Pacific Rim Uprising naturally shares a lot of things with its predecessor. It’s a big, dumb film about big, cool robots, and for the most part, it’s good fun. But something huge happens early in Uprising that makes it clear why the sequel fundamentally lacks the heart that made its predecessor so good.
Part of what made Pacific Rim such a delight in the first place was its complete and totally serious commitment to its amazingly silly premise of giant monsters from another dimension being beaten up by giant robots with fantastic names called Jaegers. No matter how goofy things got, no matter how many chainsaw swords and elbow-rocket-punches were thrown about, there was never a nudge to the audience to remind them that they were watching something that was batshit insane. Never a nod and wink that yes, this is dumb and we know it’s dumb, but roll with it so you can watch a giant robot slice a goddamn space monster in half in the upper atmosphere of Earth with a sword.
That self-seriousness in the face of extremely silly but also extremely cool robot action goodness is anchored around Pacific Rim’s two lead characters (who, like the robots, also have fantastic names): Raleigh Beckett, played by Charlie Hunnam, and Mako Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi. It is Mako’s journey in particular that serves as the emotional spine of Pacific Rim. We see her confront her past—she was orphaned during one of the giant monster attacks as a child, and taken in by Jaeger pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). As an adult, she struggles to live up to his fame as one of the best pilots left protecting Earth, and bristles up against Pentecost’s own desire to see her kept safely away from giant monster fighting. As she grows and learns to believe in herself as a capable Jaeger pilot in her own right, she works with Raleigh to save the world and get closure on her childhood trauma.
Although Pacific Rim failed the more standard feminist-theory lens that is the Bechdel Test—at least one instance of two named women in a piece of media talking to each other about something that isn’t a man—Mako’s arc in the movie is so well actualized, and is resolved without her merely acting in service of fulfilling the arcs of the film’s male characters, that fans decided to establish a new critical media theory in her name: The Mako Mori test. The test, established by Tumblr user Chaila in 2013, is passed if a movie features the following criteria:
- There’s at least one female character
- She has her own narrative arc
- That arc is not about her supporting the primary arc of a male character
In Pacific Rim Uprising, Mako Mori fails the Mako Mori test.
Set a decade after the first film, Uprising does not feature Raleigh—scheduling issues saw Hunnam exit the sequel, causing a major re-write in the process—but it does feature Mako, who in that decade has now become the Secretary General of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, the organization that operates the Jaeger program. The movie opens with Mako bailing the new main character of the film, her wayward stepbrother Jake Pentecost (John Boyega), out of jail with a chance to rejoin the Jaeger program after he previously quit it. Jake begrudgingly accepts, and his first mission back in the PPDC is acting as Mako’s honor guard as she presents a report to world leaders in Sydney about turning the Jaeger program into a remote-controlled drone initiative. Things take a turn for the worse when a rogue Jaeger attacks Sydney and, in the process, brings down the helicopter Mako is in. A horrified Jake, and a horrified audience, watches as the helicopter goes down in flames and violently explodes, taking Mako with it.
It’s not that Uprising kills off one of its biggest connections to the first film (a connection that is one of the best, if not the best, part of that film) about 40 minutes into its own runtime. It’s not that, according to director Stephen S. DeKnight, Mako had a much bigger story in the film that was ultimately cut down to a handful of scenes. It’s not even that her death is so banal—Mako doesn’t die a hero, she’s the unceremonious victim of circumstance, a bureaucrat instead of a pilot.
What makes it so shameful is Mako’s death means nothing for Uprising beyond a brief step in the journey of Jake Pentecost. Mourned for and then mostly forgotten after a single scene, Mako’s death spurs Jake to really take his new career educating the next generation of Jaeger pilots seriously, to help him become the hero his father never thought he was capable of being, and to save the world in the film’s climax. Mako’s death doesn’t up the stakes, it just ignores all the character development she’d had in the first film in order to prop up the new male lead.
Uprising at least, has other female characters to help counteract Mako’s loss. Cailee Spaeny’s Amara Namani, a scrappy teen who managed to build her own Jaeger before being recruited alongside Jake into the program, is one of the highlights of the film, even if she primarily serves as the second banana in Jake’s story... and, bizarrely enough, basically has the same backstory that Mako had, revealed to Jake and the audience in the same way Mako’s was to Raleigh in the first film. Jing Tian’s Shao, the savvy, genius businesswoman behind the plans to turn the Jaeger program into drones, grows over the film from potential antagonist to staunch ally, even singlehandedly saving Jake and Amara from certain death in the film’s final moments. But neither of their arcs are remotely as compelling as Mako’s was in the first movie, and neither of their journeys carry a fraction of the emotional weight Mako’s did. Without that weight, Uprising never quite manages to have the charms of its predecessor, making the whole thing feel empty.
It’ll be up to characters like Amara and Shao to carry on Mako’s legacy when—and if—Pacific Rim 3 comes around. But when Uprising so carelessly discarded Mako, it lost a good deal of the heart it once had beating inside its giant robot chest. And it doesn’t seem likely that the franchise will be able to get it back.