forget about that Power Rangers movie and just let the filmmakers behind this make one that’s ACTUALLY good?

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“IT’S MORPHING TIME!!”     “The heck it is!  No way I’m wearing spandex in this thing!”

I get the feeling that I’m gonna be in the minority when I say this but this is not only a better film than the original, it’s one of the more fascinating films we’ve gotten in recent years; at least as far as big budgeted action blockbusters are concerned.  It’s both NOTHING we’ve seen before and yet EVERYTHING we’ve seen before as it wears its influences on its sleeve, much like the original film, but executes them in a way that I don’t think a movie with THIS kind of budget has tried to do.  When I think of this movie, both in terms of its flaws and achievements, I’m reminded of say… Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance or Freddy vs Jason, neither of which are comparisons that I feel will garner much enthusiasm from most people, but there’s something viscerally nostalgic about watching a note for note recreation of something that might be trashy, low brow, or SUPREMELY cheesy, that gets across the love and affection you and many others have for the kind of entertainment that this is taking inspiration from.  Is this movie a mess?  Yeah, it has structural problems out the wazoo and the script could have used a bit more work in the first act, but the end result is the kind of brazenly straightforward love letter to a genre that a lot of people to try to make but very few can pull off this well.

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It’s not enough that he’s a giant robot, but that he has an electric whip too!?  Just seal the deal and make the monsters half vampire!!

There are a lot of things that differentiate this movie from its predecessor, but the starkest change her (for both good and ill) is its structure as it genuinely feels like an adaptation of something that doesn’t actually exist while also feeling like something we’ve seen a million times before.  The closest comparison I can make is to those fake trailers in front of Grindhouse where an entire movie was reverse engineered into a condensed three minute sizzle reel, but here they went even further by giving us a CliffsNotes version of every giant robot anime ever made to the point that you start to imagine how various plot points would have actually played out in a full series.  Now I’m no expert of the genre as I couldn’t tell you the difference between a Gundam and a Gurren Lagann, but I know EXACTLY what this movie is pulling from to craft this plot.  Sure, there’s a bunch of Evangelion baked into the very bones of this movie, from a drone subplot to some later revelations that I won’t spoil here, but the sources of inspiration draw much more broadly from tropes of the genre, and while I’m sure many of the clichés in this COULD be nailed down to an original source, this is ALL stuff that we see in every tv show, movie, comic book, and video game that you’ve ever loved.  Kid pilots?  That’s certainly standard for the giant robot genre as well as other media like Ender’s Game and the non-2017 Power Rangers.  There’s an EVIL Jaeger with an unknown pilot who bounces in and out of this like a masked wrestling heel, and you can see where this story line would have gone had it been in a twelve to twenty-four episode show.  Heck, they even throw in a Goonies moment for the kids in here because there’s literally no reason NOT to!

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“Guys, you can’t ALL be the Green Ranger!”     “Well what about you two?  Why are there two blue rangers!?”     “Just for that, take TWENTY LAPS!”

The first film was itself a celebration of the genre and certainly had its fair share of tropes and arch characters, but there still felt like there was  bit of a disconnect between what the spirit of many of these shows were and the story that Guillermo Del Toro was trying to tell in his interpretation of them.  In here, it is a COMPLETE embrace of everything we know, love, make fun of about this genre, and sure it can be argued that nostalgia and novelty are often overpraised in comparison to true in depth storytelling and brilliantly original ideas, but at least this manages to understand what its audience LIKES about where it’s taking its inspiration instead of say the Transformers movies which are actively hostile to the rose tinted memories fans had about the series; not that removing the mystique and critically looking at what we have nostalgia for is a BAD thing, but Michael Bay was never interested in doing that and instead filled those movies with racist jokes and dog humping.  Now you still may be asking why I consider the original film which seemingly comes right in the middle (i.e. it isn’t slavish to what it’s referencing while also showing a clear appreciation for it) is not better than this sequel.  To put it bluntly, this is a much more fun film than the last one, and it’s not like the last one wasn’t TRYING to be a fun summer blockbuster.  The problem I came away with in the original film is that it was surprisingly dour for most of its runtime (despite this new film cribbing PLOT POINTS from Evangelion, the first one had much more of its tone), and it was kind of a drag in the third act when the big final punch up between robots and monsters was less a battle of the ages between the gods and more of a Dirty Dozen march towards the impending maw of doom.  To lots of people I can see that working much better for them than having a bunch of scrappy kids with bad jokes fighting monsters to rock music, but for me I found the simple joy of this movie much more infectious than the overly serious tone of the first one which was occasionally punctuated with bouts of solidly crafted humor.  As a pure spectacle, I recall the first one looking a lot better and having much more gravitas in its visual compositions, but I feel that what we get with this one (i.e. a lot more fun) genuinely compensates for bringing things back down from a five star A+ level blockbuster to something more like a REALLY ambitious B movie.

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See, this is why you make giant robots instead of atomic bombs.  CAN A NUKE DO A HOLD FIST SALUTE!?  I DIDN’T THINK SO!!

Now I’ve been gushing all over this review about how much I enjoyed the movie, so let me take a step back and say that this film is INCREDIBLY flawed from top to bottom.  As much as I love the idea of this feeling like an adaptation of some pure giant robot series that was Frankensteined together out of the best pieces of every series that came before, it does suffer from pacing and structural issues because of it.  It’s not The Last Airbender bad, mostly because the story isn’t from any ACTUAL source material to directly compare it to, but the script just flies by from plot point to plot point with almost no breathing room for anything to truly feel developed.  Remember that Goonies moment I mentioned earlier?  That’s literally A MOMENT in this (maybe three to four minutes top), and a rather pointless one at that considering the revelations it uncovers are rendered irrelevant only a few minutes later.  Stuff like that happens throughout the movie (I’m pretty sure they go to Siberia to investigate something but the story forgets to ACTUALLY have them do that), but I can roll with a lot of it since the beats are familiar enough and the story is easy enough to follow despite its overly fast pace.  What can’t be as easily overlooked though are the characters of which there are many and none of them get nearly enough time to develop beyond rather generic archetypes.  Thankfully the cast is strong enough that most of them manage to stay compelling due entirely to the solid performances everyone is giving in here, but the one who suffers the most ends up being John Boyega who tries as mightily as everyone else to bring something to his role and yet is not quite able to overcome the burden that he’s forced to carry as the main character.  He’s yet another archetype like everyone else as he’s playing the punk kid who’s angry at the world and doesn’t take well to authority, but the problem with that particular character is that you REALLY can’t cut corners around their story; otherwise you get an insufferable asshole with almost no redeeming qualities (*cough* Sasuke *cough* fight me *cough*).  Too often in this movie, you question why ANYONE is giving him so many chances and so much leeway to act like a total jerk in what is supposed to be a military environment, and while there are pieces here and there to try and build a complete picture (he’s talented yet feels inadequate due to daddy issues, and the military wants him around to at least be a poster boy), there’s just not enough time in the film to give him the depth he needs and the character arc he needs to have in order to overcome the flaws in his character.  I absolutely want to see a sequel to this with everyone from this cast returning, but hopefully they can slow things down just a bit and make each character feel like a living breathing person instead of feeling copied and pasted from the big book of action film clichés.

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Even when he’s a total jerk, it’s impossible to hate this guy!

I don’t think this is gonna be to everyone’s taste, and unlike with A Wrinkle In Time which felt a bit OVERLY criticized, I can see where a lot of people are coming from if they don’t appreciate what this film is doing.  It’s certainly lacking in depth and doesn’t have a particularly strong narrative backing it up, but it knows what it wants to be accomplishes those goals in a way that cynical pretenders like the Transformers movies (or even that Power Rangers movie) have never been able to accomplish.  If you’re a fan of giant robot anime and want to see it on the big screen, well I can’t really think of a better example of that specific genre getting such a well-made love letter, at least not with the resources of a major US studio behind it.  It’s big enough and has enough thrills to be worth checking out in the theaters if you find the premise appealing, but for the rest of the world that aren’t enamored by watching giant toys bash the crap out of each other, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere because for better or worse that’s EXACTLY what you are getting.

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