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.