Kaiju: the monsters in this movie. No, they were not invented for this movie.
Jaeger: the robots used by humans to fight the monsters in this movie. Yes, they were invented for this movie.
The love that Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim seems to share for Godzilla movie lore, rock ’em sock ’em robots, and the thrill of big popcorn movie events should be enough to guarantee this as a cheerfully maximalist summer blockbuster that we’ll never forget. After all, del Toro is a superb director – nobody who’s seen Pan’s Labyrinth can argue otherwise – and he worked his talented ass off with an army of collaborators to amass for us this throwback to the pure pleasures of over-the-top entertainment. It’s a touch grim, but not Dark Knight grim, it basically triples the spectacle of Transformers, and in place of pretense it has, well robots and monsters punching each other over and over. Whoever you are – geek, fanboy, common pedestrian needing an ever-more-extreme fix of simple-minded big budget mayhem to hold your attention, an infant amused by loud noises and giant versions of your toys – this is the movie for you, dammit. So why is it so cumbersome to sit through? At a movie theater I always lose myself in the experience, good or bad; in my 20+ years of going to the movies, one of the only times I can remember ever checking my watch during a show was last Christmas’ Les Miserables, and that’s only because I’m pretty sure I sat in that seat for four straight days waiting for Russell Crowe to stop bleating. Yet here I was, staring with 3D glasses up at an IMAX screen showing an enormous kaiju-Jaeger showdown, probably one of the largest scale fight sequences ever created for a movie, wondering when the hell this was gonna get interesting.
What has become the most interesting debate about Pacific Rim, even before anybody saw it, is whether it belongs to the masses at large or to the self-proclaimed geeks with their masters degrees in pop culture history, and how this all affects the future of studio bankrolling, so I guess that’s as fitting a place as any to discuss why the movie just doesn’t work. There are some movies that failed the popularity test but were cherished by a “cult” fanbase – Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a go-to example (and it is awesome, you should watch it, or watch it again) – and many seem to think that Pacific Rim is the newest member of this For-Hardcore-Fans-Only Club, because there’s no way those box office numbers are going to recuperate the massive budget needed to make such a behemoth as this, hence no sequels and a lifetime of reporters equating the movie with John Carter, “Heaven’s Gate”, and, quite fittingly, the 1998 Godzilla remake. But why does anybody want to eulogize this movie? Because it’s the only big budget version of their favorite anime show that has been made yet? Just because Guillermo del Toro made it? People seem to overlook the fact that he’s not a very good writer. Except for Pan’s Labyrinth, every other screenplay he’s been credited for has been fairly flat and artless. Everyone digs Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone, but I’d say both are overrated and underwhelming, and if they succeed at all, it’s for their contemplative mood and melancholy tone, respectively. The Hellboy movies are fun but on the script level they’re pure B-movie hokeyness. And the less said about the hopelessly ordinary writing on Mimic and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the better.
I might sympathize if I were affectionate for either of those rabidly adored commodities, but my skepticism for del Toro (a visionary but a patchy storyteller) and lack of contact with the majority of anime programming (also I enjoyed all the Godzilla movies as a kid but I didn’t even know until this movie existed that they were called “kaiju” and there’s a whole universe devoted to them) helps me keep a level head here and assess the potential Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome happening with Pacific Rim. The movie I saw wasn’t lousy (like Godzilla), nor obnoxious (like Transformers), and I’d happily shake the hand of Guillermo del Toro for good intentions – thank you for your love of movies, Mr. del Toro – but it’s so thoroughly unoriginal, so blankly average on the script level, and so overcompensatingly noisy and visually incoherent that it doesn’t flatter anyone’s passion for Gojira or Neon Genesis Evangelion, and in fact (ironically?) seems targeted directly at Transformers lovers and that guy who likes the Godzilla remake. While the former is an eyesore to be sure, the visual effects in all three movies have been damn impressive on a technical level, just exhausting to make sense of (especially with Bay’s tornado-style editing). Well, you can say the same thing about Pacific Rim – only a real nitpicking bastard could find flaw with the detail, animation, and integration of both the kaiju and the Jaegers. Fabulous work bringing them to life.
Unfortunately, while del Toro isn’t as frenzied as Michael Bay or, say, Paul Greengrass, he does submit to the chaos of the battle scenes, cutting and pasting shots into a reckless turbulence in order to amplify the intensity we feel watching them (also probably to obscure our impressions of the CGI work, which also explains why every showdown takes place in the rain, in the dark, or deep underwater). Every time we see the humans inside a Jaeger, the boring inertia of them just standing there simulating motion is offset by jagged angles, sparks flying, foreground decoration (like computer projections), and most of the time it’s nearly impossible to get a clear idea of what’s going on in there (but don’t worry, you already know they’re just jostling around a bit while we’ll get back to the real action outside in about 2/3rds of a second). But even if you happen to be adept at instantaneously mapping out spatial relations of busy images projected immensely right in front of you at a relentless speed, the redundancy of these scenes is sure to wear on you. I hate to say it, but Transformers probably had more variety in its fight sequences than Pacific Rim, which is mostly just basic wrestling moves writ large. WWE fans, eat your hearts out (I’m surprised they didn’t throw in a bit with a kaiju scaling a skycraper and then leaping elbow-first onto a Jaeger). Anyone hoping for creative choreography or just a little variety – please go away. You might argue that there’s a necessarily short range to the movement of giant robotic avatars and hulking creatures, and that all the punching fits the homage to Godzilla flicks. To which I would reply: then why did they need to make this movie? If the only thing you can do is replicate your idols, why bother. It’s kind of cool to have a shiny, brand new Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla movie that checks off all the expected ingredients on the list, but it would’ve been for-real cool if they’d sidestepped or transcended the ancient formulas this movie worships and imagined sights unseen and possibilities heretofore untapped. Giant monsters attacking earth, hmm, what can we add to that to make it novel again? Man-operated giant robot defenders? It’s been done, albeit not for cinema, but okay, let’s finally get around to filming that. That’s about as far as the conceptual process went, it looks like. Having the technology to present a better-looking Godzilla movie – now with robots! – seems to have been a top priority, and while I’m not in need of a cerebral art-house approach, a little flavor and energy can stimulate any idea, no matter how worn. I think del Toro was too enamored of his subjects to plan beyond their design and creation phases. Hence a wheezy screenplay that seems to have been translated from Independence Day and Top Gun, with all the attending cliches of groaning one-liners, connect-the-dots character development, embarrassingly cheesy speeches, heroic sacrifices, nattering sidekicks, and presumed-dead last-minute fake-outs therein. If you saw Oblivion earlier this year and noticed that smuggling a bomb into the mothership seemed rather plagiaristic of ID4 and other sci-fi climaxes, well, guess what “Pacific Rim” has in store for you! Even a spoof of these movies would probably consider that too broad a target at this point. Remember how Hot Shots! Part Deux made fun of how Rambo II started out with Stallone in exile, coaxed back into service by his old boss after trying to lead a simpler life? Well it’s 20 years later and Pacific Rim is giving us that very same set-up, sans parody. Ever heard of an alien invasion movie where the aliens want to colonize our planet to consume our resources, then move on to the next? It would’ve been smarter not to even give them a motive, than to saddle them with that pointless oldie. Even in the details, the movie is crawling with cliches – there’s a single tear rolling down the cheek! A cocky villain gets a gruesome comeuppance in the middle of his gratuitous posturing! The crazy scientist uncovers the master plan at the last minute! Nine times out of ten, somebody is saved from imminent attack by the perfectly timed arrival of a Jaeger from behind to distract the kaiju! Everybody cheers happily when the protagonist makes it out alive even though just a minute or two earlier, several major characters died unceremoniously (this happens on two separate occasions).
The witlessness of the movie doesn’t derive only from the recycled bits, though; it’s also plenty evident in the stupidity of the story itself. Why would building a steel wall hinder the monsters? Why couldn’t they just set up nuclear bombs all around the portal and detonate them whenever a kaiju came through? What is the point of having military ranks and anybody in charge if every single character disobeys direct orders every time? These matters and all those above could have been overlooked if the money shots were more dynamic (i.e. not just them slamming into each other and demolishing everything in sight), but also if the actors were really kicking ass in their parts. Try though they might, however, (Idris Elba is damn good at bellowing all his lines, at least) none of the leads amount to anything. Charlie Hunnam can nail a charismatic role (Green Street Hooligans) but as a somber hero, he is properly utilitarian and nothing more. Rinko Kikuchi starts out with an endearing mystique, but she’s been completely muzzled and neglected by the time we reach the lengthy final showdown. Even del Toro’s lucky charm Ron Perlman comes up short as a scene stealing black marketeer. The script finds him funnier than we’re able to.
As for the monsters and robots that del Toro lovingly poured the whole budget (financial and creative) into, aside from looking realistic and that one kaiju with what looks like an axe sticking out of his forehead, not to be a jerk but to me they resembled awkwardly shaped Godzilla replicas plus the open-flapped mouths of those zombies from the atrociously ugly Resident Evil films. Props for being gigantic, of course, and having glowing blue innards was a neat touch, but they’re all too familiar looking, with only minor variations of the tectonic plating in their heads. Clearly they were based off the Toho line-up of Godzilla adversaries, who were all rubber lizard suits in the old movies (here the only specific homage I could see was to Rodan, since one of the kaiju can fly), and they’re supposed to be of the same species, so they had to look alike at least a little bit, but there’s not nearly enough to differentiate each one in a memorable way. If they were trading cards and you were a kid, you probably wouldn’t go out of your way to collect them all. Well, maybe you would. Monsters are cool regardless. But it would take you a while to memorize their names! That you can bet on! Eh… The emergence of an unprecedented category 5 kaiju at the end (that’s the biggest ever seen) is a disappointment since it all happens underwater, with no nearby scale for us to appreciate its supremacy. If it had gotten to a city and we could see that it’s maybe twice the size of the other kaiju, that could’ve been a worthy big boss. The Jaegers, for their part, look good enough. As someone who didn’t play with transformers much as a kid, I could hardly have cared less for this part of the movie. They looked even more identical to each other than the kaiju, no disrespect to what I’m sure were unique models in del Toro’s process.
So what’s good about the movie? Its heart seems to be in the right place. It’s a dumb movie, but del Toro seems to mean it, so we can’t complain about crass cynicism. The plot point requiring a mind-meld for the Jaegers to work showed a glimmer of invention, though it’s a moot point by the climax so it seems shoe-horned in here to contrive an overcome-the-obstacle bonding session early on for Hunnam and Kikuchi. Opening the movie by fast forwarding through the origin story is a welcome change of pace for big summer pics. In medias res can be an effective starting point, well done. Unlike a lot of reviewers, I was won over by the antics and chemistry of Charlie Day and partner Burn Gorman as the mad scientists. That kind of wacky, offbeat character actor support would have gone to the likes of Christopher Lloyd, Wallace Shawn, or Vincent Schiavelli back in the day. Always a pleasure. And put both those guys in more movies! They have a spark. I like that there’s a place in Hong Kong called The Bone Slums, built over the remains of a fallen kaiju. Finally, for what it’s worth, some of the naming of things in here is pretty rad. Crimson Typhoon and Gipsy Danger are two of the Jaegers; Marshall Stacker Pentecost is a badass title, and Hannibal Chau practically fills in the personality for you.
For those neck deep in Japanese pop culture, this might be a watershed moment in American cinema to behold your beloved characters and influences on the big screen with “operatic grandeur” (tm Guillermo del Toro) that only the most expensive technology available to mankind can create, and shepherded by a fellow fan in the unusual position of being a respected mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, rather than some for-hire bozo, or an agent of Satan like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner. I personally have a thing for sharks, so it would be like if someone with a real passion for pop art, like Sam Raimi or Joss Whedon, were to make an epic new killer shark movie using the best special effects to render it as terrifying and awesome as possible. I get the enthusiasm for Pacific Rim. But it didn’t have to be so terminally by-the-numbers.