'Pacific Rim Uprising' Review: At First It's Dull, And Then It's Kind Of Amazing

Somewhere around the halfway mark of director Steven S. DeKnight's Pacific Rim Uprising, my groans of exasperation turned into gasps of delight. I can pinpoint the exact moment in which my opinion of the movie changed, but so as not to spoil what is genuinely one of the strangest scenes in a blockbuster in recent memory, let me just say that once Pacific Rim Uprising really starts drinking its own Kool-Aid, it's an absolute joy. Given the visually and narratively incoherent mess that is the Transformers franchise (the closest thing that Pacific Rim has to a genre competitor except perhaps Power Rangers), I'd call it a feat. It's just a wonder that the Toei Animation logo isn't slapped all over it.

But, for fans and detractors of the first Pacific Rim alike, the first half of the sequel will be a steep uphill battle. It feels like the intro sequences of several different pilot episodes cobbled together, i.e. dispiritingly heavy on exposition. There's a lot of, "You're that guy! Related to that other guy! Who did that thing! With the other guy!" And it gets old very quickly.

It doesn't help that the two main characters are extremely broadly sketched. As Jake Pentecost (as in the son of Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost— okay, see what I mean?), John Boyega fares the best because he's one of the most — if not the most — innately winning performer working today. Jake is, of course, attempting to buck his father's shadow by distancing himself from it, partying non-stop instead of going into the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps. When he comes across Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a fellow orphan who's built herself a one-woman jaeger, he's drawn back into the world of giant robots and monsters, with his adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, reprising her role from the first film) giving him the final necessary push.

Spaeny is a bright, natural performer, but the script has saddled her character — who should be interesting given the fact that she built an entire robot from scratch — with the most boring, generic "spunky" personality possible. Still, she hasn't drawn the shortest straw. That's left to Scott Eastwood, who has yet to prove that he's not a charisma black hole, as one of Jake's friends, and Adria Arjona, who seems to be in the movie just to provide a glimmer of romantic interest.

They seem especially pale in comparison to Jing Tian as Liwen Shao, a ruthless businesswoman who seems poised on the cusp of villainy. Tian, last seen stateside in The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island, is the polar opposite of Scott Eastwood in terms of what happens when she appears on screen. With Kikuchi and Zhang Jin in her entourage, she's operating a charm offensive as effective as Boyega's — and she's got a wardrobe change for each scene to boot.

I'd be remiss, of course, not to mention the two biggest returning players. (Yes, Kikuchi's back, but just barely.) As bickering scientists Newt Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman were a delight in the first Pacific Rim, and by virtue of how odd their characters naturally are, they're a delight in Uprising, too. They're also given much more to do, to the point that it's one of Newt's decisions that propels the entire film, and Gottlieb gets something of a hero moment near the end of the second act. It's just a pity that they aren't given more to do, as Uprising is at its best when leaning into the bizarre, and who better to shepherd us into that territory than the most eccentric characters in the franchise?

But, I suppose, that would leave us with less time to enjoy the sight of giant robots and giant monsters pummeling the crap out of each other. With each jaeger and each kaiju color-coded, the fights are easier to follow than most instances of blockbuster mass destruction. The colors also lend the proceedings a decidedly cartoonish feel, and represent exactly the kind of abandon that, if anything, Uprising could use more of. For better or for worse, a film is generally more enjoyable if it commits fully to a bit. And Uprising's bit is a gleeful sort of childish idiocy, which I mean as fondly as possible. It's a Saturday morning cartoon movie, and, frankly, I don't mind it. No, Uprising isn't going to win an Oscar, but I can't think of the last time that I was so delighted in a screening for a new movie.

It's really just the first chunk of the movie that makes it difficult to recommend. If there were some way to excise all of that exposition, Uprising would easily be in the running to end up as one of my favorite movies of the year. As things stand, its ridiculous back half just balances out the boring first, leaving us with a movie that's not bad as far as blockbusters go (it's certainly more interesting than most of what was in theaters this past summer), if not necessarily a must-see ticket. I can't say, either, that I think this is a franchise that really warranted having a sequel, but I'm happy enough that it got made. That said, unless the third film is Pacific Rim: A Hermann Gottlieb Story, my interest may be at its limit. Jaeger-bots, roll out.

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10