Today we are SEQUELIZING THE APOCALYPSE!
by Thom Yee
There are only a handful of movies important enough that I make sure to have them somewhere on my person at all times. It’s a pretty big handful actually. Maybe closer to, like, 10 handfuls—I’m a media hoarder that way. Though I’m not sure if ‘handfuls’ are the best way of quantifying movies in the first place. But, even amongst all of those important movie handfuls, the first movie I’ll always put on any new phone, tablet, or computer I buy (or otherwise come into possession of) is Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Or “PacRim” as we’ve started calling it now that its sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising, is here. ~shudder~Now, if you were one of the handful of people who got the original Pacific Rim (there’s that ‘handful’ again), and I mean really understood it and bought into it, then it’s most likely a movie that left you feeling exhilarated after first seeing it. Possibly effervescent. Maybe even ebullient! Pacific Rim wasn’t a smart movie, not even close, but it was unusually heartfelt and genuine but also mythic and unlike anything else you’d seen before despite how clearly it was inspired by previous works. It was a loving, caring homage to classic monster movies, anime, and probably a bunch of other things I may have missed, and it was layered, its glories to be appreciated the more you thought about it and got lost in its drift. You walked out of seeing it that first time time marveling, thinking something like: “That was… much better than I was expecting. It was good. Really good. And that music…!” And if you’re anything like me, it’s a movie that stuck with you long after its initial release.
I think the best description I can give of Pacific Rim, beyond the obvious (i.e., it’s about giant robots [Jaegers] fighting giant monsters [Kaijus]), is that it feels like the work of the most precocious 12-year-old filmmaker you could ever imagine. Maybe it’s not a work that suggests that that 12-year-old filmmaker has the background or range of experiences to write a super-smart, super-tight script, but they do know what they like, they do know why it’s right to like those things, and they do know how to make something great. It’s an incredibly earnest work, eye-catching, and better than it has any right or even need to be. I could go on and on about Pacific Rim and how much I love it, honestly, but that’s not, technically, what we’re here to talk about. We’re here to talk about Pacific Rim: Uprising. ~shudder~. But I am going to compare just about everything in Pacific Rim: Uprising to the original Pacific Rim. I just can’t help it.
What’s it about?
The monsters are back!
Would it surprise you to find out that the original Pacific Rim didn’t do very well at the domestic box office? Would it surprise you to find out that the original Pacific Rim didn’t make much of a profit at all? Probably not, not if you’re a normal person at least; normal people don’t think about Pacific Rim. But it’s true, all of it, the original Pacific Rim only made about $102 million domestically against a budget of $190 million, and with numbers like that it’s pretty easy to see, even without a fancy degree from Hollywood Upstairs Finance College, that ain’t good. But, if you followed that box office link and peaked just a little bit lower, down to Pacific Rim’s lifetime grosses, you may also have noticed its foreign total — $309 million — which brought the whole Kaiju-Blue-acid-bloody affair to a minor profit (Hollywood Upstairs Financing = a movie needs to make at least twice its reported budget before it starts making money for the studio). So overall, it did okay, not great, but it wasn’t making its money in America, and that’s a problem for an American movie company like Legendary that distributed Pacific Rim in 2013. So why are we seeing a sequel now? China. That’s probably going to be the answer for a lot of movie-related questions you may have going forward to be honest.
So back in 2016, the Chinese real estate and investment firm Dalian Wanda Group bought Legendary Entertainment, and with that acquisition it gained the distribution rights to movies like Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island and, you guessed it, Pacific Rim (as well as becoming the highest-revenue-generating movie company in the world). You see, Pacific Rim earned the biggest part of its box office in China, the Chinese box office constituting more than one-third of the movie’s foreign take, probably because of its international cast, its obvious Eastern influences, and how heavily its appeal lies in its visuals, and that’s a big part of the reason we’re getting a sequel now. From the Chinese. China’s a big part of the reason we’re seeing a lot of things happen in modern movies (see: The Great Wall, where Matt Damon’s role in the movie is seen less as whitewashing and more as an honour to the movie), where fairly basic storylines that are easy to follow across language and cultural barriers are far more common than… y’know… intelligent, intricate storytelling. So if you’ve started to feel, lately, like the movies you’ve been seeing are basically sound and should be entertaining but something’s just a little off — maybe characters are even more lacking in depth than usual or ads for Chinese brands you’ve never heard of are everywhere or more Chinese actors are in secondary roles than you’re used to seeing — moves like Wanda’s acquisition of Legendary are why. And that brings us to Pacific Rim: Uprising. ~shudder~
Is it any Good?
First they went with a different director than Guillermo Del Toro, and I did not speak out—
Because he had not yet won an Academy Award.
Then they put the Jaegers in rocket packs, and I did not speak out—
Because at least that’s an evolution of combat technology and addresses a key weakness.
Then they had Jaegers fighting other Jaegers, and I did not speak out—
Because I get it, that’s the kind of thing that happens in sequels.
Then they set the action scenes to a 2Pac remix, and I did not speak out
—Except in this review you’re about to read.
Okay, so maybe I stretched that “First they came…” parellell all out to hell (and pulled it down into comparatively trivial territory considering the poem’s post-World-War-II origins [sorry about that]), but it’s the first thing that crossed my mind when I saw what they were doing and where they were going with Pacific Rim: Uprising. In Pacific Rim, the Jaeger Gipsy Danger’s sword was a theretofore unseen and wholly unique weapon that was a symbol of Gipsy pilot Mako Mori’s biological family, who were killed by Kaijus. In Uprising, Gipsy Avenger has two swords and every Jaeger has their own signature weapon! In Pacific Rim, there were only four operational Jaegers left after years of Jaeger pilots losing their lives, and the cowardly world governments were trying to hide behind coastal walls that did little good. In Uprising, Jaegers are everywhere in bases all across the world and scavengers are even building Jaegers of their own! In Pacific Rim, the main characters had cool, unique names like Tendo Choi and Hercules Hansen, and Stacker Pentecost. In Pacific Rim: Uprising, the main character’s name is Jake. He’s Stacker Pentecost’s son. You see? There’s a difference! And I really don’t feel that the creators behind Uprising understand that.
The thing about the universe of Pacific Rim as conceived in the first one is that it’s all, all of it, an homage to things Guillermo Del Toro loved as a kid, the kinds of things we all instinctively find appealing when we’re children before we find out how little sense they make, whether it’s the presence of monsters as tall as skyscrapers when we know that biology can’t just be scaled up like that or the fact that fighting giant monsters with giant robots makes little sense from the perspective of catastrophic destruction and mass casualties. You have to get past those things for Pacific Rim to work, but once you do, once you let your inner child just appreciate what’s happening, you might start noticing just how full of life and thought and consideration the rest of Pacific Rim really is. The thing I appreciated most and the thing that struck me the most with the original Pacific Rim was how reminiscent it was of the things that inspired it while doing its own thing. There’s a reverence and care to the original Pacific Rim that’s all but missing here in Uprising, and they’re all the types of things, some big but many more small and easy to miss, that are naturally lost when you have creators that just don’t get it. Or aren’t as good as those they’re following.
And, to be realistic, it’s not at all a fair comparison to make between a visionary and veteran filmmaker like Guillermo Del Toro and Uprising’s director Steven S. DeKnight, whose previous works are all from TV (including showrunning the, by and large, excellent first season of Netflix’s Daredevil). Unless DeKnight was an absolute freakish talent, there’s just no way he was ever going to live up to Del Toro. In many ways that’s too bad, because compared to most movies of its type, Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t an overall bad movie, but if you’re going to watch Pacific Rim: Uprising with anything approaching fairness, you have to be able separate the two movies at that foundational point, at the directorial level, for the two movies to coexist. And I just can’t do that. But I’ll try to be fair.
So first of all, there’s a difference between stupid and insulting. Pacific Rim: Uprising is stupid in the sense of being built on ideas that don’t make fundamental sense and not trying to be intellectually engaging. On the other hand, movies like those in Michael Bay’s Transformers franchise (which many people incorrectly compare to the PacRim franchise) are stupid too, but unproductively so, insulting to the point that the director’s disdain for Transformers’ audience (and probably most of humanity) comes through far more than any potential entertainment value those movies may also have. Transformers movies are also really hard to follow, both in story and in action scenes, the latter of which is really hard to take considering these are, at their base, action movies. The action scenes are so hard to follow that the visuals lead to sensory overload and the camera work can leave you nauseous. In its favour, Pacific Rim: Uprising shouldn’t make you nauseous. If you just want a decent action movie with Jaegers and Kaijus, it does its job.
But I was pretty much checked out by the movie’s final battle. Unlike the original Pacific Rim, you just don’t get a sense of scale or weight in anything that’s happening. You literally know the Jaegers and Kaijus are big, but they don’t feel like it most of the time. One Jaeger in particular, Sabre, is known for its speed (as was the Jaeger Striker Eureka in the first), but it moves around like an actual ninja, and that diminishes the sense of power and majesty you’re supposed to get in Jaeger-Kaiju battles, reducing the battle to something that could be happening at any size. Things don’t just stay the same when they get bigger, everything changes. Heavy things don’t move as fast. Heavy things land with considerable weight. Especially large people often have heart conditions and shortened lifespans. The original Pacific Rim gave its battles a feeling of almost elemental power and fury and cost. Uprising just makes the Jaegers move like people.
And everything happens in broad daylight too, and that really sucks! It takes a lot away from the movie’s atmosphere, losing the mythic quality that made the original Pacific Rim feel like it meant something. As does assembling so many Jaegers together in one place for one big fight. As does having all of the fights take place within city limits and nowhere near or in the sea. And there’s no good music in this one! I listen to Pacific Rim’s score, by the composer Ramin Djawadi (who’s also worked on Game of Thrones and Westworld), all the time, and it’s not like I’m a movie score guy or anything, it’s just that Pacific Rim’s score kicks ass!
Something I would give you if you’re not that big a fan of the original Pacific Rim is that its characters weren’t very well drawn and none of them received that much of an arc, but I still believed in those characters much more than I did those in Pacific Rim: Uprising. If you added up the component parts of Raleigh’s (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako’s (Rinko Kikuchi) journeys in the original and compared them with what main character Jake Pentacost (John Boyega) gets here, they’re actually pretty comparable, but the lack of the atmosphere created by the original’s visual and aural/symphonic flourishes creates a sort of vacuum in Uprising where these type of shortcomings can’t help but be noticed. We meet far more Jaeger pilots in Uprising than the original, but I can’t name a single one, and there’s a subplot with a younger girl Jaeger pilot (and it’s not a failing because she’s a girl, I’m just pointing that out so you definitely know who I’m talking about) that felt almost wholly unnecessary. There’s a bit of abuse of beloved characters from the original in Uprising as well. Without naming names for fear of spoilers, I’m saddened by the loss of one legacy character in this movie and I am very unhappy with where they left another. I’ve also, so far, found it mostly a bad sign when Scott Eastwood plays one of your movie’s main characters, and here’s he’s a secondary lead. I have nothing against the guy as a person, but I really hope Scott Eastwood isn’t in any more movies, and besides that, I’m sure between his own fledgling career and his father’s that his net worth far oustrips what yours or mine ever will be.
And finally, I just didn’t buy into the “War Ready” theme they were using to try and sell Pacific Rim: Uprising. I never thought of the original as a war either, partially because it’s a movie that lacks essential seriousness, but also because war didn’t inform its narrative and mostly because it felt less like a war and more like an apocalypse. Humanity was dying because giant monsters were killing them. Giant monsters that we, from a certain perspective, kind of loved because they were cool looking and had different ways of fighting the Jaegers. It’s at least from that perspective that we saw both sides of a horrible conflict that was leading to our extinction, albeit a really cool horrible conflict that was leading to our extinction. In Pacific Rim: Uprising, it’s just a bunch of stuff happening all at once after years of peace. That’s a fight. They brought a bunch of fight scenes to a movie ostensibly about a war.
So should I see it?
Pacific Rim is a movie I will defend to the death. Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie I wouldn’t necessarily stop you from seeing. Purely as an action movie, its decent. In a way you could even could look at Pacific Rim: Uprising as a prototype for how to do a Transformers movie right. Pacific Rim: Uprising is ten times the movie that even the best Michael Bay Transformers movie is. Twenty times. Maybe a hundred. But it’s not actually very good and it suffers enormously in comparison to the original. Where Pacific Rim was powerful, Pacific Rim: Uprising is weightless. Where Pacific Rim was authentic, Pacific Rim: Uprising is mechanical. Where Pacific Rim was magical, Pacific Rim: Uprising is pedestrian. Where Pacific Rim was compelling, Pacific Rim: Uprising is whatever. And where Pacific Rim: Uprising may be a hundred times better than any Michael Bay Transformers movie, the original Pacific Rim is thousands of times better than either.
It’s all a matter of degrees, and these are, both the original and this sequel, just movies about giant robots fighting monsters, but ultimately, it comes down to this: Pacific Rim was almost exactly the movie you thought it was going to be, but it was so full of care and attention to detail and it punched up enough that it became something special. Pacific Rim: Uprising is exactly the movie you thought it was going to be. Full stop. There’s not a whole bunch of things wrong with Pacific Rim: Uprising, but it’s utterly average, and it can’t be when everything that made its forebear great was anything but. And for everything Pacific Rim represented to me, and for everything it’s meant to this website, Pacific Rim: Uprising is really kind of heartbreaking.
~shudder~ Is there a draft in here or is that just my soul?
Thom’s Pacific Rim: Uprising final score
On the Edge
- Those poor people of Tokyo! The Pan-Pacific Defense Corps treated the city like it was a playground! What happened to fighting monsters away from civilian populations?
- And I know you’re thinking they did the same thing in the original in the movie’s mid-point fight scene, but it’s only because they had to because they didn’t have a bunch of Jaegers to throw at the Kaijus and keep them away from the city. They, otherwise and wherever possible, tried to battle the Kaijus away from cities.