Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) ***

     When Mao Zedong died in 1976, the People’s Republic of China was the Third-Worldiest of Second World nations. Under his successors, however, it has risen steadily in wealth, power, influence, and prestige, to the point that it is now poised to assume the Soviet Union’s long-vacant position as the Other Superpower. The post-Mao Chinese leadership accomplished that transformation by abandoning agrarian communism in all but name, replacing it a piece at a time with a new system that combines a command economy with capitalist consumerism and financing machinery. Retention of state control has helped China de-communize without allowing the economy to fall entirely into the hands of gangsters and black marketers the way it did in most of the USSR’s successor states, with the result that the country’s new wealth has been distributed less dysfunctionally. Meanwhile, the increasingly misnamed Communist Party has kept the proliferating middle class relatively content by easing off on the worst excesses of Mao’s tyranny. Now before anyone accuses me of stumping for Deng Xiaoping and the constellations of Chinese leaders that followed him, let me emphasize that when your “worst excesses” include artificially engineering famines and sending educators and intellectuals to death camps en masse, you’ve got plenty of room to ease off while still remaining tyrants. Indeed, that’s the whole point. Coming after Mao and the Gang of Four, Deng could roll the tanks through Tiananmen Square while still plausibly claiming to be an improvement over those other guys. In any case, the rise of a substantial Chinese middle class, enjoying an ever-closer approximation of the Western lifestyle, has turned China into perhaps the world’s most attractive commercial market. There aren’t many places, after all, where one might credibly hope to sell a billion of something. Among the things that Chinese consumers now buy in unprecedented quantity are movie tickets and DVDs, which places the Hollywood studios in a similarly unprecedented position. For the first time, there’s at least as much money to be made overseas as at home, and for the first time, a single country accounts for the lion’s share of those potential foreign sales. For the first time, in other words, it might make sense to cater to foreign tastes over domestic ones.

     That brings us to Pacific Rim. If you consider only the US market, Pacific Rim was a flop. It grossed just a bit more than half of the money that was spent on it, and although DVD sales could probably be counted on to make up the difference, negative $88 million isn’t a number that any accountant or executive ever wants to hear. Ten years earlier, that would have been the end of the story. In 2013, though, domestic performance was no longer any approximation of the bottom line, and while Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to kaiju eiga and 70’s anime didn’t click with American audiences, the Chinese loved it. Legendary Pictures and DDY therefore had a decision to make. Was Pacific Rim’s performance in the PRC sufficient basis on which to make the gamble of producing a sequel? Ultimately they decided that it was; now we’ll see how the gamble pays off.

     It’s been several years since Marshal Stacker Pentecost led the last, heroic remnant of his Jaeger Corps on a virtual suicide mission to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in order to close the Breach, the rip in the fabric of reality through which giant monsters called kaiju used to invade our world on a hideously regular basis. Nobody has seen a live kaiju in all that time, but the discovery that the monsters were being controlled by aliens bent on conquering the Earth has made for a more vigilant and heavily armed peace than follows most humans-vs.-humans conflicts. The Jaeger Corps has been rebuilt stronger than ever, and new technologies are in the works with an eye toward decreasing the giant robots’ deployment time. Meanwhile, in cities that never quite recovered from their turns as theaters of the Kaiju War, a subculture of do-it-yourself Jaeger enthusiasts has arisen. These latter-day hot-rodders plunder the immovable carcasses of fallen Jaegers for parts with which to build their own mechanical titans. It’s illegal, naturally, but the Jaeger-builders are tolerated to some extent because of their usefulness as a recruiting pool; the standard punishment for operating an unauthorized Jaeger seems to be getting drafted into the Jaeger Corps for a stint driving, building, or maintaining the real thing.

     If there are people who build their own mini-Jaegers out of garbage, it stands to reason that there must be others who specialize in finding the best and most sought-after parts. One of those junk scouts is a lad by the name of Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, from Attack the Block and Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Yes, that would be the son of the late marshal. Jake had been a Jaeger pilot himself once upon a time, but he was a loose cannon, and his own dad expelled him from the service. When we meet him, Pentecost the Younger is on the trail of a rare component indeed, an element of the Jaeger power system, at the behest of a rough customer called Sonny (Nick C. Tarabay, of Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Veil). But unbeknownst to either man, they’ve got a rival in the form of teenaged Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). She’s ahead of Jake, too, which puts him in serious trouble with Sonny. Jake’s efforts to steal the gizmo from Amara’s junkyard laboratory accomplish nothing but to place him at the scene when the girl fires up her homemade mini-Jaeger, Scrapper, and immediately runs afoul of a police Jaeger. Jake thus winds up getting arrested right along with her.

     Jake has just a little bit of luck on his side, however, because he’s remained close friends all these years with his foster sister, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi again). Mako in turn is a trusted advisor to Marshal Quan (Max Zhang Jin, from Rise of the Legend and Undiscovered Tomb), the new head of the Jaeger Corps. She’s able to pull a few strings to keep Jake out of jail— provided that he return to the Corps for a stint training new recruits. That’ll mean working alongside his old rival, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood, of Enter Nowhere and Texas Chainsaw 3-D), but better that than a detention cell. Besides, one of the recruits for whom Jake will be responsible is Amara, and despite the circumstances under which he made her acquaintance, Jake kind of likes the kid.

     Pacific Rim: Uprising unabashedly subscribes to the “make exactly the same movie over again” theory of sequel production, so obviously there has to be an internal threat to the Jaeger program analogous to the first film’s Pacific Wall. This time it’s not the Jaegers that are facing replacement, but their pilots. Everyone agrees that the main weakness of the Jaeger concept is the time it takes to deploy the robots in response to a kaiju sighting. Dr. Herrmann Gottlieb (a returning Burn Gorman), the Jaeger Corps’s top in-house scientist, has been tinkering with a system of giant booster rockets fueled with kaiju blood, enabling the Jaegers to arrive where they’re needed in a fraction of the time required by the current heavy-lift helicopters, but his idea still has all kinds of kinks to work out. In the meantime, Gottlieb’s former partner, Dr. Newton Geiszler (a similarly returning Charlie Day)— who now works for Shao Industries, the Jaeger program’s lead contractor in the private sector— has been working on a different approach. Geiszler has convinced his boss, the eponymous Shao Li Wen (Tian Jing, from Kong: Skull Island and The Great Wall), to put the full resources of her company behind a new generation of remotely controlled drone Jaegers, which could be stationed at every potential target site around the globe without sacrificing the advantages of centralized command and coordination. The current pilots hate the idea, of course. Apart from the obvious sting to their warrior pride, they worry about the possibility of the drones’ control channel being blocked or pirated or otherwise interfered with. They’re right to be concerned, too. Geiszler, never cover-model material for Modern Normality Magazine on his best day, was sent right round the bend by all that mind-melding he did with kaiju brains in the last movie. The monsters’ masters are in his head all the time nowadays, and his drone Jaegers are secretly the cover for a plan to open up a hundred new Breaches, putting the Earth at the mercy of an unbeatable army of kaiju.

     I fully expect Pacific Rim: Uprising to outperform its predecessor, and to earn without undue difficulty the further sequel promised in the final scene. That isn’t because Uprising is better, but rather because its ambitions are more plausible, and more easily understood by the general audience. The original Pacific Rim was dedicated to the eccentric and arguably dubious premise that it was possible to make personally meaningful art while also paying homage to Japanese monster movies and super-robot anime of the 1970’s. This movie, on the other hand, is dedicated to the premise that giant robots punching giant monsters in the face are TOTALLY AWESOME. The difference is subtle in practice, but important. The sequel lacks the strange note of melancholy that tied its predecessor to the rest of Guillermo del Toro’s work as a director. It never gets temporarily sidetracked poking its head into the weirder corners of its fictional world, nor does it ever allow itself to be seduced by the majesty of the kaiju. Its lead characters are scrappy underdogs rather than doomed titans, a new generation receiving its baptism by fire instead of the last survivors of the heroes of old, reuniting to go down in a blaze of desperate, final glory. These differences render Pacific Rim: Uprising more ordinary than the original, but also more accessible.

     It’s more tightly structured, too, and in that respect if no other, Pacific Rim: Uprising genuinely is superior to Pacific Rim. The aliens’ initial strategy— throw monsters at us one and two at a time until we run out of Jaegers to fight them— guaranteed that the first film would be episodic in the extreme, with little dramatic escalation except in the form of bigger and deadlier kaiju. In the sequel, however, the return of the kaiju is itself an escalation which most of the characters are moving heaven and earth to forestall. Before we even get to that point, there’s a mysterious rogue Jaeger, hints of a treasonous conspiracy within Shao Industries, the revelation that Geiszler is even crazier than we thought (and if I may be allowed one last swipe at The Shape of Water, I had no trouble at all buying Geiszler as the kind of guy who has mind-sex on the regular with the undead basal ganglia of a kaiju’s auxiliary ass-brain), and a mass attack by monsters corrupted from Shao’s drone Jaeger army. The broader variety of threats and enemies does wonders for preventing Pacific Rim: Uprising from feeling like more of the same, even as it goes out of its way to be exactly that in so many other respects. It’s a bit like how the 2016 “Voltron” reboot is a better show for not featuring a Robeast in every single episode. When the kaiju do reappear at last, there’s a palpable sense of “Oh, shit— now it’s on!”

 

 

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