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‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ not quite a Jaeger bomb

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There are some movies that are clearly designed for sequels. They are structured specifically to allow for a continuation of the story going forward – sometimes to the detriment of the tale being told in the moment. They’re built to be built again.

And then you have a film like 2013’s “Pacific Rim.” Guillermo del Toro’s big-budget love letter to the giant monster movies of the past felt for all the world like a one-off; a stylish two-hour whirlwind of enormous robots fighting enormous monsters. It seemed to have told the story it meant to tell.

Enter “Pacific Rim Uprising,” a decent-enough sequel that nevertheless feels unnecessary and almost cursory. Without del Toro as the driving creative force – though he is credited as a producer – this new film simply fails to reach the heights of the first, lacking spirit to match the spectacle of the too-familiar action beats.

A decade has passed since the events of “Pacific Rim.” The world has found a way to regain some semblance of normalcy now that the interdimensional rift that allowed the Kaiju to wreak havoc on our world has been closed. The giant robot Jaegers from the war have been repurposed for use against more terrestrial security threats.

Jake Pentecost (John Boyega, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) has been living a life as a hustler in recent years, having dropped out of Jaeger pilot training; the shadow cast by his deceased hero father was simply too much to handle. But when his efforts to track down some illicit salvage causes him to cross paths with a streetwise 15-year-old Jaeger prodigy named Amara (Cailee Spaeny in her feature debut), he winds up back in that world.

At the behest of his sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, “Terra Formars”), Jake finds himself back in service against his will, tasked with assisting his former friend Nate (Scott Eastwood, “Overdrive”) in training the next generation of Jaeger pilots; meanwhile, Amara is added to the rolls of the trainees.

They may soon be obsolete, however – new drone technology developed by Liwen Shao (Tian Jing, “Kong: Skull Island”) and former government scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, “Fist Fight”) may eliminate the need for the direct presence of pilots.

But when the mysterious masters of the Kaiju begin making a new effort to breach the dimensional veil, their plans of world domination prove devastatingly effective. It’s left to Jake, Nate, Amara and the rest to take command of the Jaegers and protect humanity from imminent destruction.

Cue the giant robots fighting giant monsters.

Let’s be real – it probably isn’t fair to have particularly high expectations regarding a movie like this one. Yes, the first “Pacific Rim” was surprising in its quality, but the odds of capturing that lightning in a bottle again were always going to be slim.

As a sequel, “Pacific Rim Uprising” is serviceable. There’s not quite as much world expansion as you might hope for; the film seems content to repeat the same general narrative beats we saw in the first film. Not that we should be surprised – this is Steven DeKnight’s first go-round as a feature director. Even his considerable writing experience is almost solely in the television realm; he was never going to be particularly exciting as a director. His work is … fine.

The action sequences have their thrills, to be sure, though the CGI chaos of the film’s final act does get to be a bit extreme at times. But really, a movie with giant robots fighting giant monsters is like pizza – even when it’s bad, it’s going to be pretty good. Those outsized battle sequences are in large part this film’s raison d’etre.

It’s nice to see Boyega get a chance to lead the way here; he’s already proven he’s got the chops to hang in big-money sci-fi, so why not let him be THE hero instead of A hero? There’s no denying his talent – he brings a wonderful sense of the dynamic to the screen. Don’t be surprised if he turns out to be a straight-up movie star sooner rather than later. For a kid who has never made a movie before, Spaeny can hang – she’s got a fire to her that is fun to watch. Eastwood might never be a particularly good actor, but he’s got charisma to spare, which carries him when he needs it.

Kikuchi and Jing are both very good, but neither gets a whole lot of opportunity to shine. It’s nice to see Day back – as well as Burn Gorman (TV’s “Jamestown”) as Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, Newt’s partner from the first film – but the story keeps the two largely separate, which feels like a missed opportunity. Their comedic chemistry was an underrated highlight the last time around. Adria Arjona (TV’s “Emerald City”) is criminally underused; the rest of the cadets are blandly diverse and interchangeable.

“Pacific Rim Uprising” doesn’t bring anything new to the table; far from reinventing the wheel, the filmmakers here are content to change the rims and call it a day. It is not without its pleasures – the next day I don’t delight in huge things fighting other huge things in a sci-fi setting will be the first – but for most, those pleasures simply aren’t going to be quite enough. While there are some flashy and engaging moments, those are counterbalanced by storytelling that is largely unoriginal and uninspired.

All in all, a kind of fun – but ultimately forgettable – film.

[3 out of 5]

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