Celebrated as he is, Guillermo del Toro has a certain reputation of announcing intriguing projects that, from a studio executive’s perspective, sound as though they’re constantly toeing the line of financial viability. Perhaps unbelievably, there’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to each film he’s announced his attachment to that has either gone into development hell or fallen through entirely. Given his noted love of genre history and incorporation of various aesthetics, motifs and references from classic examples into his own productions, the fan’s perspective is one always brimming with excitement not only because of his quality as a filmmaker, but also the genuine passion conveyed in his attention to detail and loving intertwining of familiar elements with the beautifully unfamiliar.
Merely judging his resumé of could-have-beens, it’s clear he’s not only a fan of cinema and an expansive array of pop culture, but also he’s commendably persistent in his drive, using the form to pay reverence to generations and genres that inspired him as if it were his life’s purpose and responsibility as a product of his predecessors. There isn’t much other reason as to why Pacific Rim has been positioned by a vocal few as a stalwart of modern spectacle film, considering its relative failure to leave much of an impact on domestic moviegoers in that summer of 2013. On its surface, and perhaps in its aftermath to some, his and Travis Beachem’s film never seemed much more than an assembly-line studio summer flick, stuffed with slick CG and gargantuan set-pieces carefully spliced into the story at the right intervals. It was indeed a big, dumb fun monster movie, but one with a palatable nerdiness for ‘50s and ‘60s Toho kaiju B-movies and otaku culture that quietly inverted such facile fare into intelligent, guilt-free amusement.
So, of course it was disheartening when del Toro announced that not only had he left the director’s chair for the sequel, but also that Universal/Legendary wouldn’t be using his and Zak Penn’s script – technically, yet another entry to his growing list. Nevertheless, the reasons why the original found an ardent fanbase, small as it may be, were still presumably accessible knowledge, and excitement for a new installment was tempered, but modestly hopeful. Not only have the hands responsible for Pacific Rim: Uprising demonstrated a sorry lack of understanding as to why the first film was beloved, however, it’s as though they were additionally ashamed of its origins, reducing nearly every character, line of dialogue, set-piece, etc. to throwaway puzzle pieces fitting only the blandest and most creatively immobile blockbuster halfwits.
To be fair, Uprising is in many ways the bigger, dumber sequel that was anticipated, but with less of an unrestrained genre framework partially carrying the movie forward and instead a continued insistence on blockbuster conventions and mechanical storytelling, it comes across less sincere and more cynical. With a modestly scaled-back production budget of $150 million compared to the original’s $190 million, the context behind this move has morphed from just being a company (Legendary) looking to avoid yet another box office embarrassment to additionally said company scrapping Pacific Rim’s infectious weirdness and particular emotional cues in favor of broader, more soulless entertainment. Not to mention some unnecessary retconning of remaining protagonists from the first film and antagonist mythology proves a baffling reinvention of this IP into uninspired franchise material.
Though perhaps the most important reason why the first film worked at all, aside from del Toro efficiently performing his usual homage aesthetic at a high-budget level, was because it had the basic, yet effective character relationships, motivations and thematic strength to support the scenes in between the intermittent noisiness. The concept of a ‘neural handshake,’ of two characters from even vastly disparate worlds psychologically becoming one with one another, is arguably a greater narrative force than the need for infrequent one-on-one robot vs. kaiju combat not just because we can emotionally invest in the characters as they invest in one another, but also as it contributes to a prideful, even utopian view of global cooperation. At a certain point, kaiju films themselves had transcended their domestic Japanese roots and pervaded many a nation’s popular culture, signified by the greater connectivity of the multinational and multiethnic cast of del Toro’s film collectively striving toward victory against otherworldly beings.
Uprising doesn’t waste any time refreshing your memory and instead gets down to business with its new story and characters, though while that might ordinarily signal a moment of praise for a film with full knowledge of its identity, we aren’t granted that same connection as in the first film. The primary Jaeger team this time around – Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood) – is merely introduced as already having a history that is neither fleshed out for the audience to understand and engage in, nor is developed as a means of integration with the storytelling. They simply possess a chemistry we are supposed to buy into without a shred of evidence supporting it. And when the characters do converse with one another, it is merely with bare bones dialogue whose only intent is moving the plot forward, concealing its numbing crawl, and forced attempts at casual humor that might have worked had the writers cared enough to give their relationship a more prominent role.
An additional odd-couple partnership woven into the narrative concerning Pentecost and feature film debutant Cailee Spaeny’s Amara Namani is similarly superficial by way of character exploration, and their rushed development from rival petty thieves to dynamic mentor-prodigy tag team seems crammed amidst various protagonist dynamics and requisite blockbuster sequel inanity. Much of the film itself, not just this particular relationship, seems as though it’s missing some vital scenes cut for the sake of brevity, creating only delirious confusion, and even the original film’s subtle ode to international synergy seems lost on the cutting floor. Though Uprising’s opening few minutes do provide some scant promise that the film won’t shy away from political undertones – particularly with regard to Western exceptionalism and trivialization of affairs outside of their respectiveimmediate domestic spheres – it’s never fully incorporated into how we understand the characters, particular Boyega’s Pentecost, further on, left as a passing thought.
Perhaps the Jaegers featured in both films are an astute representation of everything Uprising is; a sleek exterior failing to mask the entire apparatus’s clumsy movement and construction. From disinterested performances – though perhaps not Burn Gorman’s reprisal of Dr. Gottlieb – to choppy narrative progression and everything in between, this flick is the epitome of justified, though narrow-minded sequel bashing. The domestic numbers may suggest a franchise destined for the bin, but continued international support, particularly in the Chinese markets ensuring the first film didn’t perform any worse, just may keep afloat a series that has all but forgotten its unabashed genre roots. In what world does it make sense for a new entry into a franchise predicated on futuristic alien vs. tech fisticuffs to wait until the climax for the first taste of such action?
Like The Great Wall, another Legendary Pictures product while the company is a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group, Uprising’s existence reeks more of strategic soft power political advancement than of making a film fans of the original will find satisfactory – or even just making a competent one. Pride, passion, these things we hope to extract from movies and attach to their creators are nonexistent here, though the evidence shows this film’s particular crew didn’t need outside political influence to sway them away from creativity. All it takes is a paycheck and a deadline, and hopefully fence-sitting consumers will resist throwing away a fraction of their own salaries on this film.