If you could hear anything over the extraordinary din of clashing robots and monsters in 2013’s “Pacific Rim,” you might have made out the sound of the heroic fighter Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) bellowing the movie’s signature line: “Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”
Alas, he also wound up canceling himself, sacrificing his life to save Earth from being destroyed by mammoth Kaiju invaders. That explains his sad absence from “Pacific Rim Uprising,” a bland, efficient, cheerfully witless sequel in which the apocalypse turns out not to have been canceled, just postponed.
Elba isn’t the only “Pacific Rim” original sitting this one out, though the others are gone for less obvious reasons. Also nowhere to be seen are Charlie Hunnam (shrug), Ron Perlman (wha?) and Guillermo del Toro (damn). OK, that’s not entirely true: Del Toro, the irrepressible creative force behind the first movie, is credited as a producer here. But the directing reins have fallen to Steven S. DeKnight, who is best known for creating the sandals-and-soft-core TV series “Spartacus,” and who parlays his talents here into a veritable orgy of metal-humping destruction.
DeKnight may not have Del Toro’s exuberant way with genre or his exquisite visual imagination, talents that recently won him an Oscar for directing “The Shape of Water.” All in all, that may actually be a good thing. “Pacific Rim,” or what I remember of it, struck me as Del Toro’s loudest, clunkiest and least essential picture, if also one of his most passionately felt. It was a B-movie bliss-out for those who approached or exceeded the director’s own level of monster-movie fandom, but for this viewer, it was also a rare example of Del Toro’s intensely personal connection to the material failing to translate into a commensurate level of audience engagement.
“Pacific Rim Uprising,” written by DeKnight, Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder and T.S. Nowlin, is an unquestionably dumber, slighter, less fully realized piece of work than its predecessor. It is also 22 minutes shorter and, though no less committed to an aesthetic of shattered glass and pulverized steel, a rather more endurable experience on the whole. Putting DeKnight at the helm hasn’t degraded the enterprise; if anything, it has put the enterprise, glorified demolition derby that it is, into proper perspective.
That’s not to say there aren’t useful distinctions to be drawn between the “Pacific Rim” movies and, say, the “Transformers” franchise. There certainly are, just as there are useful distinctions to be drawn between a dull migraine and death by bludgeoning. But as numerous impassioned fans and tenured mecha scholars are surely ready to remind me, a more relevant comparison might be drawn to a Japanese anime series like “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” whose human-piloted biomechanical robots are a clear conceptual influence on their “Pacific Rim” counterparts.
Those giant robots, which are called Jaegers and steered by two pilots in psychic tandem, have mostly been laid to rest when “Uprising” opens, 10 years after the first movie’s cataclysmic events. The volcanic breach that once brought forth a horde of Kaiju from the ocean floor has been permanently sealed, and most of the Jaegers have been deactivated and stripped down for parts by black-market thieves.
One of the wiliest scavengers is Stacker Pentecost’s strong-willed son, Jake (John Boyega), who soon crosses paths with Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a spirited teenage tech whiz with a knack for building unauthorized Jaegers from spare parts. After they take one robot out for a spin, yielding a quick taste of the city-leveling action to come, Jake and Amara are picked up and sent to a Chinese military base to join the Pan Pacific Defense Corps’ still-active Jaeger program, which is on the lookout for any renewed Kaiju activity.
This turns out to be a homecoming of sorts for Jake, now leading a team of young pilot cadets with his ornery former partner, Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). Amara, meanwhile, becomes a junior cadet and learns the difficult art of steering a Jaeger by entering “the Drift,” a zone of intense cognitive and emotional communion with her co-pilot and the robot. There is something intensely poetic about the notion of man and machine temporarily fusing nerve endings, and as in the first film, the psychic bond between pilots allows for some handy expository flashbacks, in this case touching on Amara’s traumatic past.
But “Pacific Rim Uprising” has little time for tragedy or psychology, let alone poetry. Its characters speak a brisk, familiar movie language that consists almost exclusively of fanciful scientific jargon and snappy military trash talk. And it lingers on the beautiful skylines of Sydney and Tokyo only as long as it takes for those skylines to be demolished by a force of renegade Jaegers.
There are moments when the action pauses to let you appreciate Boyega’s wisecracking charisma, Eastwood’s exquisite woodenness and the soulful emoting of a few painfully violated skyscrapers. But like any no-nonsense, self-respecting monster-apocalypse movie, this one is less interested in developing its characters than in sending them and various terrified extras running in all directions.
Some of those characters are new, including Liwen Shao (Jing Tian), the head of a powerful multinational company that threatens to replace the Jaeger program with a powerful new drone system. (Her true objective, of course, is to maximize “Uprising’s” appeal at the Chinese box office.) Others are back for a second tour of duty, including Rinko Kikuchi, briefly passing through as Jaeger ex-pilot Mako Mori, and the excitable duo of Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as two scientists whose Kaiju-centric research sets up the movie’s one genuinely intriguing twist.
What exactly is the nature of the Kaiju uprising? For that matter, will the drones render the Jaegers obsolete? Will Amara and her fellow cadets save the day? Will Earth survive to see another “Pacific Rim” sequel? If you are troubled by these questions, this movie may not be for you. I’ll admit, it isn’t really for me. But at its clunky, noisy, gleefully rock-’em-sock-’em best, it just about convinces you that it’s for somebody.
‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’
Rating: PG-13, for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and brief language
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes
Playing: In general release