Monday, November 18, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
US, 2013
Co-written (with Travis Beacham) and directed by Guillermo del Toro

There's a difficulty inherent to reviewing Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's movie of massive monsters and mechas. This difficulty stems from del Toro's influences: Japanese kaiju films are mostly about creature effects and large-scale destruction, with social/environmental messages thrown in on top. We rarely meet characters worth remembering or stories that particularly stand out above the chaos of men in rubber suits knocking over models. Given that these are Pacific Rim's ancestors, why should we expect anything different? I mean, we're talking about a film whose plot consists of hordes of increasingly-unbeatable gigantic monsters (dubbed kaijus*) swarming from a portal below the Pacific as humanity attempts to hold them off via equally gigantic robots (jaegers)—this is no character drama.

* Yes, I know "kaijus" is not proper Japanese. The film uses the westernized pluralization, so I will do the same

And yet, del Toro and Travis Beacham's script wants very much for us to care about these characters. They spend plenty of time building up jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his personal reasons for wanting to avoid (and, subsequently, return to) the war against the kaijus. Given that, in the film's science, the two pilots in each jaeger have to "drift" together, sharing memories, feelings, and emotions, in order to effectively control their mechas without frying their brains, character stakes and story arcs are built into the film's DNA. Which means that the film's biggest weaknesses—its formulaic, cliche-ridden war movie plot and its bland characterizations, things we wouldn't even care about in a standard monster movie—are here forced awkwardly into center stage.

None of this is helped by Hunnam, whose Sam Worthington-esque lack of charisma makes him barely register as Becket—it's rarely a good sign when your lead character is a void. His new partner, the similarly-tragic Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), comes off slightly better thanks to Kikuchi's expressive face, but as much as the film tries to make her character into a badass, her back story grounds her in a too-familiar arc. And while I love Idris Elba, his Marshal Stacker Pentecost (yes, that IS the character's name) is another poorly-written cliche, making Elba's low-rumbling intensity seem more like a lack of engagement mingled with intermittent shouting. And the less said about the other jaeger pilots and military types, the better.

There are hints of a stranger, more typically–"del Toro" movie lurking below the surface. Some of the film's best scenes are the comic relief provided by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's scientist characters. Day is almost always delightful, and his scenes in a Hong Kong black market run by del Toro regular Ron Perlman (tricked out in gold-tipped shoes and killer shades) feel like they come from another movie entirely—one that I would far prefer to see. Some may find Day and Gorman's shtick wearying, but I'd take their quirks and silliness over the grim joylessness of the central cast. They would at least give me a reason to care about humanity, where Hunnam makes me hope the monsters win.

But let's leave aside the script and character issues and pretend Pacific Rim is "just" a monster movie. How does it fair on that front? Well, the kaiju effects are spectacular, and there's a great variety of monsters and powers on display. I would expect no less, of course, from the design-obsessed del Toro. The jaegers are a little less interesting to me, but even they seem "real" and functional from the ground up. I'm a little less sold by their constantly-sparking, NordicTrack–inspired control rooms, as it seems like traditional pedals and levers might work better, but I could better forgive the conceit if it were played less self-seriously. The creatures and robots are of a size that would basically be impossible by any means other than CG, but that brings one of CGs biggest failures to the fore: even now, some 20 years after computer effects became dominant, they still don't have the same "weight" as practical effects. Between that weightlessness and the glut of city-destroying sequences in recent sci-fi and comic book films, the scenes here just don't have the necessary impact to get us interested. That said, I do appreciate the ways in which del Toro attempts to peg the kaijus to natural disasters by ranking their severity in numerical categories (e.g. a "Category 4 kaiju") and using imagery reminiscent of everything from tsunamis to earthquakes (and, in a less-natural reference, 9/11).

Of course, I wouldn't be bothered as much by the lightness of Pacific Rim's CG entities—and, indeed, might not have noticed it at all—if I were at all interested in the outcome of these fights. Though it takes our interest in our world's survival for granted, Pacific Rim loses our loyalties through its bland characterization, by-the-numbers plot, and forced conflicts between heroes. Its strained attempts at milking empathy through its "drift" sequences wind up doing nothing but shining a light on all its flaws and putting "drama" where, really, we only need fun. As a result, we're worn out and disengaged well before things reach their inevitable, predictable conclusion. Given the elements that do work, and the funny, engaging characters in the background, it's hard to understand why del Toro focused on grim-faced militarism instead of something more recognizably human. But it's that choice that dooms the film to fall into a void deeper than the one leaking giant beasties into our world.


  1. Totally agree about Charlie Day lifting the movie.

    1. Even he has a hard time of it at first, though I think his plot quickly becomes the most interesting thing in the film.