Despite some fantastic reviews from critics and audiences alike, ‘Pacific Rim’ opened in third place with a dismal $38.3 million box office take. Was the world simply not ready for the explosive collision of Kaiju and Jaeger, or is director Guillermo del Toro’s latest project simply not up to the task? While the film is ultimately entertaining and its action out of this world, it fails to be engaging and mostly falls flat on its face when said action is not unfolding on the screen. The film plays as a series of epic battle scenes between monsters and robots with a bunch of meandering nonsense crammed in between them, all of which is simply a hindrance to how great the film could have been. Instead, it tries to over-explain its science fiction and its characters are pretty lacking in almost every way. In the end, ‘Pacific Rim’ is a good-not-great sci-fi action extravaganza, a blissful love letter to monster movies and anime that succeeds wonderfully in delivering on both of those fronts. Spoilers to follow.
Charlie Hunnam stars as Raleigh Becket, a co-pilot of Gypsy Danger, one of the massive robots- Jaegers- that were built to combat the threat of the monstrous Kaiju that are invading the Earth. He narrates as the film begins and drops the audience some years into the war against the giant beasts, much to the film’s credit, as an origin or lengthy back story about the early years of the Kaiju war or a film that focused solely on the beginning of said war would have been a colossal failure. Rather, mankind has been at war with the beasts for many years, and thanks to the Jaegers they have been able to save themselves from defeat. Which… is the first of the film’s problems. While one can buy the idea that the first Kaiju to come through the rift in the Pacific were simply scouts, why is it that an entire army of them isn’t simply sent through the rift to wipe mankind out? The film never really points out why it is that the Kaiju wait so long between attacks, nor why the time between the attacks is decreasing, it quite simply is. Suspending disbelief goes without saying walking into the theater here, but let’s be honest: the good guys win because the bad guys are stupid. If this were a World War II film, the Kaiju would be del Toro’s Germans. They are inept at any kind of a useful strategy which practically begs mankind to devise a way to fight against them.
More, why is it that the smaller Kaiju are sent first? Again, it isn’t established that only smaller ones can come through initially. They just do it this way. Why? Why not send the hulking category four Kaiju through the rift from the get-go? These powerhouses make quick work of a number of Jaegers as well as the defensive wall being built along the Pacific coast. Imagine how much success the war might have had, if only the script hadn’t require them to be too stupid to do it until it required them to. Travis Beacham’s script is largely juvenile in this respect, making the bad guy too inept until the film requires some tension, at which time mankind must overcome impossible odds to save the Earth. This is blockbuster writing 101, without much depth or substance to it. Mankind must work together to save the world, and only through struggle and sacrifice are they so able. Had the film used the themes better, it may have been more successful, but instead it just feels tired.
Characters here are also razor-thin. Hunnam’s Becket is so stiff and wooden it’s a wonder they didn’t just grab him and club the Kaiju with him. He doesn’t even make a convincing generic action hero, he’s just boring. Idris Elba shows up as the admiral of the whole Jaeger program, but he has little to do aside from standing around looking stoic and leader-like. Elba does a decent job with the role, but there’s no meat in the script for him, and the same goes for any of the characters. The inserts with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, the scientists working to discover more about the Kaiju, feel ridiculously out of place, and are mostly a poor attempt at comic relief. Ron Perlman is fantastic as Hannibal Chau, and he oozes charisma every moment he’s on the screen, but even he can’t save it. Rinko Kikuchi plays Becket’s co-pilot Mako, and she does well with the role, but again, there is very little substance.
Perhaps, however, all of this is the point- maybe none of the human scenes, or the characters, are supposed to matter. This is supposed to be a big monster movie, monsters v. robots, right? Maybe none of the other stuff is important because this is why the audience is in the theater- to see robots beat up monsters, just like an old ‘Godzilla’ movie or any number of anime. This is certainly a fair point to argue, and the action scenes are crazy kinds of good, but the rest of the film feels like filler as a result. It feels like watching Goku battle Frieza in Dragonball Z– endless scenes of talking and preparing, followed by a few seconds of something actually interesting. It wasn’t even enough to keep the plot chugging along, because Hunnam is so inept at actually being the film’s lead character. It just isn’t fun, or interesting in the least. It plays as if it doesn’t want to be taken too seriously, and then takes itself too seriously. Does the audience need an in-depth flashback about Mako as a child? Does the audience need so much explanation of the “neural bridge” that the pilots use to control the Jaegers? Does the audience need to find out in the eleventh hour that Stacker used to be a pilot and that another turn piloting the Jaeger will kill him? It is all too long and detracts from the overall experience of the film.
Despite all of this, however, ‘Pacific Rim’ still manages to be a pretty enjoyable film once the action gets going. The effects in the film are absolutely amazing, from the Jaegers to the Kaiju and the epic amounts of destruction that they cause. Del Toro uses a lot of shaky cam and quick cutting during the battles, true, but he also uses a staggering amount of long and wide shots of the carnage as well. He knows that his audience wants to see big, epic action and this film delivers heaps of it, and just when one might think its over, it delivers even more. While it was a shame to see some of the other Jaegers tossed aside so quickly by the Kaiju, the film spends a lot of time with Gypsy Danger and her pilots as they trudge through the seas and through the streets of Hong Kong doing battle with the colossal beasts. Each of these moments is better than the last, save for the final battle, which just isn’t as good as the battles in Hong Kong that precede it.
What, then, might have saved ‘Pacific Rim?’ There’s a lot to like about it, despite some of the negativity of the review above, and it is a good film. It is certainly enjoyable and entertaining, but only in the empty, intangible way. A better cast and a tighter narrative would have helped tremendously here. Hunnam simply can’t carry the film with his plywood-inspired performance, and none of his supporting cast does any of the lifting to help. Shorten the film and cast a new lead role and ‘Pacific Rim’ would have been absolutely amazing from start to finish. Instead, it manages to be little more than lackluster in a summer that has showcased far better fare. Three and a Half out of Five Stars.
By Nicholas Haskins
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