July 10, 2013 by Paul Curtin
Director Guillermo del Toro is a big man who’s notorious in Hollywood for having tons of big ideas that don’t usually end up panning out. When his work does hit the silver screen though, it’s usually amazing, even if it isn’t box office gold. As you can gather from the trailers, Pacific Rim is a $200 million rock ’em, sock ’em mash-up of modern robot movies and classic monster films. Del Toro’s biggest project yet is at its best when firing on all cylinders during epic fight sequences, but it’s at its worst when forcing generic action tropes upon viewers over and over again just to waste time until the next big fight scene.
Like most people, I look forward to big-budget action flicks released in theaters every summer. Pacific Rim being one of this summer’s only original stories that isn’t a sequel or adaptation, and that just so happens to involve giant 250-foot-tall robots fighting Godzilla-like monsters, was all I needed to hear to be sold on the premise from the man behind Hellboy.
I had hoped that going in expecting mindless fun on the level of a Michael Bay film would result in more than just a “supercool car commercial” as del Toro compared his film to Bay’s. However, what you see in the trailers is about all you get, and the total package won’t exceed expectations of anything more than a movie where giant robots trade haymakers with giant monsters on par with the likes of Transformers and Real Steel — which isn’t so much of a bad thing… Unfortunately, when said haymakers aren’t happening, Pacific Rim‘s carbon copied action characters and uninspiring plot manage to even make the awe-inspiring robot sequences lose some of their awesomeness towards the end of the film when you’re ready for the characters to just do the same thing that you’ve already seen so many times in other movies.
In Pacific Rim, the plot is simple: Giant monsters randomly begin to come out of the Pacific Ocean one by one and start destroying everything in their path. To combat these monsters known as Kaiju (“monster” in Japanese), man creates monsters of its own in the form of 250-foot-tall pilot-able robots known as Jaegers (German for “hunters”). For a while the Jaegers lay the smack down on the alien invaders, so much so that the pilots of the mechs become celebrities in their own right. Of course, the monsters start getting bigger and stronger with each new wave, and eventually the governments of the world choose to cancel the struggling Jaeger project in favor of building a giant wall – a useless wall that the monsters are already breaking through while it’s being built. Why the government thinks this is a good idea? Who knows? Like most things in the story, it’s never made clear and only mentioned once or twice.
And that’s a prime example of one of the main issues wrong with Pacific Rim. It serves you up this completely unrealistic premise that you’re willing to buy into for the sake of giant robots kicking giant alien monster ass, but then it continually throws more and more lazy plot devices at you because… why not? There’s giant robots! Now shut up and enjoy the fighting and explosions!
Sci-fi that doesn’t explain the little things isn’t always bad. Take Cloverfield, Looper, or my recent review of The Last of Us as examples. A lot of times, it’s almost better to not try and explain exactly how things we can’t explain work, and play off that fear of the unknown. But when the story is being driven by one lazy made-up concept after another just for the sake of fitting the mold of a cookie-cutter end-of-days action blockbuster, you start to get annoyed and feel like you’ve not being respected as a viewer.
To make the lack of depth in the story even worse, almost all of the characters are as hollow as the empty bots themselves. If you think Michael Bay movies are formulaic, then get ready to witness a new level of laziness in big-budget screenwriting. Each character fits the mold of a typical action movie trope straight out of any film over the past couple decades. You have the wild American cowboy who plays by his own rules and is the best because of it, but who has since gotten out of the program and is haunted by his troubled past, but only needs a few minutes to decide he’s ready to come back and save the world. The innocent anime-inspired Asian girl that begins to fall for the cowboy the second she lays eyes on him. The pilots from other countries who look like cheesy WWF wrestlers from the ’80s. The geeky scientists. And of course the older hard-ass commander, who despite being a total bad-ass, has almost no control over anything his pilots do, but can’t afford to bench ‘em because they’re just that damn good.
Commander Pentecost, played by Idris Elba, is actually the strongest performance of the movie as you would come to expect, despite his generic role. Charlie Day as a mad nerdy scientist and Ron Perlman’s surprise role help add a ton of well-used comic relief. However, none of the other main or secondary characters have any sort of chemistry between one another whatsoever — which is especially ridiculous considering that chemistry among two pilots is what’s required to successfully control the behemoth Jaegers.
Because of the lack of any real emotional ties to any of the characters, you wind up just not caring about them or really the fate of their world for that matter. Who cares if some stereotypical Jaeger pilots die if they haven’t even said a single word yet in the movie? And who cares if the world ends when you don’t even have a good sense of what else is going on outside of this giant robot fight club?
Still, even with the subpar plot and worthless characters, the action is enough to keep you from drifting during the film’s two-hour running time. And man is there a lot of action! The CGI in Pacific Rim is quite simply stunning from the way the Jaegers look to the lights of Tokyo to how said light bounces off the bots’ shiny metallic finish — it’s hard to find a single flaw in the visuals. The same teams behind Transformers, Real Steel, and various other stunning Hollywood films have outdone themselves once again with jaw-dropping special effects that show where most of the movie’s budget went.
Like the Jaegers, the art design of the Kaijus also have more personalty and originality than the human characters and will have you excited to see what’s next with each new monster’s reveal. The movie is packed with fight scene after fight scene set to an awesome futuristic/western score with a modern/classical touch (think StarCraft/Gears of War/The Dark Knight/Transformers — basically, a mash-up of some of the best scores in recent years) and it without a doubt will leave you wanting to see and hear more. That being said, I won’t go into details about the fight scenes because I don’t want to ruin the best parts of the movie and give away any surprises.
However, how much you enjoy the fight sequences may depend on your viewing situation. With the film playing in every format possible and most of the fight sequences being in the rain or underwater and at night, what exactly is happening can at times be difficult to see and comprehend — especially with the dimming effect that you’ll get seeing the film in normal 3D and not IMAX. So I would strongly suggest not seeing it in normal 3D.
Even in IMAX 3D, at times it was hard to understand what exactly was happening during the chaotic battles due to how much was happening on screen and how close the camera zooms in. In addition to the fights being at night, almost all of the fights take place outside of cities, away from people, and in the water. There’s still a good amount of destruction during a couple fight sequences, but by taking the robots away from people and other landmarks that can be used to help relate the scenes to real life, it’s hard to get a sense of scale and relate what you’re seeing on screen to be more than just an impressive showcase of CGI. Personally, the smaller robots in movies like Transformers and Real Steel made it much easier to follow what was going on and allowed for faster-paced action alongside humans that I preferred.
When the credits finally hit and the extra stinger was over, I was left wanting more… which was a good thing and a bad thing. Part of me was a little let down that nothing really blew me away that I hadn’t already seen teased in the trailers… while at the same time I was taken back by how amazing everything did look and didn’t want the fighting to stop.
Pacific Rim might be heavily flawed by its characters and storyline, but at the end of the day, it still gives you almost everything you go in wanting, especially for a summer popcorn movie: giant robot ass-kicking action. The robot fighting, special effects, and score are for sure near-perfect, but the rest of the elements don’t hold up the rest of the weight like a good Jaeger drifting partner. Del Toro’s latest can best be summed up as a stylish slugfest that’s held back by its formulaic storytelling, but I still can’t wait to pick it up on Blu-ray to re-watch all the great action scenes and fast forward through the rest. Pacific Rim gets 3.5 out of 5 stars (Very Good).