By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” from 2013, was the director’s love letter to two long-running Japanese traditions: “Kaiju Eiga,” stories featuring giant monsters, and “Mecha,” stories featuring giant robots piloted by human operators. Del Toro had the robots fight the monsters, with the fate of humanity at stake, naturally, and he brought in a derivative but fun special-effects-heavy romp.
Five years later, first-time director Steven S. DeKnight brings us the second film in the franchise, and a story simultaneously stiffer and darker than the first one. The film introduces to the world post-kaiju apocalypse, and finds that world rebuilding pretty well, except for certain outlying seacoast and island areas (a reminder, albeit an accidental one, Puerto Rico’s devastation after Hurricane Maria).
We meet John Boyega as Jake Pentecost, son of the first movie’s hero. Unlike his father, however, the younger Pentecost prefers all-day, all-night parties, featuring drugs, drinking, loud music, and plenty of pretty women. Many parties take place in the areas laid waste by the original kaiju attacks, allowing the humans to symbolically, at least, take those areas back.
Some people, Jake muses to himself, live better in a world that’s broken. That’s the closest he can come to a philosophy. But soon enough, he meets Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny), and both his luck and his attitudes take unscheduled twisting detours.
Spaeny, as the new character Amara, proves to be the fulcrum on which the rest of the action pivots. She’s angry, prickly, and she’s isolated herself from the positivity of the dominant world culture, and the party-hearty attitude of Boyega’s crowd. She’s brilliant enough to build her own mecha out of her spare parts, but when Jake takes her to the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps to begin training, she has trouble fitting in. She’ll go through a dynamic, though predictable, cycle of challenge, ruin, and redemption.
Rinko Kikuchi returns from the first film as John Boyega’s adoptive sister, Mako Mori. The actor and the character get an adult makeover for this new plot:, although not so much fist-busting action, but more responsibilities and sacrifices, which Kikuchi makes believable through simplicity. The Chinese actress Jing Tian also impresses, as a tech wizard, who gets to speak in subtitled Mandarin much of the time. (Many Hollywood films stick with English, even when two or more characters who don’t speak English as their first language, get together.)
DeKnight, who also co-wrote the new film’s script with T.S. Nowlin, Kira Snyder, and Emily Carmichael, fares well enough in the action sequences, robots and monsters ripping up skyscrapers like spoiled kids determined on smashing their own toys. He doesn’t have quite so much facility with the flesh-and-blood proceedings. Boyega (who also co-produced) seems poised and charismatic, and his fine sense of timing facilitates his character’s dry wit.
But too many of the other characters merely shuffle around, a small bundle of tics and clichés each, the too-busy camera eager to slide past someone and latch on to someone or something else. We don’t sense anything deep about most people, and the script seems to be ticking over until the next big fight, and the inevitable big finish.
And the big finish, not to give away too much, involves someone corrupted from without, who becomes a traitor from within the human’s league. Someone who enjoys living in a particular kind of broken world so very much, he’s willing to break it completely, beyond any repair, to satisfy his own ravenous ego.
I think about that, and I think about today’s headlines. And I shudder a little bit. Global war, in today’s world, isn’t merely an escapist notion at the movies. Even with the monsters and robots thrown in.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.