You know all this, but it bears repeating. The Pacific Rim series of films concerns a world where giant monsters regularly emerge from inter-dimensional gateways at the bottom of the sea and attack cities along the Pacific coast. These monsters are repelled by giant robots piloted by pairs of people in the robots’ heads who work via a “neural drift” that aligns their mental and emotional states. The teams of robot pilots are international in origin. Defeating the monsters is an international effort. Pacific Rim: Uprising is more of this with a few narrative wrinkles thrown in for good measure.
All that bears repeating, because it’s important to remember what kind of movie we’re dealing with here. Oscar bait, this ain’t. It behooves us to deal with Pacific Rim: Uprising on its own terms. It’s a diversion, an overgrown cartoon, Saturday morning TV fare on a Friday night out budget. It’s fun. Just go with it.
“Fun” in this case isn’t also stupid though. There are plenty of giant robot movies out there that care little about compelling acting, coherent action set pieces, or character-focused direction and editing. Pacific Rim: Uprising cares about all these things. On the acting front, John Boyega is giving the kind of performance that made Kurt Russell famous – aware of the kind of movie he’s in but never condescending toward it. Boyega is “for” the audience, and he seems to find the humanity in his otherwise stock character. Harmonizing with a different melody, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman reprise their roles from the first film as the pair of scientists investigating the monsters’s cause. There isn’t any scenery left after they’re done chewing it, but their tone gels perfectly with this cartoonish narrative. They kind of bridge the gap between the live-action and cartoon world of this thing. Terrific.
I’ll brush by the coherent action scenes, except to say that in a world of incoherent, big budget spectacle movies, it’s nice to be told a clear story in the action scenes. More of that please.
The character-focused action is really where the film shines though. Unavoidably, the Pacific Rim series is the stuff of B movies. In the 1950s, B movies were originally the cheaply produced, crowd-pleasing movies at the bottom of a double bill. B movies have no pretensions, and they were typically genre fare. They were science-fiction films, horror films, Westerns, and exploitation films. Often the B movies were serials, with the same actor appearing in the same role in multiple stories. In other words, B movies are kind of all that the big studios are making these days, albeit with much bigger budgets, and it’s been this way ever since Jaws busted the first block back in 1975.
Many filmmakers got their start in B movies. The quick turnaround on the films allowed up-and-coming talent to practice their craft, experiment, and get away with things not allowable on the more prominent pictures. On the special effects side of things, B movies’ low budgets forced greater creativity out of the films’ technicians. Many of the techniques that made Lucas and Spielberg and Cameron famous were things they learned on B movie sets.
All that to say, B movies weren’t necessarily “bad.” Often, the talent behind and in front of the camera is clear even when the budgets are small. Pacific Rim: Uprising isn’t low budget—in fact, it might be a better film if it had a low budget, because no one would expect more of it—but it is competently directed and edited. In every scene, director Steven DeKinght and his team of editors know where the emotional core of the moment is, and they focus on that. Take an early scene where Boyega’s “Jake” and Cailee Spainey’s “Amara” are in a jail cell together. They are sitting beside each other, and they argue, but they are never shown in a two-shot unless they are shown behind the bars of the cell. They are both trapped by their pasts, and yet they are at odds and apart even from each other.
Another moment, later, in an action scene, a character’s loved one dies in an attack, and he is helpless to prevent it. We get a series a shots here that highlight his helplessness, each of them underscoring his powerlessness in different ways – by the distance between him and his loved one, by the ineffectiveness of their supposedly superior technology, and by the responsibilities they have to others which necessitates their mutual sacrifice.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is smart filmmaking, and smart filmmaking is all the more important when the material is so pulpy. Movies like this are a testament to the inherent goodness of craft. “Craft” is a better value than “artistry,” because craft honors the day-in, day-out life of an artist. Artists practice and learn and improve artwork by artwork, and most of that work is hidden from the public. Pacific Rim: Uprising’s director, Steven DeKnight has been working on television shows for the past twenty years, honing his craft on shows like Angel, Smallville, Dollhouse, Netflix’s Daredevil, and a pair of Spartacus miniseries for Starz!. Hollywood is full of craftspeople like this. On Friday night, cheering and laughing with a packed house watching Pacific Rim: Uprising, I was especially grateful for their work.