Friday 23rd March marks the release of Pacific Rim: Uprising, a big-budget sequel to 2013’s Pacific Rim that continues its story of giant double-piloted robot mechs (called Jaegers) battling horrific extra-dimensional monsters known as Kaiju.
As you may have gathered from the above description, it’s a fairly simple premise – but does that mean you could turn up and watch the new film without having seen the original? After all, it’s been five years since the first movie, and you might only be turning up now for new star John Boyega.
To find out, we watched both films for the first time in the wrong order – Uprising first, then the original Pacific Rim – to see just how lost you’d be if you just started with the new sequel.
Pacific Rim: Uprising is a new start
To get to the point – yes, you can totally watch this film without having seen the first Pacific Rim. It actually seems like Pacific Rim: Uprising has anticipated getting quite a few first-time viewers, as the film helpfully gives a recap of the first instalment's events right at the start. In short – giant Kaiju started attacking coastal cities in 2013, the world invented giant robots to fight them, they need two pilots due to the neural strain and said pilots had to be “drift compatible” for that process to work.
In the first film, ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) managed to close the underwater breach that was allowing the Kaiju to come to our world, though the process cost many lives. The new film picks up a decade later, when Kaiju attacks are a thing of the past and Stacker’s son Jake (John Boyega, new to the series) is living a life of petty crime.
The new film does a good job of explaining all this to the uninitiated, probably helped by the fact that nearly everyone in the film is a brand-new character who needs everything explained to them. In fact, only three actors are in both films – Rinko Kikuchi, who plays wannabe Jaeger pilot Mako Mori in the first film but has a smaller role in the sequel, and scientists Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) – with Hunnam’s absence particularly noticeable after his lead role last time (supposedly he was too busy filming Guy Ritchie flop King Arthur: Legend of the Sword to participate in Uprising).
Still, this overhaul does mean a sort of soft reboot for the series that’s kind to new viewers, with few character interactions and backstories being crossed over and new relationships developed onscreen instead. And, as noted, the concept is simple enough and clearly explained so that you won’t find yourself too lost in the series mythos.
Comparing to the original
Obviously, having seen the original Pacific Rim does give some advantages to viewers of the sequel, with more time spent explaining the Jaeger technology, the properties of Kaiju and the dynamics of the Rangers fighting them that feed directly into Uprising.
This applies in particular to crossover characters Herman and Newt, whose storyline has a bit more impact if you followed their interactions in the first film, and Boyega’s Jake, whose struggles with his father’s legacy hit a little harder if you actually saw Elba’s Pentecost senior in action. Personally, I also missed the significance of lead Jaeger Gipsy Avenger (based on Gipsy Danger in the first film) pounding its fist into its other hand until I watched the original, where it's a signature stance. In the sequel, this is very lightly mocked at one point, which you slightly lose the point of if you haven't seen Pacific Rim.
On the flipside, though, there are actually some disadvantages to having seen the earlier film first. Without putting too much of a gloss on it, Pacific Rim is a better, weirder and more interesting film than its sequel, and some of its most interesting worldbuilding and relationships are completely jettisoned for Uprising. Notably, the process of Jaeger-piloting is largely simplified and updated technologically for the new film, which is slightly disappointing after the process was laid out much more completely the first time around.
Weirdly, the stakes also seem slightly lower for our heroes, though the threat they face is definitely bigger (even if just physically) this time around.
This means that fans of the original Pacific Rim may find themselves slightly underwhelmed by the sleeker, more traditional storytelling of the sequel (TV writer/director Steven S DeKnight taking over from Guillermo del Toro), while newcomers won’t know what they’re missing as they enjoy the simple fun of its high-stakes battles.
Conclusion – watch them both, but in the wrong order
Perhaps the best solution is the one that seems the most counter-intuitive. Watch Pacific Rim: Uprising this weekend for some big-budget, super-fun action – then go back to the original to learn more about the Jaegers, the Kaiju and the nuts and bolts of how this strange future world works.
If you’ve already seen the first film, well, you’ll probably still enjoy the sequel – but if you’re reading this we’re betting you haven’t, and we definitely recommend our “Godfather part II” style of viewing it (you know, following the son’s story and finding out what happened to his father afterwards).
And if nothing else, it’ll give you the chance to see the Pacific Rim world where it belongs on the big screen (you need to watch giant robots punching space dinosaurs on a large canvas, come on) before deciding if you like it enough to commit to other films in the series.
Assuming there are more films, of course, in which case we’ll be back here in five years with a new viewing guide. This could turn into the Star Wars original trilogy/prequel viewing debate all over again…
Pacific Rim: Uprising is in cinemas now