"Pacific Rim Uprising" Is Light, Likable Fun

Unburdened from the “event movie” expectations of Guillermo del Toro’s vapid 2013 original, “Pacific Rim Uprising” lands as a refreshingly light and likable clash of titans. Writer-director Steven S. DeKnight (Starz series “Spartacus”) doesn’t have del Toro’s renowned visual touch. What he does have is the sense to refrain from the first film’s airs of grandeur, to indulge the material’s inner Saturday morning cartoon. The result nearly floats off the screen, as bright and fluffy as cotton candy where del Toro’s movie was dark and leaden.

New hero Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) hits the reset button out of the gate via voiceover.

“I am not my father,” he says in reference to the late Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the Jaeger (giant robot) pilot who sacrificed himself in “Pacific Rim” to save the world from the monstrous Kaiju.

When Jake goes on to mock his dead dad’s penchant for “big, dumb speeches,” DeKnight and his three co-writers (Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin) draw their line in the sand. Theirs is an economical, unassuming sci-fi actioner that respects our time if not our intelligence, packing in just as much mayhem as any “Transformers” movie in two-thirds of the time. It’s twenty minutes shorter than its predecessor, to boot.

“Uprising” sees Boyega firmly back in his “Attack The Block” wheelhouse, freed from the “Star Wars” machine that’s tamped down so much of his roguish charm. Jake is an archetype but a durable one; a lovable troublemaker who’s spent the ten years since the first film running from his family legacy, peddling black market Jaeger parts in a dystopian Los Angeles. He’s running still, only roped back into service as a pilot by his adoptive sister and Pan-Pacific Defense Corps officer Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). When arrested for his crimes, she generously offers him work instead of jail time.

Newcomer Cailee Spaeny co-stars as Amara, a young, equally brash but brilliant Jaeger pilot in the making whom Jake takes under his wing. Together with Jake’s former co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood), they represent a new generation of first-line defenders, not to mention a youth-skewing shift in the series’ target audience. Before long, Jake and company are called into action. Rogue Jaeger drones developed by the shady Shao Corporation have begun wreaking worldwide havoc.

In addition to Kikuchi’s brief reprisal of Mako Mori, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman return from del Toro’s film. Day’s scatterbrained Dr. Newton “Newt” Geiszler is working under Shao Corporation boss Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), doing the company’s seemingly evil bidding with little hesitation. Meanwhile, Gorman’s Dr. Hermann Gottlieb attempts to talk some sense into his old friend but gains little traction against the power enveloping him. While not the comic scene-stealers here they were in the first go-round, Day and Gorman remain welcome presences, mascots for the pic’s irreverent streak.

Acts one and two admittedly suffer from some generic Jaeger versus Jaeger action, but the Kaiju return in a big and surprising way. The final forty minutes, crucially set in the daytime, are a rush of robot-on-monster destruction. DeKnight keeps us from getting lost in the clanging metal and booming explosions by continually giving us a sense of scale (the human characters are always central to the action, which helps), and the computer-generated imagery is more convincing than most.

The constant is Boyega, who is a delight throughout. Pre-teens especially should thrill to the pic’s relatively young cast and brisk pacing. Save for a few harrowing moments, it’s a superior source of kid-friendly fun to last year’s “Power Rangers.” This fleetness is why “Uprising” succeeds. It only aspires to be modest popcorn entertainment, happily estranged offspring from a lumbering wannabe epic.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 23, 2018
Studio: Legendary Pictures, Universal Pictures
Director: Steven S. DeKnight
Screenwriters: Emily Carmichael, Steven S. DeKnight, T.S. Nowlin, Kira Snyder
Starring: John Boyega, Scott Eastwood, Cailee Spaeny, Rinko Kikuchi, Jing Tian, Burn Gorman, Adria Arjona, Charlie Day
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and some language)