Pacific Rim: Uprising
"Pacific Rim: Uprising challenges the notion of a leading black man who must appear culturally blank in order to seem 'safe' for non-black audiences.”
Title: Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018)
Director: Steven S. DeKnight 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Steven S. DeKnight 👨🏼🇺🇸, Emily Carmichael 👩🏼🇺🇸, Kira Snyder 👩🏼🇺🇸, T.S. Nowlin 👨🏼🇺🇸, based on characters by Travis Beacham
Reviewed by Monique 👩🏾🇺🇸
Full admission here: I didn’t like the original Pacific Rim, despite my love for all things Guillermo del Toro. When it came out in 2013, I felt like a contrarian as people praised the film for its ingenuity and admiration for classic mecha anime. Fast-forward five years, and it seems I’m still a contrarian since a lot of critics say that Pacific Rim: Uprising, the debut film by Steven S. DeKnight, is missing its heart. Yet I enjoyed Uprising more than its predecessor.
What I found great about it was the tighter story. While there were beats in the original Pacific Rim that I liked, such as the child-parent dynamic between Mako Mori and Stacker Pentecost (Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba), there were more things I didn’t like. For starters, it took ages to establish the world and its rules, spending a good 10 minutes just to say that aliens from an underwater wormhole brought the world together in a unified global war. Uprising did the same in half the time, if not shorter. This is a popcorn flick, not War and Peace.
Neither does Uprising take itself too seriously. The first film waffled on what tone it wanted to take, eventually settling for somewhere between comedy and standard sci-fi action. Uprising starts out the gate as a raucous good time as Stacker’s son Jake (John Boyega) parties it up and steals illegal Jaeger parts to fund his baller lifestyle. While the film still has trouble figuring out what it wants to be at times, jumping between Jake’s issues with his father and a Disney Channel vibe featuring a ragtag group of international cadets. But overall, the second film is better-paced than the first. At points, it even adopts something I feel the original never achieved—the feeling of a classic anime in which everyone, including the antagonists, join together for a common cause. In short, Uprising knows it’s ridiculous and basks in it anyway.
DeKnight’s film is smart for another reason: it makes the most unlikeable character from the original, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), the villain. If I get into everything I hate about this character, this would become an entirely different review, but just know that I find him completely grating. As such, I’m all too happy to root against him and was glad to see Uprising grant me that opportunity.
Technically, the film does pass the Bechdel Test. But when female characters interact with each other, it’s usually as adversaries. The main female relationship takes place between diamond-in-the-rough Cadet Amara (Cailee Spaeny) and Cadet Viktoria (Ivanna Sakhno). Viktoria hates Amara, jealous of the perceived ease in which Amara got into the Jaeger program while Viktoria had to work for her spot. Much of the time they spend together is either in verbal or physical combat. While it’s no secret that the two will will work out their differences and come together, it’s still noteworthy that for the vast majority of their screen time, they simply hate each other. I suppose, at least they’re fighting over their careers and not a man.
Overall, women are treated quite unevenly. This comes as a bit of a surprise to me, as the film itself boasts two women screenwriters. When female characters are written positively, they do shine; tech mogul Liwen Shao (Tian Jing) is introduced as a threat to the Jaeger program, since her mechs are designed to be remote-piloted drones. We’re led to think she’s just in the business of making the Jaeger pilots miserable, but when she learns that her drones are being manipulated by the Kaiju, she immediately jumps in to help the Jaeger force and becomes one of the film’s biggest heroes.
Other than her negative relationship with Viktoria, Amara is actually quite well-written. She’s spunky, like a lot of kids in these action films are, but Spaeny makes sure to take the character away from stereotype and plays up the emotional story arc. The bratty kid we met in the original grows into a young adult who has learned how to make peace with her traumatic past. Indeed, Amara is one of the two women who save the world alongside Jake; both she and Shao are the real reasons the Kaiju are defeated.
Unfortunately, some of the other female characters come off wooden and superfluous. One missed opportunity is the Jaeger techie Jules Reyes (Adria Arjona). She comes onto the scene strong, but we eventually see that she’s only there for sex appeal and as the catalyst for a running joke—the gag that Jake and his friend and co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood) are competing for Jules’ attention. The kicker is that Jules apparently likes both of them, and Jake and Nate wind up finding themselves in a throuple they didn’t ask to be in. I guess you could say that this joke empowers Jules by subverting expectations, but mainly, she’s a barely-written character in a clunky role. The throuple scene is the only reason she exists in this movie, and that’s a shame, especially since Latina characters are already oversexualized in media.
Mako is also barely in the film, which is disappointing because I really wanted to see more of her dynamic with Jake. Her death is poorly written and exists solely to push Jake towards being a hero. Despite all of Mako’s accomplishments in the first film, she still just ends up as another fridged woman. It would have been so much cooler to see Mako help Jake become a hero through guidance and mentorship.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 25% of top cast and crew members were POC.
As I wrote above, Jules is a Latina character who is reduced to mere sex appeal, so that’s one strike against this movie. And even though this film was produced by a subsidiary of a Chinese conglomerate, a lot of Asian characters end up dead: Mako, Cadet Suresh, and Marshal Quan, whose actors are Japanese, Indian-American, and Chinese, respectively.
The film does surprise in some ways, though. Jules notwithstanding, Uprising does a decent job of shaking up stereotypes in favor of characters who are simply treated as individuals. Cadet Ryoichi played by Mackenyu, who is Japanese-American and Cadet Jinhai played by Wesley Wong, a Hong Kong actor, aren’t depicted as nerds. Instead, they are kind and furthermore, heartthrobs, in keeping with the rising trend of Asian men as sex symbols in America.
Suresh, played by Karan Brar, is depicted as a kid who is still trying to grow into his idea of a hero. He feels like the little brother to all the cadets, which makes it even more depressing when he gets killed.
It’s also worth mentioning that the film continues the franchise’s internationalism in surprisingly sensitive ways. For instance, language is a big part of Uprising. Jinhai, Ryoichi, and Suresh aren’t given stereotypical accents—instead, they speak fluent English in a North American accent. Of course, this is because Wong, Mackenyu, and Brar are either from or have studied in the United States, but I feel this is worth mentioning. It almost seems strange, then, when you realize that the actor of Viktoria obscures her natural and much lighter Ukrainian accent in favor of a cartoonish, “Russian” affectation. Her character would have felt more nuanced if Sakhno had been allowed to speak with her own voice.
In Jing’s case, much of her dialogue is in Mandarin and subtitled, but her character Shao routinely switches between Mandarin and English as a method of ridiculing Dr. Newton Geiszler, who flounders with his broken Chinese. Shao’s bilingualism deepens her character and depicts her as someone who is highly intelligent, lending her character more texture without having to explicitly state it. Compare this overall comfort level with diverse languages to another film released the same day: Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs has been leveled with several complaints about its cultural insensitivity, largely through the decision to leave its Japanese characters unsubtitled despite being set in Japan. In effect, this produces an exoticized barrier from the Asian characters, while the film’s presumably English-speaking audience empathizes solely with its white voice actors.
As for the lead himself, Jake feels like a new kind of hero. Much in the same vein that Boyega’s Star Wars character Finn has to learn to trust himself, Jake, too, has to go through a journey of self-discovery. But what sets him apart from Finn and other leading man characters is that he does so with a very specific Boyega flair.
As a producer for Uprising, it’s clear Boyega had a huge hand in how Jake would behave, including how he would represent his African roots. Boyega’s Nigerian heritage is on full display, with Nigerian rapper Wizkid’s “Daddy Yo” blaring and Jake wearing a robe made of ankara print. Boyega has made statements about blackness in films before; during his Uprising Q&A with Black Girl Nerds’ Jamie Broadnax, he said he wanted Finn not to have a clean haircut because he wanted audiences to get used to seeing unstyled black hair the same way audiences are used to seeing (and praising) other leading men—usually white men—with unkempt hair. Through these incorporations of heritage, Boyega challenges the notion of a cultureless POC leading man—a character who must appear culturally blank in order to seem “safe” for non-black audiences. Boyega’s interpretation of Jake asserts that black leading men, and leading men of all backgrounds, don’t have to be culturally rudderless to be successful. They can have pride in their heritage and wear it proudly.
Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.75/5
Pacific Rim: Uprising is entertaining, fast-paced, and surprising in unexpected ways. Is it the best film ever? Nope. But it is a fun way to spend two hours, and the film acts as the natural next stepping stone for Boyega’s ascension into the “Action Star” firmament.