'Pacific Rim Uprising' sinks without Guillermo del Toro

Spoiler-free review: The sequel to "Pacific Rim" suffers from the absence of its original director, who left to create "The Shape of Water."

Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset
Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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Jennifer Bisset
3 min read
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"Pacific Rim Uprising" might become known as the movie Guillermo del Toro didn't direct.

Del Toro, who helmed the original "Pacific Rim" in 2013, handed the baton to the relatively inexperienced Steven S. DeKnight to work on a little passion project known as "The Shape of Water". It was a wise choice for del Toro, whose movie won four Oscars earlier this month including Best Picture and Best Director. It may not have been a great choice for the "Pacific Rim" franchise.

Aficionados of classic Godzilla movies not only appreciated the original, but the film also introduced the monster vs. robot genre to a new generation. "Pacific Rim Uprising" focuses more on flaunting in-demand John Boyega to a young, Finn-loving audience. Yes, "Uprising" is a big, fun blockbuster, but so was its predecessor, which seems like a Hokusai masterpiece next to this comic strip.


John Boyega is one of the best things about the sequel.

NBC Universal

These days, the incredible Jaeger robot tech is mainly used for policing petty criminals. Earth's previous enemy, the Kaiju -- scaly sea creatures indistinguishable from any other reptilian-inspired threat in cinematic history -- were all squashed 10 years back in the first Kaiju War.

But, of course, the dust is kicked up again. Not only do the plucky Jaeger pilots face a bigger and uglier incarnation of Kaiju, but also rogue mecha, aka robots.


Those buildings won't be standing for long.

NBC Universal

This is DeKnight's first foray in the director's chair, after showrunning the inaugural season of "Daredevil" in 2014 and the gladiator series "Spartacus" from 2010 to 2013. He certainly knows how to work the hero arc. Jake Pentecost (Boyega) is an aimless playboy criminal whose father, Stacker (Idris Elba), fought in the previous war. Amara (Cailee Spaeny) is a teenage junkyard mechanic who earns a place in the Jaeger Academy with her mecha-making talent. They've all got issues to resolve and points to prove.

A commendably diverse cast helped "Pacific Rim" find huge success outside the US, particularly in China. Such casting continues, with more main and supporting roles for Japanese, Chinese and Latin American actors, placing "Uprising" alongside "A Wrinkle in Time", "Annihilation" and "Black Panther".


First-time director Steven S. DeKnight (right) with stars John Boyega and Scott Eastwood.

Jasin Boland

Leading that cast, Boyega brings his charm, making him a cheekier hero over previous lead Charlie Hunnam, who left due to scheduling clashes. As Jake reluctantly steps into his estranged father's shoes, he inevitably learns honour and how to play nice with others, including Nate (Scott Eastwood), another officer in the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Nate has no personality of note --  except, maybe, for one of the weirder developments: a rushed and highly unnecessary love triangle with mechanic Jules (Adria Arjona).

With only a rare moment digging up Amara's past trauma, it's hard to properly care about the youngest of the heroes. She seems to be there solely to tap the "Percy Jackson", "Ender's Game" and even "The Force Awakens" crowd. The handful of returning characters like Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day), Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) either don't have much to do or change in unexpected ways.

A minor mystery has Jake and Amara nosing around a Chinese company's development of pilotless Jaegers. But the mystery is solved almost as quickly as casting gave Boyega the lead.

Unavoidably, comparisons with del Toro stack up. Del Toro has a producing credit, but "The Shape of Water" seems to have made that influence minor. Gone are the epic fight scenes with animated rain crashing off Kaiju scales like "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa" painting it lovingly draws from. Gone, too, is the epic guitar-driven Ramin Djawadi score. (He's one of the best modern composers, with "Game of Thrones" cred.)

Instead, Gipsy Avenger and its fellow robots give a lifeless back-and-forth exchange of scrappy metal punches. Buildings go down. Armour chinks. Rinse and repeat.

Once you orient yourself to the breakneck breeziness of "Pacific Rim Uprising" and the one-liners start to draw a smile, there's some fun to be had. But it's a huge step down.

"Pacific Rim Uprising" reaches cinemas March 23 in the US and the UK, and March 22 in Australia.

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