Over the last 10 years we’ve seen Hollywood attempt to grapple with the notion of fun when it comes to tentpole cinema. From the anti escapist grit of Man of Steel and BvS to the tedious destruction of the Transformers franchise, having a good time while watching the world end hasn’t been an easy task for some movie goers – we can punch on all day about Marvel. With Pacific Rim: Uprising, however, director Steven DeKnight (Daredevil) plants his flag firmly into your large bucket of popcorn and demands your enjoyment.
Set a decade after the original, Pacific Rim: Uprising throws us back into a world in repair. While the kaiju have been defeated thanks to the help of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), people are rightfully still on edge that the monsters from beneath will make a likely return at any moment. Cue John Boyega’s Jake, son of Stacker, who’s been living large in half a mansion on the west coast of the States. Jake makes a pretty nice living from stealing valuable parts from decommissioned Jaegers, swapping tech for all manner of junk food (seriously, how much Sriracha sauce does a dude need?) After an unfortunate run-in with scrappy Jaeger engineer, Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), the two are whisked off to Jaeger school as the threat of a kaiju return is made all too real from a genuinely surprising place.
Let’s be honest: 90 per cent of this movie is as you’d expect. Whatever film you had in your head after you saw the initial trailer is the film you’ll end up seeing. It’s a wonderfully loud, robo smash-em-up that pairs well with cinema junk food and a group of your best mates all up for a good time. Most of the time this movie is serviceable. But it’s that extra 10 per cent where we really have to give DeKnight credit.
Firstly, John Boyega. I have loved this dude from the moment I saw him in Attack the Block. But here he’s been given room to flex his leading man charisma. As Jake, he oozes a kind of dirt bag charm normally reserved for the likes of Han Solo or even Wade Wilson. Always way in over his head, he finds a way to barely eek himself out of trouble and look like he’s having the time of his life while doing it.
Secondly, the new jaegar pilots. I don’t want to be that writer that always makes real world comparisons with fantasy, but in this instance it was kind of hard to ignore. Sure, the writers and DeKnight wouldn’t have known the role the youth of today would currently be occupying in this particular moment in time, but watching a group of diverse younguns save the world from grotesque monsters and treat them with respect and dignity was definitely a welcome sight to see.
Thirdly, how the kaiju return is…..surprising. Shocking, even. On the whole DeKnight takes the universe outlined by the great (and now Oscar winner) Guillermo Del Toro and not only expands it out, but twists it. Characters from the original don’t simply slip back into their roles, but are given new terrain to explore that took me a moment to get used to but by the end of the film was a welcome change. While Kingsman: The Golden Cirlce‘s never ending need to make call backs about the previous film irked me to no end, Pacific Rim: Uprising is given a real chance to explore new terrain and, much like Jake himself, make a name for itself on its own two incredibly large and mechanized feet.
And sure, this film is flawed. Certain characters aren’t given the room to breathe and grow as much as you’d like, dialogue and story beats lean heavily on cliche at times, and certain action sequences don’t altogether escape the Bay-ified destruction we’ve grown accustomed to. But, DeKnight really does his best to carve out his own piece of Pacific Rim lore and make it his own. While I missed the neon glow the Jaegers bathed in in the original, or the lumbering way in which they moved, DeKnight’s updated visuals and storytelling align this universe far closer to its Japanese origins than even Del Toro probably envisioned. There are moments that are reminiscent of Ultraman and even Neon Genesis: Evangelion that fans of such shows will really appreciate. It also takes great pains not to bombard you constantly with destruction, taking much needed breaks to allow us to get to know the characters occupying the brains of the heavy machinery. And, as a native Melbournian, I felt a macabre delight watching Martin Place get stomped on during a Jaeger on Jaeger brawl.
DeKnight’s done a commendable job, not only on delivering a film worthy of its predecessor, but also going as far as to take the world and its lore in his own direction. It is rowdy audience cinema at its finest and a reminder that blockbuster movie making doesn’t always require grit between the teeth.