Moves Like Jaeger
Someone has rescheduled the apocalypse! Although, of course, in this as everything else, getting the timing right is crucial. Take sequels, for instance: just what is the optimum time to release a follow-up to a movie? Conventional wisdom seems to be that a gap of two to three years is best. Much less than that, and you start to risk possible audience fatigue – it seems to me that the imminently forthcoming singleton stellar conflict movie is the subject of rather less febrile anticipation than one might expect, which may be it's been less than six months since the last one (the mixed response to that one may also be an issue). Leave it too long, on the other hand, and you run the risk of audiences (or even the film-makers) forgetting the original movie entirely, which seems to me to be a very real issue that the four – yes, you read that right – planned Avatar sequels will have to deal with (we're still well over two years away from the first of these coming out).
It's nearly five years since the release of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, a film which was reasonably well-reviewed – partly, I suspect, because del Toro is the kind of well-liked director whom critics occasionally indulge – but which didn't exactly make a humungous pile of dough at the time. Nevertheless, possibly because the first film was particularly successful in the important Asian market (hardly surprising, given the whole thing was a love-letter to certain aspects of Japanese pop culture), a sequel has finally clanked into view: Pacific Rim: Uprising, directed by Steven S. DeKnight.
The new film is set ten years after the original, and focuses mainly on Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of one of the characters from first time round. As things get underway, Jake is a bit of a rascal, making a living as a wheeler-dealer in giant robot parts in the lawless areas left devastated by giant monster attacks (the giant robots are also known as jaegers, as I'm sure you recall). However, he and his young friend Amara (Cailee Spaeny) are eventually nabbed by the cops and his foster sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) offers him a stark choice: come back to the giant robot defence programme to help train new pilots, or go to prison. Back to the giant robot defence programme it is, then.
There is inevitably some sparring between Jake and his co-pilot Lambert (Scott Eastwood), and tension between Amara and the other trainees, but then it looks like the current generation of machines will all be decommissioned soon anyway – a Chinese megacorporation is set to unveil a new series of remote-controlled jaegers, although there are still some doubts about this new idea. Soon everyone has bigger worries, however, as a defence council meeting is disrupted by a devastating attack from an unidentified rogue jaeger. But who is behind this new threat, and what is their ultimate objective?
Now, it has to be said that Pacific Rim: Uprising is a movie which an uncharitable person might suggest comes with a couple of strikes against it before we even get to the story. Quite apart from the fact it's taken its time arriving, there is that title, which is perhaps more redolent of a gastric complaint than an all-action sci-fi adventure ('Darling, I hate to say this but I seem to be having a bit of an uprising in my pacific rim' – 'Oh dear, I knew there was something funny about that quinoa that came with our avocado toast'), and also the fact that this is one of those sequels where nearly all the key personnel from the first movie have moved on: Charlie Hunnam couldn't participate, due to his being busy with that bonkers King Arthur film, Rinko Kikuchi's appearance is very brief, Idris Elba does not show up at all (although, to be fair, he was vaporised at the end of the first film), and del Toro limits himself to producing and being a 'visual consultant', presumably because he was busy with his fishy romance while this film was in production. Pretty much the only folk carrying on as before are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as the comedy boffins.
In the place of the departed people, we get DeKnight, whose first movie this is, and Boyega and Eastwood, two actors really best known for playing sidekicks in other, more successful franchises. There are also a bunch of young actors playing jaeger-pilot cadets, whose presence really makes it clear that this film is aimed much more at a YA audience than the first one. So you could be excused for expecting the worst.
However, and I am rather surprised to find myself typing these words, Pacific Rim: Uprising is actually a huge heap of fun, and manages to be one of those rare movies which actually gets better as it goes on. Initially there is a lot of stuff with people talking about drones, and John Boyega cracking wise (I would venture to suggest that I do not think John Boyega is as cool or funny as John Boyega thinks he is, but then I'm not producing the movie), and some slightly sub-Ender's Game stuff with the young cadets, but then the giant robots start bashing lumps out of each other in downtown Sydney and you suddenly remember what this movie is about.
You don't come to Pacific Rim: Uprising for finely-observed characterisation, intense method acting, innovative plotting, or even a story which even makes total sense. You come to this movie for lengthy sequences of enormous robots, monsters, and robot-monster cyborgs repeatedly dinging each other about the head with huge chunks of the nearest skyscraper, and the new movie delivers this in spades. The various battle sequences are at least as good as the ones in the first film, and – rather gloriously – DeKnight breaks with prevailing western film-making dogma and stages most of them in daylight. As a result the whole film looks and feels much more like a traditional Japanese tokusatsu movie, which is surely the point. (The makers of the next couple of American Godzilla movies could learn a lot from this film.)
Set against this, the possible deficiencies in the acting and story department seem to matter a lot less than would otherwise be the case. Most of the acting in this movie consists of running on a treadmill in a plastic Buck Rogers suit while shouting things like 'Activate plasma wrecking ball!', anyway. Honourable exceptions go to Day and Gorman, who chew upon the scenery with gusto, and Eastwood, who has enough of his old man's presence to make an impression in an underwritten part.
On the other hand, there were good things in the first film which just aren't present here: the sense of a wider world, which has adapted in all kinds of odd ways to the reality of kaiju attacks, is largely missing, and that essential vein of weirdness running through everything del Toro creates is mostly gone as well – although there's one scene concerned with a character's personal life that makes The Shape of Water look like a relatively conventional romance, the only moment that really feels like one del Toro had a hand in.
Nevertheless, as pure popcorn blockbusters go, this does what it says on the tin, without feeling crassly formulaic or insulting the intelligence of the audience too much. It manages a decent plot twist at one point, and also manages to do that thing where there's a major Chinese character (thus allowing them to sell the movie over there) without it seeming especially obvious. Does the plot completely hang together? Well, no, but I'm inclined to cut the film some slack, mainly because it is such pure, inoffensive fun. Many American films have dabbled with ideas and themes from Japanese fantasy films before, with varying degrees of success: Pacific Rim: Uprising is the most successful attempt yet at recreating the energy, colour and simple joy of tokusatsu movies and TV in a western movie, and I hope it meets with the success this deserves.