A sequel to Pacific Rim without Guillermo del Toro's contribution was always going to be in danger of being a load of bull. Yes, the notion of giant monsters fighting giant robots with modern special effects is a head-slappingly awesome idea that a lot of creatives could do something with, but what elevates Pacific Rim is the gothic atmosphere and the rich internal mythology that justifies the metal-on-monster fisticuffs, largely the product of del Toro's writing and direction. So the sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, was never going to feel quite like the singular vision of del Toro's work, but it did still have an opportunity to build its own brand of kaiju-sized fun on the foundation del Toro laid. Unfortunately, it seems that the strain of being a loyal sequel and trying to be its own thing was too much for Uprising, as it tears itself apart in the attempt and leaves bare the skeleton of the decent actioner that could have been.
Picking up ten years after the events of the original film, Uprising finds Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), son of Idris Elba's character, making his way through life as a thief in the ruins of a city destroyed by kaiju. In his misadventures, he meets Amara (Cailee Spaeny), a teenage scrapper who built her own single-pilot mini-Jaeger (what this franchise calls the giant robots) and consequently drags Jake into some shenanigans with the law. Rather than face jail time, Jake is enlisted by his sister, the legendary Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), to join the Jaeger Academy with Amara as a teacher and cadet, respectively. While there we find Jake's past as a Jaeger pilot catching up with him in the form of his old co-pilot Nate (Scott Eastwood, exuding about as much personality as a parked car), while a mysterious threat of a rogue Jaeger looms on the fringes of the post-war peace.
If all this seems pretty underwhelming as the plot of a film where you want the metal one to punch the blue blood out of the spiky one, then you've pretty much surmised why Uprising doesn't entirely work. There's too much plot going on here, trying to balance the concerns of setting up a new franchise's worth of characters while paying homage to the previous film's stars (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman also return as Newt and Gottlieb to mixed results), and the resulting mish-mash of tropes and character arcs trip over each other for attention and screentime. Sometimes the film is about Jake trying to live up to the legacy of his father. Sometimes it's about Amara getting over the trauma of watching her family die in a kaiju attack. Sometimes it's about the inability of the cadets to function as a unit. Sometimes it's about Newt in the thrall of a shady Chinese corporation that wants to automate Jaegers with drone technology. Entire characters, such as a love triangle interest for John and Nate, are introduced only to be almost entirely forgotten for the rest of the movie. And none of it comes together as a cohesive thematic whole, as the disparate storylines bump around without much development or even much logical consistency until it's time for the promised third act showdown.
Now, credit where credit is due, director Steven S. DeKnight does know what makes for a fun and compelling hand-to-hand combat scene. Best known for his work producing television shows like Spartacus and the first season of Daredevil, DeKnight is in his comfort zone when showing off how lithe and limber people can beat the crap out of each other, and that translates well to how he frames the Jaegars. There's a heavy Gundam influence in DeKnight's version of the mechs, but he also seems to be taking heavy visual cues from Neon Genesis Evangelion, if not exactly the philosophical underpinnings of that particular anime. The fights take place in daylight to exemplify fast, dynamic action among the skyscrapers of cityscapes, so watching a couple Jaegers punch, kick, swipe at, and laser blast each other—and eventually kaiju, because of course they show up—is a legitimate joy on the pure level of spectacle, even though the emotional stakes feel hollow given how little the human drama of the overstuffed cast connects.
Pacific Rim Uprising suffers from an identity crisis by trying to be two films at once. It wants to be a soft reboot to bring new people into the franchise and court the interest of the Chinese box office, but it also wants to reassure fans of the first film that this is still part of an ongoing legacy. In the process, it becomes unnecessarily bloated, but in the interests of a manageable runtime that bloat has been squeezed as tightly as possible, giving no character enough breathing room to be memorable, as much as John Boyega may try to sell his role on charisma alone. Yes, the action beats are fun, but you have to do a lot of waiting to get to them, and when no one really seems to be having fun during the expositional mumbo jumbo, it's pretty hard to have fun yourself, even during the fun parts.