The first Pacific Rim movie was a big dark epic, the sort of sci-fi flick with resolute heroes, giant monsters, and battles for the future of civilization that take place almost exclusively at night, during what is an unusually rainy week. Director Guillermo del Toro made the film as a rousing tribute to the great Japanese monster movies of his youth, a blockbuster without a hint of irony.
Its sequel, this weekend's Pacific Rim Uprising, is in almost every way the opposite of del Toro's earnest extravaganza. Where the original was dark, director Steven DeKnight's film is bright and colorful; whereas the first one was heartfelt and inspiring, Uprising is self-conscious, almost winking at the audience. Even the giant robots, known as Jaegers in this world, are remade, sleeker and trickier, crucial to punchlines just as often as big, bruising battles.
"At the very beginning, Steven said that he wanted to go in a new direction," says production designer Stefan Dechant, noting that about a decade and a half is supposed to have elapsed in the film's universe, which enabled the significant changes. "He wanted a much more slick feeling to the thing. He talked about it like, the original Star Trek: The Motion Picture had an aesthetic, and then when they moved on to Wrath of Khan it was a different aesthetic, and that he wanted to go there."
The references to old geek culture staples ran deep in the Uprising production offices. Dechant says the film functioned as a kind of "love note to every '80s anime," including the classic Akira and the manga Battle Angel Alita (which was released in 1990, though we'll let it slide). There are little flourishes, like the motorcycle driven by the young orphaned genius Amara (Cailee Spaeny), which is red in honor of the bike driven by Kaneda, the lead character of the animated classic.
The entire third act of Uprising is entirely inspired by anime, set in a Tokyo with endless skyscrapers and neon billboards stacked even higher, gleaming and glittering from all angles. It is the endpoint of what is both a globe-spanning and aesthetic journey for Amara and Jake (John Boyega), with cities designed to represent different stages of reconstruction from the near-apocalyptic events of the first film. Santa Monica, where they start, is still lawless and half-abandoned, littered with empty homes being used by squatters; Amara makes her own giant robot out of stolen parts of old and discarded Jaegers, a resource that Jake — the rebel son of the first movie's hero — likes to plunder himself.
Sydney, where they train, is better preserved and thus less futuristic — island isolation will do that — and then Tokyo is next-level, almost arcade-like, sort of what the designers on Sonic the Hedgehog games must have been imagining. This corrects one of the issues some people had with del Toro's movie: too many scenes taking place at night, obscuring the very designs at which viewers were supposed to gawk.
"We felt that one of the things that we really wanted to do was have more fights in the daylight," Dechant says. "We wanted to see more of that world, and Tokyo would be the place where we could show it off."
Just what they were going to show off this time around was also subject to major changes.
In the 2013 film, the giant Transformer-esque Jaegers were lumbering first-generation models that operated with the grace of sumo wrestlers — surprisingly agile for their size, but still pretty deliberate and slow. This time around, DeKnight envisioned sleeker, more agile robots, capable of moving fast and using that speed in an expanded artillery of attacks.
"We thought of the original Jaegers as tanks, and these were going to be more like fighter jets," Dechant explains.
Even more important was making over the interior of the Jaegers. DeKnight wanted to clean up the tangle of cables that filled the cockpit and connected the pilots to the robot's nervous system via their feet, which they used to act out fights with the Kaiju. Instead, they decided the new generation of pilots — mainly Jake and Nate (Scott Eastwood) — would wear a special suit that enabled far more freedom and range of motion. That "would allow you to do flying kicks, get hit and tumble within there," the designer explains.
The design went beyond just deciding what looked cool; during preproduction, they also brainstormed a way to justify the adjustments. "We said that there was a maglev system, something that provided some kind of force that repelled them," Dechant says, pre-empting any protest from a particular strain of fan that has become preoccupied with checking the physics of science fantasy.
At the suggestion of producer Cale Boyter, each Jaeger had specialized capabilities. Saber Athena — these are epic names — was the most nimble and fast bot, while Bracer Phoenix was the "military and tank-like" model, armed with rail guns and packing a hell of a punch.
Boyter's suggestion also helped guide the design of the rival Kaiju monsters, which proved to be more difficult than dreaming up new robots. The challenge was amplified by the need to make the three new monsters both distinct and complementary so that they could merge into one Mega-Kaiju, a riff on generations of tokusatsu shows.
Dechant was assisted by Doug Lefler, who generally works as Steven Spielberg's storyboard artist; Dechant had worked with him on The BFG. Lefler was responsible for designing the Kaiju based on the names they had been given at the time. For example, the monster Shrikethorn was given his name first, and then abilities that corresponded — spikes on his tail that can shoot out at a moment's notice.
As for the Mega-Kaiju, that was also a joint effort. Weta Workshop did the bulk of the design, and then after a meeting with Universal, Legendary Pictures helped finish off the modeling. Also useful: Dechant's aspirations to own an electric car.
"I was looking at the Kaiju Raijin, and we had this idea that he had a faceplate that helped create a chest plate when it was full Mega-Kaiju, but it would open up and let its head come out," Dechant explains. "I was like, 'Okay, let's say that thing closes, so it protects the head, but then' — because I'd like to buy an electric car, — 'let's say you hit this thing and it's like the brakes on a Tesla, so that if you go to hit the head or you go to hit it, it takes all that energy and it powers up."
The battles in the movie take up much of the third act, during which each of the very distinct abilities is on full display. And thankfully, it all takes place during the day.