It is a strength of the new Star Wars saga that John Boyega’s leading man credentials haven’t been fully verified yet – those films have shared the limelight around. With Pacific Rim Uprising, he demonstrates that his wit and charm can carry a movie – a shame, then, that this one is reluctant to let him do so.
Boyega is Jake Pentecost, unmentioned son of Idris Elba’s hero from Pacific Rim (the incredibly dull Charlie Hunnam’s legacy is sliced out). A roguish grifter, Jake is soon dragged back into the militaristic world he has escaped, along with the teenage junk genius Amara (Cailee Spaeny). She gives us a window into the world of Jaeger (giant fighting robots) cadets – one we surely didn’t need, and which doesn’t justify itself at any stage.
Surprise of all surprises, the once-dormant threat from massive, otherworldly Kaiju (Godzilla-style monsters) is resurgent, and Amara’s fellow culturally diverse trainees might just be the only ones who can help stop them. This tiresome plot continually drags us away from the charming Boyega, whose natural London twang could have driven the film comfortably. The supporting cast of archetypes and overactors is suitably broadstroke, and in fairness demands no elaboration.
At its core, and quite openly, Pacific Rim Uprising is a film about big robots punching each other and, eventually, ruddy great aliens. On this front it is able to deliver – we get robot-on-robot action, we get robot-on-alien, and we get each in spades. These fight scenes are decently choreographed, and shot with a clear sense of space and blocking that translates to give viewers a relatively clear understanding of what is happening. Furthermore, for what has the feel of a mid-budget film, the effects work is top-notch, particularly in the case of the sadly underused Kaiju’s rippling, belching malevolence.
The actual plotting behind the Kaiju’s return is preposterous. Yet it does feel worth remembering that the film certainly knows this – the casting of Charlie Day in a certain role is the clearest demonstration that the Uprising is not trying too hard. In some moments, the film successfully channels the cartoony, straightforwardly fun plotting it aims for; in others, it is sadly incompetent. In particular, the developing plotline of Amara’s antagonistic group of teenage pilots is dull, and a distraction from the overriding charm of Boyega’s onscreen presence.
Many critics have indulged in unflattering and obvious comparisons between this film and that other giant robot luminary, the Transformers series. They appear to have forgotten the vile ideologies and sensory pointlessness of those debilitating films, and do the comparatively benign Uprising a disservice. This is a relatively sprightly action film for teen audiences, but its lack of ambition keeps it in that bracket. If it had embraced Boyega’s talents to the fullest, it could have perhaps aspired to more.