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MOVIE REVIEW: Pacific Rim (2013)

REVIEW SYNOPSIS: Despite impressive action and effects, Guillermo Del Toro sends a labored, often lifeless love letter to the giant monster genre.


SYNOPSIS: When giant monsters rise from a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean, humanity engages them in battle with an army of behemoth robots piloted by pairs of human beings.  When the struggle continues for more than ten years, master pilot Raleigh Beckett is called back in to service for one last surge.

PROS: Incredible monster design; stunning action sequences; Charlie Day’s amusing turn as a xenobiologist and “kaiju” groupie; Ron Perlman as a dealer of black market alien remains.
CONS: Charisma free leads in Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Rinko Kikuchi; routine, derivative, and clichéd screenplay, allowing interesting subplots to be overtaken by uninspired central plot; unmemorable dialogue spoken by mostly dull characters.

Once upon a time there was a gifted filmmaker who directed a couple of effective (though , in the case of his second, ultimately silly) horror movies before deciding to emulate Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive—not once, but twice.  Those movies, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, owe much to Erice’s brilliantly subdued masterpiece, and showed that, though Guillermo Del Toro lacks Erice’s subtlety, he possesses a keen eye and a genuine love of fantasy and the grotesque.  Even in his lesser Hellboy adaptations—to say nothing of the restless, frenetic Blade II—his sense of artistry still suffused his work; they may not have been memorable, but astute, discerning viewers could catch a glimmer of Erice’s spirit.
With Pacific Rim, however, Del Toro appears to want follow in the footsteps of Ishiro Honda.  Its bare-bones conceit—giant monsters (kaiju) rise from a rift in the fabric of spacetime submerged beneath the depths of the Pacific Ocean to do battle with humanity, who has built an army of large robots (jaegers) to meet their threat—suggests a deep love of and respect for material from Toho Co.  Unfortunately, he loves not wisely but too well, for the movie Del Toro composes lacks that genre’s joyous energy and infectious fun as well as its self-knowing B-picture virtue, resembling something more akin to Michael Bay: loud, overbearing, devoid of humanity or anything resembling life.  Worse still, Del Toro includes every possible tired trope he can find.  Like a cinematic Victor Frankenstein too well-versed in the works of Frederic Jameson and Marshall McLuhan, Del Toro artlessly stitches together the hides of a half-dozen threadbare ideas into a lumpy genre tapestry, then tosses it onto a cliché-ridden action movie skeleton.

Not that Pacific Rim doesn’t have its pleasures, meager though they are when compared to its scale.  Del Toro pulls the kaiju—scaly, gray-green, ridged with frills, some with wings, some with neon-suffused tongues that snake from mouths like tentacles—from dreamscapes that would have chilled the blood of H. P. Lovecraft.  Sent into combat against them, the jaegers resemble the sort of gothic high-tech creations audiences now expect: veined with wire, ribbed with tubing, a pair of pilots join with the gargantuan machines through a psychic link (apparently because one person alone cannot pilot the jaegers) and dance through its hull, surrounded by interfaces apparently stolen from the Stark Corporation.  The battles themselves wow with their surprising swiftness (who’d have thought robots and aliens weighing only slightly less than an aircraft carrier could move so quickly?) and kinetic force, at one point leveling much of Hong Kong (though casualties, despite the heavy property damage, seems minimal), at another taking off into near-earth orbit, ending only when a jaeger manages to produce a sword eviscerating a kaiju soldier.  It’s the kind of carnage almost never seen in Gojira’s 65-year history.

A shame, then, that the screenplay surrounding these impressive action sequences by Travis Beacham and Del Toro never rises above mediocrity, though once or twice it provides a glimpse of something compelling.  Not the narcolepsy-inducing tale of former jaeger pilot Raleigh Becker (Charlie Hunnam, as bland as he is blonde) called back into service by his former Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, mouthing dialogue so trite that Pearl Harbor scribe Randall Wallace would wince) after the death of Becker’s brother and former co-pilot.  Not the supplemental tale of Becker’s rivalry with Australian pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) or the emotion-free love story involving Becker and co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).  No, the most fascinating elements of Pacific Rim come from Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day), a xenobiologist and “kaiju groupie” who becomes convinced that the key to defeating the kaiju lies in psychically linking to an intact alien brain.  To test his theory, he wanders the streets of Hong Kong to find Hannibal Chow (Ron Perlman, savoring the scenery with the epicurean delight of a gourmet at a five-star restaurant), a black marketer dealing in alien organs.  Geizler’s character brings the movie the kind of quirky drive that makes it stand out among the recent lackluster summer blockbusters, despite Day channeling him with many of the same hysterical dynamics he brings to his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  Perlman, decked out in scaled gold boots and a maroon suit, also shines.  Unfortunately, the subplot never develops beyond a plot device.

Ultimately, Pacific Rim never fully satisfies because its primary story feels even more fake than the movies that influenced it.  Given recent movies in a similar vein that have taken more narrative chances (Cloverfield), proffered more humanity (The Host), or taken a far more gonzo tack (Big Man Japan)…I can’t say the monster movie is a lost art.  It’s just too bad that Pacific Rim hasn’t found it.

17 Comments on MOVIE REVIEW: Pacific Rim (2013)

  1. Thanks, Derek. Might see it this weekend, so I can compare our experiences then.

  2. It’s Perlman, not Pearlman.

  3. I went to the movie theater to watch giant robots figth giant monsters. There was also a plot and some actors in it, but that didn’t interfered with my enjoyment.

    I really loved PAcific Rim, every part of it (except for the comment of dinosaurs having two brains). The concept art was awesome and also the production design.

  4. TheAdlerian // July 12, 2013 at 9:02 pm //

    Strange review.

    This film is NOT to be taken seriously; it’s obviously for fun.

    The idea that humans, in 2017, would invent giant humanoid robots to fistfight giant monsters to death, is absurd. It’s the most giant plot hole, ever. There is NO logical reason for it, and 2017, is like tomorrow, so the movie takes place in some alternate universe of weird decision making and technology.

    The film is nearly a satire since the premise is ridiculous and there’s lots of humor and stereotypes AND those of us with common sense about stories could spot that from day one. Going into the film expecting a “real movie” shows a lack of reality orientation.

    However, I do agree that the lead actor was terrible, very wooden. I was quite surprised by it because that’s a directing error too.

    In spite of all that, I showed up to view the fantastic artwork and goofy thrills of monsters fighting mechs. The film delivered.

    • Rick Klaw // July 14, 2013 at 11:05 am //

      Sure, it could be seen as satire. But why can’t a satire be a “real movie?”

      Are Young Frankenstein are This Is Spinal not real movies?

      Even satire must have internal consistency, good acting, and a quality script.

    • Have you no IMAGINATION sir?

      First off, the laws of physics are completely against the possibility of such a machine even existing. It would probably snap its own arm off the first time it tried to salute.

      This movie world doesn’t obey our own known laws of physics and your problem is the LOGIC of using giant robots to fight monsters?

      In literally the first 5 minutes of the film, the audience is told explicitly that the first kaiju took three days to bring down using the full might of all the non-nuclear ordinance the United States could bring to bear.

      The movie doesn’t go into nukes, but I will: Even if Kaiju are killed outright by nuclear weapons, NEW ONES KEEP COMING. We’d kill ourselves with fallout in no time.

      What you need is a weapon that can track and engage these things at close quarters while staying well away from civilian populations and come loaded for bear with a whole new category of weapons orders of magnitude more destructive than anything mankind’s ever seen.

      And a thirty foot-tall Walking Fortress with hands that turn into plasma cannons may SOUND ridiculous, but it meets those criteria completely.

      Actually, it meets them a whole hell of a lot better than satellite weapons or any kind of fixed fortification.

  5. Many a gamer immediately recognized the A.I. technology that runs the Jaegers (re: human-piloted robots) in the Pacific Rim trailer speaks with a voice similar – nay, identical – to GlaDOS from the Portal franchise. Director Guillermo del Toro has since confirmed that was an intentional homage, as he is a self-admitted fan of Valve Software’s critically-acclaimed game series.

  6. I loved it. It was what was shown in trailer. Robots. Monsters. FIGHT!

    Plus some light character development. But for me, it was finally something orginal. Ya, not overly original.. But, I am so tired of seeing movies based on older franchises (Star Trek, which I love, but still..), comics and reboots. How many times are we gonna reboot franchises???

    It’s about time we had something that was just one solid entertaining movie.

  7. Loved the film. Great amount of fun.

  8. Moonbase Alphan // July 13, 2013 at 7:58 pm //

    this was truly jaw-droppingly awesome.

    I have not been so wowed by the credibility of the effects and so drawn into a movie like I was for this in a long, long time. Partly because it was an original story/property and partly because it was just so intensely fascinating to watch.

    highly recommended

  9. Rick Klaw // July 14, 2013 at 11:09 am //

    Derek’s assessments were right now. It’s just a matter of how much they bother you. Pacific Rim was a nearly perfect aping of the best of classic kaiju, all the good and ill that portends.

  10. Sir, there are places in your review where I could not disagree more.

    First of all, you criticize Pacific Rim for “stitching together a lumpy genre tapestry” rather than a slapped together cash-in on the name of some preexisting franchise. I wonder what your “Lone Ranger” review was like…

    I take it you’re more of a “Fifth Element” fan and prefer colorful and larger-than life characters in your sci-fi rather than soft-spoken, angst-y and grim ones like I do. But if you’d have preferred to see “Ghost Busters” rather than “Aliens” are you really complaining because Pacific Rim managed to deliver on BOTH?

    In fact, a lot of the negatives of your review seem to be rooted in a belief that Pacific Rim should have somehow been more cartoon-y, gonzo or “larger than life”. Instead of criticizing Pacific Rim for not being the movie you wanted/expected, please criticize it for the movie that it is. Does the movie work with the tone it has?

    The answer is: YES!

    I have waited 18 of my 29 years to see a movie like this come into existence. Before now there has NEVER been any commercially successful live-action “Mecha” film produced in either Japan or the U.S. This movie scratches an itch I’ve had since I was 11 years old. (And as for your whole “joyous energy of Gundam” bit, watch “Gundam AGE” sometime. The main character swears to commit genocide 10 episodes in.)

    Yes, this film retraces all the beats of classic action movies and anime and its tough to refute your argument that Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi turn in “charisma free” performances without disclosing an incredible number spoilers. Really, the terms “understated” and “nuanced” would better serve to describe characters that, generally, seem to keep to themselves a lot and play it “close to the vest”.

    Furthermore, I don’t understand your division between the “uninteresting main plot” and “interesting sub-plots”.

    –Because BOTH storylines advance a COMMON plot–

    Right at the beginning of the movie the two “Plans” are laid out for the audience. One is pursued by the standard “hero-type” A-characters and the other by the “goofy-type” B-characters. The actions of one affect the plot of the other, and vice versa. This happens all the time in anime. And it works in Pacific Rim too.

    Lastly, don’t you DARE pretend Cloverfield was a better movie. The “narrative” you praised is just a bunch of largely disjointed scenes as the characters bumble around New York occasionally bumping into the path of the film’s designated monster. If you pay attention during the Hong Kong battle in Pacific Rim, you’ll notice that Pacific Rim outdoes Cloverfield LITERALLY shot-for-shot.

  11. The reviewer nailed it. This movie was awful. I’m very glad Del Toro did not do the Hobbit movies now.

    • Them’s fighting words Jeff S…

      I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the movie as much as I did, but what may I ask did you go into the movie expecting?

      I really felt like the reviewer expected something light and silly rather than something treating such absurd subject matter relatively seriously.

      Who could this movie have been done better, in your opinion?

      • My usual response is “What part of Robots vs. Monsters do you not get?” 🙂

        • I’m a huge Gundam fan going back to when I was but a wee sprout.

          The Jaegers were everything I ever dreamed of and more.

          Maybe people just weren’t ready for that mental switch where the pilot IS the machine? (Or in this case ARE the machine)

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