Ever wondered what Transformers vs Godzilla would be like if it was directed by Guillermo del Toro? Well, Pacific Rim might give you some idea.
Del Toro, the visionary master who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone (as well as Hellboy and Blade II), apparently gave up on directing The Hobbit so he could work on projects such as Pacific Rim, his personal version of a light summer blockbuster focused on spectacular visuals and popcorn entertainment as opposed to the recent trend of dark, brooding movies such as The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel.
The result? A mixed bag, I’m afraid. Del Toro succeeds in making Pacific Rim a visual feast that pays homage to the Japanese monster movies and robot anime I loved so much as a kid, but on the other hand the script (which he co-write with Travis Beacham) is so pedestrian (to put it nicely) that it prevents the film from achieving what could have been all-round brilliance. That’s disappointing because we all know from his past films that del Toro is a brilliant storyteller when he sets out to be one.
Pacific Rim starts off by placing us right in the middle of the story, with a lengthy explanation about how gigantic monsters, known as “Kaiju” (from the Japanese word for “monster”), began emerging from the depths of our oceans some time in 2013, wreaking havoc on cities all around the world. While it makes zero sense, the world’s governments decide to join forces to create “Jaegers” (German for “hunter”), which are essentially massive robots, to fight the Kaiju. That’s about it.
(Personally, I thought it would have been a good idea to start right from the beginning, because seeing the Kaiju rise from the depths up close and in detail for the first time would have been a jaw-dropping sight. But the movie is already 132-minutes long, so maybe not.)
At its core, Pacific Rim is just enormous robots and gigantic monsters beating the crap out of each other. And that’s awesome. Del Toro infuses the action sequences with his marvellous visual flair, supersized to an awe-inspiring scale. His attention to detail in the movements of the Kaijus and Jaegers and their interactions with their environment puts Transformers to shame. As great as the visual effects were in Transformers, there was always something fake and cartoonish about the robots, but in Pacific Rim the effects are so seamless that such thoughts never crossed my mind.
The look of the Jaegers and Kaijus are also amazing and emphasize del Toro’s genius when it comes to creature design. Each monster has different attributes and characteristics, as do the Jaeger, which reflect their country of origin (such as the US, China, Russia and Australia). Watching a showdown between such wonderful creations — with remarkable clarity, by the way — was truly an exhilarating ride.
Unfortunately, it’s the humans who bring Pacific Rim down. The film is at its best when there is no talking or attempted character development, because as soon as the humans interacting the film nosedives into mediocrity. I don’t think the acting is horrible but it feels horrible because of the atrocious dialogue. It’s as though the screenwriters thought no one would care about the characters or the dialogue so they just came up with the quickest way to progress the story by summarizing all human interactions into cringeworthy cliches — and yet it felt like there were far too many attempts to make us care about them. The end result is a lot of unsatisfactory, disjointed and embarrassing “human drama” fillers in between the action scenes.
The formulaic storyline also appears to tick every plot-point box of Hollywood blockbusters these days from The Dark Knight Rises to The Avengers to Skyfall (not sure if this qualifies as a spoiler, but if you don’t wanna know, skip this paragraph now) — an early catastrophic incident for the protagonist(s), forcing them to start over from the bottom; a deceptively clever antagonist(s) who plans a trap for our hero(es); and a moment of despair that seems impossible to overcome, just before the final heroic climax.
I know all of this sounds harsh. After all, isn’t Pacific Rim supposed to be a summer popcorn movie? Yes, it is, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little more in the other departments, especially considering this is del Toro and not Michael Bay we’re dealing with.
The cast is headed by Charlie Hunnam, best known from the TV series Sons of Anarchy. He’s really just an older poor man’s Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, The Road) who takes his short off more often than Taylor Lautner (though to be fair, I would too if I was that ripped). He’s OK — physically suitable but lacking the requisite charm to carry a film like this.
Playing his Jaeger partner/love interest is Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi, a fine actress I remember from 2006’s Babel. She’s actually pretty good, as is Idris Elba as a drug kingpin…oh hang on, that’s The Wire. Actually, here he’s just the boss of the Jaeger pilots. He’s Idris Elba, so you know he’s awesome, even though he does deliver a hilarious Braveheart speech (compulsory for all movies with a final battle) in his original British accent (which actually felt kinda weird).
For comic relief, we have two scientists and Kaiju experts. The first is Charlie Day, who is nearly as loud and abrasive (and occasionally adorable) as he is in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The second is Burn Gorman, who plays a rip-off of Tucker from There’s Something About Mary, complete with the whiny voice and dodgy limp.
Rounding out the main cast are Max Martini (American) and Robert Kazinsky (Brit) as two fake Aussies with really exaggerated accents. Seriously, why not get some real Aussies? oh well, at least it was good to see one of them playing a semi-villain.
The actor who steals the show is del Toro favourite Ron Perlman (aka Hellboy), who plays a black marketeer who harvests the organs and body parts of dead Kaijus. It’s an outlandish and campy performance that Perlman absolutely nails, and the few short scenes with him and Day are the “human” highlights of the entire film.
Pacific Rim got a lot of very positive reviews, which surprised me in some ways given how critics are always so quick to savage poor dialogue and characterization. I have a feeling much of the warm response stems from their respect for del Toro as a visionary filmmaker. I really wanted to like Pacific Rim a lot more than I did because the last two Transformers movies just about destroyed my faith in humanity. The creature designs and action sequences fulfilled if not exceeded my expectations, but those things alone were not enough to reach the bar I had set for the movie.
3.25 stars out of 5
PS: No matter what you thought of Pacific Rim, the groundwork has been laid for what could potentially be a blistering sequel, apparently already in the works.