There’s a scene in Pacific Rim: Uprising where star John Boyega inexplicably builds himself a sundae, dousing it mercilessly with spray-can whipped cream and fistfuls of colored sprinkles. But there’s no ice cream. Sure, he ate some off the scoop while trading weary-bros-with-unstated-backstory quips with prettyman Scott Eastwood — but I never saw any actually go into the cup. So Boyega just stood there, piling multicolored, machine-processed and fakey-sweet toppings onto nothing at all.

How apt.

The first Pacific Rim was lightning in a bottle — a wholeheartedly ridiculous and over-the-top Guillermo del Toro showpiece that took itself so very, deliciously seriously. (“Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”) Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba leant that exercise a set-jawed gravitas that played well against the technicolor CGI of Ron Perlman rummaging around in Kaiju guts. It was basically Sons of Anarchy in a tripped-out Tokyo arcade: A strange trip, but one worth taking at least once.

This sequel is not. Neither Hunnam nor Elba signed on for this outing, and this is essentially a directing debut for Steven S. DeKnight — whose only prior credits are a couple hours of television. And although Del Toro retains a producing credit, it’s clear he sat well clear of the splash zone on this one, focusing his efforts instead on other projects. Perhaps as a result, the second Pacific Rim piles on those toppings but never quite threads the needle. Instead it makes a giant mess of digital cities for no good reason and spirals noisily out of control on every possible axis.

The sequel is set ten years after the first (which, in case you’ve forgotten, is helpfully summarized in the first thirty seconds). Viz., the intergalactic breach on the ocean’s floor has been shut, and giant lizard-skinned alien monsters called Kaiju no longer attack our planet. The massive Jaeger robots — each driven by two neurally-linked pilots — sit idle, yet for some reason also not idle, as a new class of cadets trains in yet another Shatterdome (!) to drive them. Things get stranger from here.

John Boyega plays Jake, the son of Stacker Pentecost (#lolname; this was Idris Elba in the first film). He’s a dropout from the Jaeger program, who at one time could have been the best pilot ever, naturally skilled, hereditary skillage, Top Gun, blah blah. He meets up with young Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) who has most-improbably built her own Jaeger in a warehouse. After some equally improbable pinballing around Santa Monica, the duo ends up shipped off to Jaeger Cadet School, or ThunderSession, or whatever buff-sounding thing it’s called here. Spaeny is largely forgotten as Boyega is reunited with a steely-eyed and seething Scott Eastwood, who’s doing his level best to impersonate his dad (but falling, I must report, well short of target). A thoroughly multicultural cast of characters fill out the benches, including Tian Xing speaking full-on subtitled Mandarin for the better part of the film. (Remember when Iron Man 3 included those extra deleted scenes just for the Chinese market? And MI: Rogue Nation cast actress Jingchu Zhang as a polygraph operator? Yeah. Pacific Rim just took it up a notch.) And I’m afraid Charlie Day and Burn Gorman reprise their nails-on-chalkboard characters here.

Let’s not focus on the plot. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but this is so unrealistic it’s unclear why the four-strong writing committee even bothered to set this story on planet Earth, or in human cities. Absolutely nothing behaves as you think it will, including the massive Jaegers thundering through concrete buildings whilst perching atop glass ones, and curiously reaching “structural integrity critical” during a gentle boosted liftoff. Suffice to say that a series of threats — both Jaeger and Kaiju — rip through various picturesque cities for essentially zero reason, and a squad of random kids drive other Jaegers to try to stop them.

I’m all for multicultural casting, too — not least to quench the #oscarssowhite hashing of late — but there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. Pacific Rim: Uprising comes off feeling forced here, thrusting a dozen people into a room like a bad speed-dating party — and the poor folks are all so busy doing double duty as banner-carriers for their respective nation-states that they never get much chance to stretch their thespian legs or generate meaningful audience buy-in. Dislike.

Handing the keys to a $150+ million CGI juggernaut to a pretty much first-time director is a bold play. Thor: Ragnarok proved it can pan out — but DeKnight is no Taika Waititi. In the plus column, Pacific Rim: Uprising delivers a good haul of crashing robots, smashing buildings, bashing lizards, and dashing actors. But without the strident solemnity of the first, and without anything really at stake, it’s all sprinkles and no sundae.

Haus Verdict: Flash-and-roar catnip for Skittle-mouthed seven-year-olds with an eye for baseless heroism and sparring robots. Cognitively available to a dachshund. It’s entertaining, heady, and bad for your complexion, but so is plunging your face into a sack of icing sugar. If you liked any recent Transformers film, you’ll like this. That is not a recommendation.  

Pacific Rim: Uprising opens everywhere Friday, March 23.

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