“Pacific Rim Uprising” is not a particularly successful or engaging film, but not because it's about giant robots battling huge monsters. In fact, to a lot of kids who, like me, grew up with Ray Harryhausen movies, “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot,” and Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, there is something innately appealing about the industrial age-meets-retrofuturistic aesthetic of the mechanical colossus. Time and again, in comics and serials, manga and tokusatsu, giant robots have figured as heroes and villains, invaders and defenders, battling each other or battling skyscraper-tall monstrosities.
Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 “Pacific Rim” was a love-letter to the genre with CG animation replacing Toho Studio's rubber-suited actors trampling miniature sets. Not surprisingly, del Toro also brought along plenty of backstory, including a dimensional fissure at the bottom of the ocean as the source of the bizarre creatures, or kaiju, and military robots, called jaegers, so large that two humans are needed—mentally synched by means of a delicate neural link called the Drift --to operate the virtual controls from inside.
The result featured plenty of jaeger-on-kaiju battles amid moody, tempest-tossed seas and Idris Elba as the preposterously named Stacker Pentecost, heroically sacrificing his life to "cancel the apocalypse." While certainly not without problems, Pacific Rim went a long way toward satisfying that inner 12-year-old in the au8dience. And it dangled interesting ideas such as The Drift for viewers to walk away with.
del Toro stepped back to a producer role for the sequel, and as directed Steven S. DeKnight, best known as creator of the Starz series "Spartacus" and show-runner for Netflix's "Daredevil" series, “Pacific Rim Uprising” feels as though the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the original film have been stripped away until all that is left is a generic blockbuster more akin to Michael Bay's Transformer films than del Toro's vision.
The moody, mythic sea battles of its predecessor have been replaced by the sharp sunlit delineation of unsullied pixels, granting these behemoths all the weight of piñatas. Hell, the robots hardly even tangle with kaiju anyway, devoting most of their energy to battling new drone jaegers gone rogue.
With a couple of exceptions, the characters exude about as much personality as the bots. Drawing on the militaristic fetishism of Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, minus the irony, DeKnight and fellow screenwriters Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, and T.S. Nowlin portray the aspirational vision of a world defense corps that represents all races and nationalities, then rely on the broadest stereotypes for personalities.
Only two characters avoid this two-dimensional treatment, and that, solely on the strength of the performances. John Boyega appears as Jake Pentecost, son of the man who saved the world 10 years earlier, now surviving by stealing and selling black market jaeger tech. Boyega brings to Jake much of the same charm he brought to Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Cailee Spaeny, too, rises above script cliches as a young girl orphaned by the Battle of the Breach who grows up fast when she is drafted into the Pan Pacific Defense Corp. Faring less well is Scott Eastwood, son of Clint, who offers little more than his daddy's squint and jawline to delineate his character.
There is a simple core pleasure to the spectacle of giant monsters and robots. Retooling it to satisfy the demands of the blockbuster franchise seems to have stripped it of that inherent magic, leaving only a loud, empty machine of a film.