Any child watching the animated giant robot shows “Mazinger Z” in 1972, “Mobile Suit Gundam” in 1979, “Voltron: Defender of the Universe” in 1984 and “Robotech” in 1985 dreamt of the day he or she could watch live-action versions of these metal creations—mecha—on the screen.
That was fulfilled when the now-Academy Award winning director Guillermo del Toro brought “Pacific Rim” to cinematic life in 2013. In the film, the Earth has come under attack by monsters known as Kaiju and humans must fight back with colossal fighting machines known as Jaegers. At the end of the film, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (PPDC) and its Rangers sacrifice almost everything to seal the Breach at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, ending the Kaiju invasion. Or so we all thought.
While it featured giant robots, the excellent “Pacific Rim” really skewed more toward the genre of real robot, where the machines were just machines and the pilots bled, sweated and died. “Gundam,” the saga where pilots are killed and machines destroyed on a regular basis, is the best example of the real robot subgenre. The different iterations of “Robotech” also fulfill these requirements. “Pacific Rim” is more Del Toro’s love letter to both mecha and Kaiju, but is not actually a mecha or Kaiju film. It’s a nuts-and-bolts, smoke-and-mirrors reflection of those genres.
Now comes “Pacific Rim Uprising,” ostensibly a sequel to the first, but really a totally different film in terms of tone and direction. Del Toro is a producer, but the film is directed by Steven S. DeKnight (Netflix’s “Daredevil”).
It is 10 years after the closure of the Breach. The PPDC is searching for cadets to pilot the Jaegers. Enter Jake Pentecost (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens’” John Boyega), a failed Jaeger pilot and the son of one of the first film’s heroes, Marshall Stacker Pentecost. To stay out of jail, Jake has been recruited by PPDC Secretary General Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, reprising her “Pacific Rim” role)—she is also Jake’s adoptive sister—to help train the generation of would-be Rangers.
At the Moyulan Shatterdome (the very coolly-named PPDC bases), Jake meets his co-instructor, his former copilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood). The two must put aside their differences to properly train the cadets, led by spunky girl genius Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny). The program itself is in danger of cancellation because of the Jaeger drone program being developed by the shadowy Shao Industries and its enigmatic leader, Liwen Shao (Jing Tian). What are they really up to?
The Jaeger formerly known as Gipsy Danger—now dubbed Gipsy Avenger and piloted by Jake and Nate—is assigned to be the honor guard at the 10-year anniversary celebration of the Breach closure in Melbourne. What was supposed to be a cushy assignment gets real quickly as Gipsy and the city get trashed by a mysterious Jaeger that vanishes as quickly as it came. The new Jaeger is codenamed Obsidian Fury (of course it is).
Kaijus are back
Everything then gets thrown into a new war: Someone has brought the Kaijus back. The undermanned PPDC send the cadets out in the remaining Jaegers to stop the Kaijus from an unknown goal. Jake must become the Ranger his father always wanted him to be, and the cadets must grow up in time to emerge victorious.
It sounds quite similar to the first, but “Uprising” skews more toward the super robot mecha subgenre, where the robots are superheroic representations with similarly outsized weapons and abilities. “Mazinger Z” is the genre originator. “Voltron” is a mecha combiner franchise that falls into his category, as well the Filipino favorite “Voltes V (1977).”
So “Uprising” immediately ditches the moody, meaningful atmosphere Del Toro championed for a punch-up video game-like spectacle. Any existential tumult or social commentary is thrown aside for Rock-‘Em-Sock-‘Em-Robots action. When Jakes yells, “Fire everything you’ve got!” he could easily be speaking for the film itself. DeKnight clearly purposefully diverges from the weightier direction Del Toro had started with. It obviously sets up its own future sequel, establishing “Pacific Rim” as a sci-fi franchise with its own trilogy. It is unabashedly and gleefully entertaining.
And that kind of is the point.
“Uprising” features wall-to-wall battles, characters unleashing exposition to propel the plot forward and token character development. But it also features all-out, virtually nonstop robot fighting and a take-no-prisoners (or plot) pace. There is a wacko, head-twisting plot twist right in the middle that will either wow you or annoy you. The furious rush to the ending features some nice touches, like a novel Kaiju twist (the Kaiju are almost an afterthought in this) and cute character turns.
Boyega channels his inner-Finn as Jake, who occupies almost every scene. The real discovery here is the relative newcomer Spaeny, who makes what could easily have been a token character into a welcome presence. Also returning from the first film are scientists played by the ever-entertaining Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.
Any one who gets excited hearing machine names like Gipsy Avenger, Obsidian Fury, Saber Athena, Guardian Bravo, Bracer Phoenix and Titan Redeemer is automatically the audience for “Uprising.”
The fights in “Pacific Rim” happened at night; the fights in “Uprising” happen in the daylight. Del Toro had famously wanted the Jaegers in the original film to move ominously realistically: Boyega wanted the new Jaegers to move slickly like video game sprites. In other words, it’s not about the tech; it’s about badassery, It’s not about realism; it’s about the action. And giant robots.
That’s because, while the original “Pacific Rim” was an intellectual reflection on mecha anime, “Uprising” is the closest thing we’ve ever gotten to an actual live-action super robot mecha film. The crazy fights, impossible cockpits, back-story dilemmas, outlandish weapons, and, heck, the sheer amount of suspension of disbelief in “Uprising” is all quintessential super robots mecha anime elements. It’s like someone took the anime and made it real. It’s now been translated into live-action in a crowd-pleasing package that’s designed to make you yell “This is awesome” at the screen. It’s nothing like the tactical original. “Pacific Rim Uprising” is over-the-top and glorious.
Universal Pictures and Legendary Pictures’ “Pacific Rim Uprising” is now showing.