The latest from visionary director Guillermo del Toro has became one of the most anticipated movies of the summer due to it’s promise of giant mech vs. monster action in the vain of classic kaiju flicks (Godzilla, Gamera) and anime (Neon Genesis Evangelion). With Toro being a massive fanboy of sci-fi and fantasy (As demonstrated in his ‘Hellboy’ movies and ‘Blade II’), ‘Pacific Rim’ acts as a gargantuan love letter to the genre that he has an obvious affection for by instilling a big-budget along with modern CGI effects. Does ‘Pacific Rim’ prove to be a refreshingly wondrous thrill-ride in an overall lackluster blockbuster season or just another generic piece of eye candy with little else under its giant metal haul?
Well, it mostly falls in-between but a little towards the former. The story begins in the near future when a dimensional portal opens deep within the Pacific Ocean that spews out titanic monstrosities (dubbed ‘Kaiju’), who proceed do what giant monsters seem legally contracted to do, lay waste to the world’s cities. Just like the tagline puts it, the humans responded to this un-foreseen threat by building monsters of their own. These man-made monsters are colossal mechanical men dubbed ‘Jaegers’ (German word for ‘hunter’), and they are controlled through the mind-melds of a duo of pilots. This was done because the mental energy required to operate the mechs is too much for one person to handle. For seven years this strategy seem to has been working very well until a meaner and more formidable species of Kaiju emerge from the portal that are shockingly making scrap piles out of the once seemingly invincible Jaegers. After this un-nerving development the program has been abandoned in favor of giant walls to keep the kaiju out but a few mech pilots are still fighting the good fight.
One strange aspect to the film’s story is how it feels more like the second or third entry in a trilogy rather than an opener (a sequel is already in the works). In the first fifteen minutes we are given paragraphs worth of exposition about the first kaiju attack on San Francisco, how planes and tanks didn’t work, and the trials of the early-Jaeger program through Charlie Hunnam’s monotone narration (who plays generic Caucasian American hero No. 371). Toro’s fondness for the material is very apparent but shouldn’t it have occurred to him as a filmmaker that maybe the material in the prologue would have made for a much more interesting story than the one we got? Because the one we got is a weird but strangely routine narrative that feels like a combination of ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Independence Day’ (the very climax borrows heavily from the Emmerich film) with Toro’s ‘Hellboy’ steam-punk aesthetics sprinkled all over.
To address the main questions of “Are the visuals good?” and “Do the robot and monster fights deliver the goods?”, the answer is for the most part: yes. From a visual standpoint the movie is a wonder to behold. It’s obvious a lot of work went into the designs of the Jaegers and villainous kaiju. The scene involving the characters walking through a gigantic hangar with the last remaining Jaegers on display is an awesome sight that will certainly put the 14 year old in all of us in a state of bliss. There are three main mech vs. monster fights in the film (one off the coast of Alaska, in downtown Hong Kong, and another underneath the ocean) and they expertly deliver the powerful feeling of two awesome giants colliding.
It’s just a shame that the overall presentation and cinematography seems almost dedicated to diluting the impact of these clashes. Most of the fights take place at night (with a brief scuttle in Sydney that is refreshingly in the daytime) and visibility is problematic due to the weird constant presence of ocean mist and rain. Combine this with the fights being shot way too close and instances of spastic editing; the mech vs. monster fights too often descend into a blur of pretty bright lights, noises, and dark hazes. Plus, there is never a moment were Toro holds the camera still in order to allow the audience to be in awe of the large beasts (both mechanical and organic), or to get a clear idea of were everything is in relation to another. Heck, you get a more clear view of the mechs and monsters on the promotional material. Maybe Toro should have watched the 60’s Godzilla movies more closely to see how the monster fights were shot at a suitable wide distance (like a boxing match) so we can see and appreciate the fight choreography and creative monster designs (it doesn’t help that the kaiju start to look like the same variation of a dark glow-stick-like Cloverfield-esque monster after a while). The best scene in the entire movie is the battle between a Jaeger and a kaiju in the middle of Hong Kong because at least the abundance of neon lights makes everything clearly visible.
Del Toro may have delivered on the special effects front, but the same can’t be said about the story and characters. In between these behemoth fights are weak dialogue, even weaker characters, some lackluster acting, and a severely routine story in which every twist and turn can be spotted a million miles away. What doesn’t help matters are the really tedious scenes between the two embarrassingly unfunny “comedic” scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. It’s just surreal seeing every cast member play their parts completely and blandly straight while Day and Gorman (complete with a goofy British accent) are acting as if they are in a live-action cartoon. But then again, they are the only characters that can even claim to have any real character at all. Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) plays the token pretty but tough leading lady who becomes Hunnam’s co-pilot (which predictably develops into a romance but this is so underdeveloped that it might as well not have been there) and Idris Elba (Prometheus, The Wire) plays the stock strictly authoritative military commander. Aside from a brief but near-show stealing stint by Toro regular Ron Perlman (Sons of Anarchy) as a shady black marketer in Kaiju organs, the cast barely registers.
There is a possibility the average moviegoer may not mind the simplistic story and characters, but then again at a 2 ½ hour runtime, the least Toro could have done was gives us something to keep our interest while the mechs are in the garage. If giant robot vs. mech style action is all your asking for, then the film will deliver enough thrills to justify a matinee price despite some questionable presentation.