Before Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro won Best Director at the Oscars for The Shape of Water, his love affair with movie monsters was already on full display in 2013’s sci-fi hit Pacific Rim.
The film’s reception in the United States didn’t look to be strong enough to justify a sequel but Chinese audiences lapped up the monster-robot mash-up, contributing more than a quarter of its total box office takings.
So when Legendary Pictures, which is now owned by Chinese conglomerate Wanda, was preparing for a sequel – Pacific Rim Uprising – it had Chinese moviegoers much more squarely in focus.
In the new offering, which is co-produced with Universal Pictures, plenty of Chinese faces were added to the cast.
For instance, actress Jing Tian, who has previously starred in other Legendary productions like The Great Wall and Kong: Skull Island, plays a supporting role. Other members of the Chinese cast include Zhang Jin, Huang Kaijie, Ji Li, Lan Yingying, Yu Xiaowei and Chen Zitong. And instead of forcing entirely English dialogue on the Chinese actors, a number of scenes are conducted in Mandarin.
Local audiences will also spot familiar landmarks like the Oriental Pearl Tower in Shanghai, CCTV headquarters in Beijing, and Guangzhou’s Canton Tower as backdrops.
As part of the plot, young robot-pilots receive their training in China because, in the telling of the story, it is China that supplies the world’s most advanced and sophisticated weapons.
So far, the ticket sales suggest that the charm offensive has paid off. Pacific Rim Uprising earned Rmb440 million ($65 million) in the first weekend after debuting in China, capturing about half of total box office receipts last week.
That made it the second-biggest opening for a Hollywood film so far this year, following Black Panther, which grossed $67 million in its debut (see WiC402).
“Even a trade war [with the US] couldn’t stop Pacific Rim Uprising from conquering China’s box office,” the People’s Daily noted.
In the sequel, John Boyega and Scott Eastwood star as a new generation of pilots tasked with saving humanity from the monsters of the deep.
“I have very high expectations for the box office. This film will definitely do well in China. After all, from the shoot to the construction of the story, we have incorporated a lot of Chinese elements and things that we believe would appeal to audiences around the world,” says Steven S DeKnight, who took over as director from Guillermo del Toro.
Many cinemagoers have compared Pacific Rim with the Transformers franchise (“a movie where massive robots fight other massive robot and lots of things exploded,” says CinemaBlend, a blog), and the pairing definitely stacks up when it comes to the product placement seen in both films.
In Pacific Rim Uprising, the logo of e-commerce giant JD.com is soon spotted on skyscrapers and drones. Tencent also makes an appearance via a robot modelled on the tech firm’s penguin mascot. Legendary also signed licencing deals with at least 15 Chinese brands, including Xiaomi, which is promoting a new suitcase, Tsingtao Beer and drinks giant Wahaha, says Entertainment Unicorn, a blog.
Still, despite the tweaks for the Chinese audience and the film’s strong commercial opening, negative word of mouth could prevent it from surpassing the record of its predecessor.
On film and TV rating website Douban, it scored a rating of 5.8 out of 10, significantly lower than the first instalment of the franchise, which was rated 7.6. It also trailed behind recent Hollywood blockbusters Black Panther (6.7) and Tomb Raider (6.4).
“I just had to check, did I watch a pirated version of Pacific Rim? From the cheaply produced CGI to the background music, nothing could save the film. The screenplay is so bad that even when the actors are speaking Chinese I had to read the English subtitles to figure out what they are saying. I have to apologise to Michael Bay for calling Transformers the worst film ever made because I was wrong,” one netizen fumed.
“I remember being so excited after watching the first film in the cinema four years ago, wishing the sequel would come sooner. Fast-forward to today, the sequel couldn’t be more disappointing. Nearly half the film is driven by unnecessarily lengthy dialogue,” another disappointed fan wrote on Douban.
Critics say the negative reception proves yet again that Chinese audiences have become much harder to please. Gone are the days when moviegoers would devour any blockbuster with action sequences and special effects, all in the name of mindless entertainment.
“As Pacific Rim Uprising has shown, we have become very demanding of Hollywood when it comes to features that target specifically at China. Even though Pacific Rim is not a bad film in incorporating Chinese elements, the end result is still disappointing,” a columnist complained in the People’s Daily.
“As China moves away from being known for ‘a lot of stupid people with a lot of money,’ I hope that Hollywood will have a more objective and sincere understanding of China instead of trying so hard just to flatter.”
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