I can’t think of a more unlikely sequel than Pacific Rim Uprising. As much as I liked Guillermo Del Toro’s foray into bringing his childhood to the big screen, Pacific Rim never felt like it lit the world on fire after the pretty aggressive hype train leading up to its release. The fact that it got a sequel at all is pretty astounding. It’s only when you start to delve into the production behind the upcoming movie that you realise how little in common it actually has to the original cult favourite.
Before I start telling you how Uprising is different, I need to talk a little about the first Pacific Rim. Just to contextualise why this sequel might not be what you expect, something that a lot of people might have wildly different feelings about considering the divided opinion on the that 2013 summer blockbuster.
A lot of the reason I like Guillermo Del Toro as a director is because he is a guy who seems to wear his heart on his sleeve. Looking back at interviews from the time, he very obviously cared about the success of Pacific Rim, despite the crunch schedule he was forced to make it on. During an interview he said, “Rarely has a movie been more important to me personally”.
He recounts a story about how worried he was leading up to the movies unveiling trailer, and the incredible relief when it went down well. He’s the type of director you want to get behind because he seems to put a lot of himself into his projects. Pacific Rim was no different. He cited his own inspirations for the movie to range from his childhood love of Astroboy, to the far more apparent influence from the classic Kaiju movies such as Godzilla.
Leading up to release, the internet dove deep into the many other inspirations that seemed to jump out a them from Pacific Rim. While the homage to the Mecha genre is obvious within the movie, one specific source was pointed at for its direct parallels; Neon Genesis Evangelion was specifically mentioned as having very similar plot elements to the movie. One involving a group of piloted robots that act as humanity’s last resistance against an otherworldly invader.
The writer has since insisted that the connection is purely coincidental. I bring this up though because these connections made the fans all the more excited to see Pacific Rim on the big screen. At this point in time, being a anime fan was still viewed as a sub-culture pass time. There was little mainstream western recognition of Japanese culture, and what little we did have was usually poorly done and “Americanised”.
It was exciting to see “Mecha” and “Kaiju” in western cinemas, made by a well known western director. When the movie eventually did come out, it wasn’t exactly what everyone was expecting of it. While we did get a lot of big robots punching monsters in the face, there was a ton of western influence in there too. There was a lot of Blade Runner and even more Top Gun, to just list a few. Additionally, while the effects and action were a true sight to behold, the movie was ultimately dragged down by a weak leading cast.
The movie ultimately under performed in the box office in America. It didn’t flop though, as it found huge success overseas. Specifically in China, where the movie made a quarter of it’s total box office in that country alone.
Critics seemed very mixed on the movie too. The more receptive to the genre were all too happy to sing its praises at every opportunity. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, has been a very vocal fan of it, calling it the “ultimate otaku” movie. But on the other side of that coin, the more traditional movie critic was a lot harder on it. While some did find redeeming features in the effects and the action, many others criticised the weak writing and main cast, which I can’t argue with.
Personally, I still think back on the movie fondly. Despite it’s shortcomings, it did feel like something fresh and unique. There felt like a lot of care and fun went into making it. Plus, there was a constant rumbling of anticipation about the movie as it lead up to release. We were all as excited as its director to see what it would be. Questions of a potential sequel were bring thrown around almost right away, but considering the lukewarm reception from the mainstream audience, it seemed like a very hard sell.
Despite everything though, Del Toro seemed determined to push for a sequel. Already having written a number of drafts, the studio was reluctant to give him another crack. It was only when a Chinese company called the Wanda Group acquired Legendary Pictures that the gears started turning again. Not all that surprising considering how the movie performed over there.
All seemed well for Del Toro to get working on the sequel, until a little wrinkle came to light. The deal would mean all production would have to be halted for 9 months. An amount of time Del Toro was ultimately not willing to wait, he said that the timing really “sucked”, mainly because he had this “little movie” he wanted to work on as well, one called The Shape of Water.
And it’s at this point where we start to realise that Pacific Rim Uprising might not be the Del Toro sequel everyone was excited for. Directoral duties were handed over to someone else; Steven S. DeKnight, making his cinematic debut. It was a choice Del Toro seemed, at least vocally, very positive about as he moved into the role of producer.
When talking about his new role, Del Toro said he was being as “hands off” as possible, putting his trust into this new director. In the same interview though, he comments that the script has changed significantly since the initial two or three drafts he wrote. He continues to support DeKnight after saying this. Saying that a movie is a production of its director, and he believes that a director shouldn’t be forced to make a producer’s movie. Which I can really imagine is somthing Del Toro believes as an auteur director.
I can’t comment about anything beyond this as it would be pure speculation until I see the movie itself. But based on those few comments, it appears that Pacific Rim Uprising could potentially be a very different movie than it’s predecessor. The trailers at the very least do feel pretty different than the original. Despite the “light and airy” feel that Del Toro said he wanted from the first Pacific Rim, there was something oppressive about it when we viewed its world from a normal person’s point of view.
While stakes to seem similarly dire in the sequel, there is something brighter about it. It feels lighter and more optimistic, at least in comparison to the first one. The lumbering scale of the fights, replaced with more frenetic (weirdly enough) anime inspired fight scenes. One might argue that the movie feels more generic as a result, having lose some of the weird light but still dark tone of the original. With a (mostly) new script, new director and new cast, this might feel more like a reboot than a follow up.
The most telling thing about this change in Pacific Rim’s fortunes and potential success comes from an interview with the new Director. DeKnight revealed that:
“If enough people show up to this, we’ve already talked about the plot of the third movie, and how the end of the third movie would expand the universe to a Star Wars/Star Trek-style [franchise or series] where you can go in many, many different directions”
It seems like there are already plans in place to make spin-off movies and even the possibility to connect it into the “monsterverse” being made by Legendary pictures, which is spawning from 2014’s Godzilla and last year’s Kong: Skull Island. I’m not opposed to every big franchise getting its own connected cinematic universe. But it just shows how far the sequel has moved from the subversive feel that the first Pacific Rim had.
I get the impression that an increased audience for Anime in the west thanks to a dramatic increase in accessibility from streaming services like Netflix, Prime and Crunchyroll isn’t actually going to have the effect on this movie’s success that it felt like it did on the first one. Pacific Rim felt like it was bending the rules and giving us something that the mainstream might not take on board right away.
Uprising feels like the opposite of that. Which might not be a bad thing if it helps springboard the movie into a huge and successful franchise. It just means that the series’ roots as this little experiment, from a well loved director, will find itself quickly brushed under the rug by the time the third or forth iteration has Gypsy Danger trading punches with Mechagodzilla. But hey, Del Toro will probably love the fact that his passion project came this far, so maybe we should too.