Writer/director Steven S. DeKnight (Daredevil, Angel), in his first turn working on a feature film, gives us everything we expect in a monsters-versus-robots movie—and quite a few pleasant surprises as well.

Jake Pentecost (John Boyega of Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is the son of Jaeger legend Stacker Pentecost. Although he once planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, he now resorts to black-market dealing of Jaeger parts. A chance encounter with highly skilled Jaeger fanatic Amara (Cailee Spaeny) lands him in a difficult spot that ultimately thrusts him back into service, just in time to fight in the next war for the survival of mankind.

It sounds like a pretty cut-and-dried plot, but DeKnight throws in a few unexpected twists and, at least on one occasion, outright denies conventional screenwriting standards (which isn’t surprising coming from someone standing in Guillermo del Toro’s shadow). What is surprising is how skillfully this film novice crafts a work that far exceeds his TV portfolio. He is clearly as comfortable in the feature-length format as he is in television.

The only flaw is that, beyond the leads, there isn’t a great deal of character development among the Jaeger-pilot team. That’s a shame, as it’s clear that there are some interesting and diverse individuals present. Boyega’s performance is similar in quality to his work in Star Wars (unsurprising since the character is similar as well). Scott Eastwood (Suicide Squad) channels his father’s smoldering intensity, while also making it clear that he is not his father with a unique characterization. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny does a wonderful job portraying Amara Namani’s mix of youth, awe, genius, and a sense of a little girl forced to grow up too fast.

Only three actors return from the original: Rinko Kikuchi as Jake’s adopted older sister Mako Mori, and Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as, respectively, geeky scientists Hermann Gottlieb and Newton Geiszler. The latter pair function as less of a “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” than in the previous film, although you wouldn’t know it at the start.

As expected, the Jeagers are as awe-inspiring in appearance as the Kaiju are disturbing. The animation for both is so flawlessly executed that one can easily suspend disbelief regarding the film’s larger-than-life destruction. While there aren’t as many action sequences as in the first movie, the ones here are more vivid and enjoyable.

Uprising continues the original Pacific Rim’s message that, despite any racial, moral, or ethnic differences, we are capable of coming together as a team in order to defeat an unimaginable enemy. Unlike many other films, though, it doesn’t need to announce this theme loudly. Rather, it is taken as a given that we are one people, perhaps because of the horrors that humanity has faced together.

Fans of this type of genre who are expecting spectacular fight sequences will not be disappointed. Those who like a little meat with their action will be pleasantly surprised, and will hope that Pacific Rim: Uprising sets a new bar for storytelling in films featuring gigantic characters of any kind.