Sometimes it’s hard to explain why something good is so good; why does this one movie work. Other times, you have an example of the same thing executed less well and you’re all “ah, that’s why that one was so good.”
So let’s talk Pacific Rim Uprising, and by extension, the original too. Ostensibly, both Pacific Rim and its sequel are about giant robots fighting giant monsters. What made the first one great, though, was that it was about so much more, about connection, about unity, about hope and idealism. Somehow, in the midst of it all, Uprising doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first.
For one thing, Pacific Rim effortlessly tied together theme with world building. Consider drifting. The mental strain of piloting a Jaeger (one of those giant mecha) is so taxing that you need two people connected by a neural link, a drift, in order for it to work. It makes sense enough in the universe (them’s just the rules) but it also lets the movie explore its theme of connection. You can’t pilot these mechs and save the world by yourself; you gotta be willing to connect with someone else. You can’t fight the monsters alone. In Uprising, drifting is given lip service but never really explored. The movie doesn’t get into drifting or is ramifications the way it could, which is a bit of a bummer given how rich an opportunity it is.
Similarly, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps takes on a more militaristic personality in the sequel. Right off the bat, the PPDC is introduced as doing security and policing, a far cry from the scrappy resistance in the original. As the plot gets going, we see more formality in the ranks, a lotta officers-on-deck and the like. These elements may have been in the background of the original, but, given director Guillermo del Toro’s own pacifistic world view, were never really the focus. Uprising leans further into the paramilitary side of the PPDC, making them more warfighters and less of a resistance. It’s nowhere near as militaristic as, say, Transformers or even Iron Man, but, in light of the original, it’s lost some of its youthful idealism. Even the protagonist’s big speech at the end sounds ripped from a war movie, one that’s of course answered by a chorus of sir-yes-sirs; a far cry from the call to believe in something bigger that was Pentecost’s We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse speech in the first.
I know that’s an unfair comparison; We Are Cancelling The Apocalypse is the best call to arms speech that’s not in Henry V or given at the foot of the Black Gate. But that speech is really the thesis statement of Pacific Rim (check out my old breakdown over here). Pacific Rim unabashedly takes its Jaegers and Kaiju deathly seriously, and has so much fun with it. Uprising, however, keeps one foot on the shore, not quite willing to jump in. Pentecost’s big speech is mentioned, almost in a tongue-in-cheek way, by a few characters. Most telling, though, is that when the Kaiju reappear they are quickly given codenames, as in the first. Where the original acted as if calling a monster Knifehead or Otachi was perfectly normal (not to mention badass), Uprising has a character summarily dismiss the codenames once they’re given. It’s a small thing, but it belies the film’s attitude of being slightly too cool for all this giant monster stuff. And so we lose some of that wholehearted commitment that made the original so special.
Maybe I’m being a little too hard on Uprising. And maybe that’s because I hold the original in such high regard. Maybe it’s also because the movie kept dangling narratives I really like but never explored it. Newcomer Amara is inducted into the Ranger program and trained to be a pilot, but we don’t really go into the whole cadet story, which is a shame, cuz I love those stories (Kingsman, Ender’s Game). Nestled in there too is this multinational team doing stuff (which is my mostest favoritist thing, end of story), but we don’t spend that much time with Amara’s team. And you can’t show me a team consisting of an American girl, Russian girl, Indian dude, Latina, and Chinese guy and then take it away from me.
Were this not the sequel to Pacific Rim I think I’d be a lot more forgiving. It does a buncha things well and does deliver on that sweet sweet giant robot action. The Jaeger’s names are unapologetically awesome (frickin’ Saber Athena) and there is still that multinational bent of the first. But Uprising doesn’t quite have Pacific Rim’s heart, and that’s a damn shame.