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Review: 'Pacific Rim: Uprising' is long on loud action, short on heart

| Thursday, March 22, 2018, 11:09 a.m.

The sequel "Pacific Rim: Uprising" is, like the 2013 "Pacific Rim," something of a chimera: a cheesy Japanese monster movie for people who happen to love "Transformers" for its gigantic, battling robots and thunderous soundtrack, and "Power Rangers" for its cast of teeny-bopper heroes and kinetic, overeager display of martial-arts action.

What do you mean no one loves those things? Oh.

Set 10 years after the action of the first film, "Uprising" is, once again, all about skyscraper-size battle-bots, controlled by teams of two pilots synced up to each other via a kind of mind-meld.

Once called upon to defend the world from an invasion of Godzillaesque monsters, or kaiju, who have escaped through holes in the Earth's crust from another dimension, the oversize Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots, known as Jaegers, now operate as giant, metallic beat cops. Working for the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps, a kind of "RoboCop"-like police department in a post-apocalyptic but peaceful world, Jaegers, as the film opens, seem mostly tasked with impounding unregistered cyborgs that have been jerry-built from scavenged Jaeger parts.

Until, that is, there's another kaiju breach.

Pandering to youth

Gone from this outing is Idris Elba as hero Stacker Pentecost, the gruff but warmhearted Jaeger pilot with the unbelievably cool name from the first film. In the wake of his death saving the universe, which we're told took place in the gap between films, his son Jake (John Boyega) has been left to wrestle with Dad's legacy.

Jake, a jaded former pilot himself, now scrapes together a living selling stolen engine components from decommissioned Jaegers and black-market Sriracha sauce. (There's a lot of cheeky, post-apocalyptic humor here — call it "Baby's First Blade Runner" - but it mostly falls flat.)

When things start to get hairy — first a pilotless, rogue Jaeger appears from beneath the ocean, then other signs of a kaiju breach — Jake must team up with a teen girl (Cailee Spaeny) — like Jake, an orphan — who shows an aptitude for mechanics and scrappy derring-do.

There is a mild plot twist involving a character from the previous film, but much of the new cast play adolescent members of a Jaeger pilot academy, which makes the pandering to the youth audience, and the market for Jaeger action figures — collect them all! — even more obvious.

But the departure of Elba, who brought a grown-up world-weariness to the first film's shenanigans, and his replacement with the more kid-friendly Boyega, of the "Star Wars" franchise, aren't the only concessions to adolescent taste in this outing. Director Steven S. DeKnight, a TV producer and director known for Netflix's "Daredevil" and other series, has taken the reins from filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.

Loud and propulsive

"Uprising" is loud, packed with impressive effects and propulsive — or as propulsive as a car with no brakes going downhill — but it lacks the heart of del Toro's original. In its place is a barrage of shouted jargon: Watch out for references to the "Shatterdome," "plasma cannons" and something called "drift compatibility," in a screenplay by DeKnight and three co-writers that is long on things that sound awesome but mean nothing.

Like the names of this film's Jaegers — Gipsy Avenger, Saber Athena, Bracer Phoenix, Obsidian Fury and Guardian Bravo — the film appears to have been cobbled together from the likes and dislikes mined from player profiles in a focus group of 13-year-old gamers. The emphasis on surface and spectacle over substance betrays the film's video game aesthetic, and a corresponding lack of emotional engagement.

When a team of pilots knocks out a kaiju, for instance, saving the planet, it merits a fist pump, and little else.

Michael O'Sullivan is a Washington Post writer.

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