Warning: This post contains big spoilers for Pacific Rim Uprising.
On any other weekend, Pacific Rim: Uprising would just be a mediocre sequel to an almost-blockbuster that didn’t need to spawn a franchise. Through a quirk of the calendar, though, the giant robots vs. giant monsters slugfest stomped into theaters on March 23 equipped with an unexpectedly giant resonance. In Uprising‘s protracted climax, Earth is on the verge of extinction and our only hope is an untested, unproven squad of teenagers. And on March 24, a veritable army of teens — accompanied by their parents and younger siblings — will take to the streets in cities and communities across the country for the nationwide March for Our Lives rally.
Organized by high school students in the wake of last month’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., the rallies will call for an end to the gun violence that has devastated communities from Columbine to Newtown. Unlike Uprising, no supersize monsters will be slain at these nonviolent protests, but it’s striking that young people are the ones leading the charge in both the movie’s reality and our reality. “It’s our turn to save the world,” one of the teen soldiers in Uprising says as he co-pilots a Jaeger — Pacific Rim‘s moniker for those big bots — into battle. It’s highly likely to imagine those same words being uttered at Saturday’s marches as well.
That’s because Uprising inadvertently echoes a sentiment that’s been expressed by some of the Parkland survivors turned activists, namely that the task of fixing our planet has fallen to the younger generation because of the older generation’s mistakes. “This is our fight now, because you messed it up so badly,” Parkland student Emma Gonzalez memorably told MSNBC in February. The youthful stars of Uprising similarly have to wrestle with the sins of their fathers. At the end of Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 original, mankind used Jaeger technology and good old-fashioned gumption to defeat the monstrous kaiju threat. At that point, the robots could easily have been decommissioned and used for scrap material to rebuild the badly battered world.
Instead, when Uprising — which was directed by Buffy the Vampire Slayer veteran Steven S. DeKnight — picks up a decade later, Jaegers are still part of the landscape and continue to function as a global defense force. In fact, one intrepid company, the Shao Corporation, is even hoping to remove the human element by replacing flesh-and-blood pilots with drones. Taking point on that research is none other than Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day), the dorky scientist of the first movie who reveals a sinister agenda here. See, 10 years ago Newt helped defeat the giant monster threat by mind-melding or “drifting” with a kaiju brain, giving General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) the intel he needed to destroy the Breach connecting the two realms. As we learn in Uprising, though, that bold (or, if you prefer, foolhardy) experiment allowed the kaiju to access and assume control of Newt’s brain. Our enemies then proceed to use our own technology against us, infiltrating the drone Jaegers and dispatching them on a mission to reopen the Breach and allow fresh creatures through to finish the job.
What the kaiju didn’t anticipate, however, is that Stacker’s own son, Jake (John Boyega), would be there to greet them. After spending much of the past decade trying to escape his legacy as the direct descendant of a deceased war hero, the younger Pentecost ultimately embraces his inner leader when he’s brought in to train the next generation of Jaeger pilots. These kids — whose ranks include a scrappy orphan named Amara (Cailee Spaeny) and stoic Russian Vik (Ivanna Sakhno) — are a long way from being combat ready, but they don’t have much of a choice when those kaiju-powered drones decimate the Jaeger ranks. With one inspirational speech, Jake takes the training wheels off, and the students immediately graduate to soldier status.
Watching Uprising‘s finale in the moment, I have to admit that my initial response was a cynical, “Oh, please.” After all, if the movie had any interest in authenticity, the kaiju would make easy mincemeat of the teen-piloted Jaegers and the apocalypse would be assured, rather than canceled. On the other hand, who wants authenticity from a giant robot movie? The resonance of seeing those teenagers put their own lives on the line to save the adults that got them into this mess — not to mention the generation that would be erased if the monsters win — ultimately trumps the ridiculousness of their presence on the battlefield.
And thinking about Uprising in the context of the #NeverAgain movement that’s been powering this ongoing wave of youth activism makes the movie’s fantastical finale even more ideally suited to our present-day circumstances. At a time when older generations couldn’t make headway on gun control, teenagers raised on heroes like Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen have thankfully stepped into the breach and are fighting the battle for their own futures in our stead. That the March for Our Lives is happening at all is a testament to their youthful spirit, ingenuity, and facility with tools that are both old (peaceful protest) and new (social media). Pacific Rim Uprising is a movie that doesn’t need to exist, but in an almost entirely accidental way, it ends up speaking directly to the generation so many of us are desperately depending on. After all, it’s their turn to save the world.
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