Big-ass monsters! Ginormous robots! Tons of things getting crunched, blown up and otherwise decimated! Then why didn’t I love Pacific Rim? That’s the question that rattled around in my head as I left the theater. For all of it’s glorious spectacle — and there’s an awful lot of glorious spectacle here — Pacific Rim is like the giant “Jaeger” robots that the film focuses on; beautiful, awe-inspiring but hollow.
That’s not to say that there isn’t fun to be had here. This is the perfect movie to turn off your brain (seriously; giant mechanical robots fighting kaiju? It’s the perfect summer blockbuster) and dig into the Good ‘n Plentys. But if you’re searching for heart and soul in this robot, you’re outta luck. Pacific Rim plays it straight throughout it’s 2 hours plus, which lets a lot of the fun leak out of the film. What this movie needed was more tongue-in-cheek. Yes, there are a few bits of humor here and there, but when it happens it feels more like a transplant from a different film than an integral part of the story.
And the story has definite promise. It’s the year 2020, seven years after gigantic creatures started to rise from the depths of the Pacific (probably the super-deep Marina Trench, though I’m not sure if it’s ever pinpointed). “The Breach”, as it’s called, is a rift between worlds that allow these kaiju (Japanese for “strange beast”, for those not in the know) into our world. And these ginormous Godzilla nightmares have one thing on their mind; the destruction of the human race. Naturally.
Our world gets it’s collective act together and decides to pool resources (and set our own problems aside) and create the Jaeger Program. Jaeger — “hunter” in German — are robots so incredibly huge that it takes two people to be able to work ‘em. One person in a Jaeger? Massive damage to the brainpan. So with two people merging brains — called “The Drift” — they act as one, and (much like Real Steel before it) power the machine. Jaeger pilots are considered rock stars, but before too long things start to look grim for this program. Why? Because human beings do what human beings to best; decide to go with something easier. Meanwhile, a scientist has discovered that the kaiju are coming through The Rift faster, and come be preparing to come in droves….
Director/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro did a great job of playing it straight in his book trilogy The Strain. That dealt with vampires and was flat-out horror. Pacific Rim is good ol’ fashioned sci-fi, and when ideas this bombastic are played straight, it ends up trite and colorless. Which is too bad, because Pacific Rim is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and I’m not just talking about Idris Elba in a tight-fitting Jaeger pilot uniform. The first time a Jaeger robot is deployed is absolutely stunning. The monsters are mind-blowing. The cinematography — from Academy Award winner Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) — is perfect, with deep blue seas, grey dusty destruction and lush reds in Hong Kong slums. And the production design team of Carol Spier (A History of Violence, Blade) and Andrew Neskoromny (Star Trek TNG) bring a believable realism to the sets.
But. The screenplay is full of clichés you’ve seen a million times, done a million times better. Some of the lines the actors speak are so corny I actually winced. “The world is coming to an end. So where would you rather die; here? Or in a JAEGER?!?” Pass the baguette for that cheese, y’all. And with del Toro being director and writer, he’s made damn sure that everything is so damn deadpan. He’s even leached most of the fun out of Ron Perlman’s black market hood Hannibal Chow (I say most of the fun, because ain’t nobody able to take away all of Perlman’s mischievousness. Thank god.) Luckily costume designer Kate Hawley (The Hobbit series) gives him a red silk suit ad the pimpin’est shoes ever to have pimped.
The other actors? Who cares? They’re stock characters from genre movies past:
* the smart-alec kid who has daddy issues
* the dad who is gruff but fair
* the major who has a soft spot (but who is incredibly hot nonetheless; hello, Idris. We’ve missed you.)
* the girl who just wants to show she can be just as good as the boys
* the cocky guy who learns the hard way
Yada yada. But I have to be honest; who’s coming to Pacific Rim to see the story? Y’all will be there for the rock’em sock’em. And that’s where this movie excels. You know exactly how this movie’s gonna go: Real Steel + Godzilla + Armageddon, plus a glorious hoo-rah speech straight from Independence Day. Why was I not engaged? Because I was hoping for characters that were better drawn, or at least that were given the ability to play with a wink and a smile. But if you’re looking for the slam-bang this season? This is it.