Jan 29, 2016
Pacific Rim (2013): We’re sure this isn’t a Michael Bay movie?
Among film geeks, there was a great deal of anticipation surrounding the release of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s loving tribute to kaiju films of old. While most films with this much buzz fail to live up to the hype, there are those rare few that end up exceeding expectations. And then there’s Pacific Rim, which does absolutely nothing.
Starring Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi, this is a movie that inspired audiences all over the world to ask, “Who?” The film also stars Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, loads of special effects, and a cameo from Ron Perlman.
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The film begins in 2013, as an underground monster race dubbed Kaijus rises up from the Pacific Ocean and proceeds to destroy San Francisco. The Kaijus keep destroying cities, and it turns out they all spring from an inter-dimensional portal located on the ocean floor. Eventually, the cities surrounding the Pacific Rim join together to fight them off.
They do this by building Jaegers, which are giant, lumbering robots controlled by two pilots stationed inside the robot’s head. Through a process called “drifting”, each pilot is linked to the robot by one hemisphere of their brain, which allows the two pilots to share thoughts and fight as one. It’s explained that when they initially tried having just one person pilot a Jaeger alone, it was far too devastating to their psyche, and even together, the pilots must remain entirely focused to effectively control the robot.
It’s now the year 2020 and Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) and his brother are piloting a Jaeger named “Gipsy Danger”. While fighting a Kaiju, the brother gets killed while still psychically linked with Raleigh, and as you can guess, this turns Raleigh into a bit of a mopey downer.
Fast-forward five years, as a reluctant Raleigh is drafted by a military commander named Stacker Pentecost (Elba) to pilot the rebuilt version of Gipsy Danger. It seems the Kaijus are now invading our world at an increasing rate, to the point where decommissioned Jaegers like Gipsy have to be pressed back into service. Soon, Raleigh is in Hong Kong and ready to be partnered up with someone else.
This someone else turns out to be Pentecost’s adopted daughter Mako Mori (Kikuchi), and to enhance the drama, we find out she lost her whole family in a Kaiju attack when she was a little girl. This makes Pentecost hesitant to allow her to command a Jaeger, but it seems she’s “drift compatible” with Raleigh and so she’s allowed to be his co-pilot.
They practice together, but Mako’s past trauma causes her to falter and lose control of the Jaeger. Despite her having a drift-triggered PTSD Kaiju flashback and nearly killing hundreds of people at Jaeger HQ, Raleigh is determined to make her his partner, probably because he knows this film has to wedge in a quasi-romantic angle somehow.
Before you can ask “Was this script written by Michael Bay?”, two Kaijus attack Hong Kong and take out two Jaegers to boot. Pentecost is forced to send Mako and Raleigh into battle, and naturally, they soundly defeat the two Kaijus.
While all this is going on, two scientists fumble around trying to find a way to “drift” with a Kaiju using the same technology that links pilots to Jaegers. One of them (Day) travels to Hong Kong to acquire a freshly-dead Kaiju brain from a black market organ dealer (Perlman). Eventually, it’s discovered that the Kaijus aren’t just mindless beasts; they’re actually linked amongst themselves and following the commands of their Kaiju leaders, who plan to kill off all humans and colonize Earth.
The military wants to drop nukes into the inter-dimensional portal and seal it up for good, but the portal only opens when a Kaiju passes through it. The scientists suggest linking with a Kaiju to trigger the portal, and once that happens, they can drop a nuke into it for a Battlefield Earth-esque endgame where one bomb can destroy all the alien invaders at once. Will they succeed? Will Ron Perlman find a way to chew up the scenery? Will there be a sequel? Yes, yes, and yes!
It’s now time for the briefest section of the review, where I talk about what I liked about Pacific Rim. The score, by Ramin Djawadi, is epic and loose. The rock guitar-driven segments during the boat battle and subway scene are perfect, and the occasional background songs are a nice touch.
The film’s palette is exceptionally pleasing, and the in-film technology is bold and inspiring. My absolute favorite aspect of the film was the cubist architecture used throughout Hong Kong. The neon buildings in conjunction with the soundtrack made for a nice futuristic atmosphere. The Kaijus’ designs were inspired as well, and the use of bright colors throughout the film was aesthetically well-done. And as far as the positives go, that’s all I’ve got.
For all of the hype, this film was a pretty empty experience for me. Del Toro is a director capable of bringing new worlds to life, and his visual sense combined with engaging characters has often made the unimaginable believable in films like Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series. But here, he lacks all subtlety, beating us over the head with obvious plot points and even more obvious character motivations. I know that this is a film about giant robots fighting monsters, and I should just enjoy the ride, right? Unfortunately, the film seemed determined to not be much fun for anybody.
While the visuals are often great, they exist to service a TV movie-level script with TV movie-level acting and a perfunctory plot. The humor never hits the mark, and the way the story unfolds is bland and predictable, greatly diminishing the enjoyment to be had from the special effects.
I mention the humor specifically because the movie relied on it way too often. Entire scenes are devoted to the bumbling scientists, and all of them fell entirely flat. Charlie Day is hilarious in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but his role here was an embarrassment. Ron Perlman tries his hardest, and although his scenes provided some of the more entertaining moments, they still felt forced and obligatory.
So here I am critiquing the acting in a film like this. Maybe I should just relax, not think too much, and just roll with the flow? These were also my thoughts during Michael Bay’s cinematic middle finger Transformers. I came for robots, and I left with a migraine. As much as it pains me to say it, I have the same feelings here. While Pacific Rim’s fight scenes are dramatically clearer and more stable than Bay’s, they still fail to progress the story much or be at all creative. Every Kaiju fight feels like exactly the same nighttime battle shrouded by light rain, and a two-hour film really needs more variety than that.
Whenever the camera would pan to the neon skyline with guitars wailing in the background, I knew a fight was in the offing, and I would think, “This is it! This is the fight that’s going to blow me away!” And yet, when the fighting came, it was bland and too short. Why did the filmmakers not use some of the beautiful landscapes available to them? Occasionally, we see glimpses of interesting scenery, but before you know it, it’s the same robot-slams-monster-into-buildings scene as before. Though frankly, had the characters been better and the script not been written by a computer, then maybe these scenes would have thrilled me. But because the other elements were so dull, the fights were doomed from the get-go. It’s hard to get excited when everything else is a chore.
At one point, Pentecost gives a rousing battle speech about “cancelling the apocalypse” that you know was added just for the trailers, but the rest of the dialogue is instantly forgettable, and by the end of a four-hour film (it was four hours, right? Sure felt like it) that just gets tiresome. I can appreciate “mindless” action, but just give me the action! Don’t waste time on lousy dialogue, clichéd backstories, and vague love interests. Either make that stuff somewhat interesting, or just scrap it altogether and focus solely on the special effects.
I wanted to like Pacific Rim. I really did. It sounded like an ideal movie where you tune in, turn up the volume, turn off your brain, and simply enjoy. But it wasn’t. It was a padded, uneven, and bloated affair that had too little of the stuff we came for and too much of everything else. The rule for these kinds of movies should be that if you can’t make your characters somewhat interesting, you might as well make them mute. Or better yet, have them immediately get stepped on by a Jaeger.