Review: ‘Pacific Rim’ Fires on Half Its Cylinders

By July 10, 2013
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Translated directly from the margin doodles of Guillermo del Toro’s 5th Grade notebooks, Pacific Rim pounds its way through the summer season with unbridled imagination. The director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth has another clear vision for his robots-vs-monsters blockbuster, merging a love for archetypical war tales with the tropes of Japanese “kaiju” flicks (think Godzilla) and mecha anime (i.e. Neon Genesis Evangelion or Mobile Suit Gundam). Intact is del Toro’s wicked sense of humor and penchant for setting his drama amidst hyper-detailed sets. It’s all in the name of fun — which Pacific Rim delivers enough of without reaching its true potential.

The year is 2020 and Earth has a kaiju problem. Emerging from a wormhole at the center of the planet, skyscraper-sized monsters wreak havoc on coastal cities. The first beast took four days to kill with modern fighter jets and missiles. When the kaiju begin arriving more frequently, it dawns on the world population that dinky military technology ain’t gonna cut it. Thus, the Jaeger — aka Giant Punchin’ Robots — program is born. Writer Travis Beacham’s script for Pacific Rim packs a kaiju-sized serving of back story, all in the name of world building. The heavy exposition, enough to plausibly fill a film, three sequels, a comic book run, and a spin-off cartoon, is sped through with ferocity. The world is elaborate and there’s no hand holding in Pacific Rim.

Raleigh Becket (“Sons of Anarchy” star Charlie Hunnam) is one of the Earth’s top Jaeger pilots. He’s a compatible “drifter,” capable of merging brains with his brother in order to pilot the mentally-demanding, two-person Jaeger. When his brother is taken out of the picture by a set of Kaiju jaws, Raleigh is left stranded. He’s re-recruited by the Jaeger program head honcho Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) five years later, at a time when the Kaiju infestation is hitting apocalyptic levels. The hope is to find Raleigh a new drifting partner, get him back in the belly of his mech counterpart, and back out to sea to bust up slobbering monstersaurs. It’s back at the “Shatterdome” (Jaeger HQ and the best home base name ever) Raleigh meets Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a surveyor of prospective pilots who dreams of hooking up to a Jaeger herself. She winds up as the best match for Raleigh, but a troubled past and emotional ties to Stacker give Raleigh one more hurdle to climb before he can get back to life in the cockpit. Pacific Rim boils down to every pulled-out-of-retirement story, which works as the perfect blueprint and provides a solid foundation for del Toro’s childhood fantasy come to life.

If only there was a little more to the human side of Pacific Rim. After a few initial skirmishes, the movie settles down to characterize the men and women behind the Jaegers. Hunnam proves a worthy successor to the standard issue “hero” role: charismatic, noble, and intense enough to make the rigid movements of Jaeger piloting look like physically demanding work. Same goes for Kikuchi, who captures the ambition of Mako while giving her a natural, flirtatious edge. What doesn’t serve either of them is the script, flimsy and broad when the over-the-top action needs recognizable elements to keep it grounded. Halfway through the film, our heroes fall off the map, incarcerated in their Jaeger shells to do battle with Kaijus. Very cool. Not cool enough to compensate for a lack of personality.

As in many of his films, Del Toro sprinkles in comedic side players to keep the movie on its toes. Charlie Day plays Dr. Newton Geiszler, a scientist convinced he can drift with a partial Kaiju brain who operates on a Rick-Moranis-in-Ghostbusters level of goofiness. Day spars with Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, an outlaw who dominates the Kaiju harvesting black market. The two create energy out of their jokey dialogue, though they’re in a completely different movie. The duo have moments of genius, but a cartoon-come-to-life necessitates characters that aren’t cartoony. No one in the cast rises to the occasion — even a thespian like Elba, who tries his best to keep Stacker planted in the real world.

What could have overshadowed the paper thin characters and doesn’t is the action. The CG spectacle constructed by Industrial Light & Magic is a wonder to behold. The Jaegers are fully realized machines, gears turning and sparks flying. The Kaiju are lively adversaries, given just an ounce of awareness so as to understand a battle and what it takes to win. They bite, they claw, they spray “Kaiju Blue” venom that burns through the Jeager’s metallic skin — it’s everything any kid from the ’90s who grew up on Power Rangers has been dreaming of since. When it’s coherent, that is. Reality takes a toll on the action sequences of Pacific Rim. Most fights are set out in the sea at night, where the Kaiju emerge and the Jaegers can protect the cities. This creates a hazy atmosphere for the large-scale clobbering that can be difficult to size up when del Toro dabbles with dynamic camera work. Which may explain why most of the direction is limited to wide shots, sporadic close-ups, and the occasional “snap zoom” that fuses the two. There’s one moment of true awe, a smashing set piece staged inside the colorful streets of Hong Kong. There, everything is visible and the scale of the combatants registers. It also the opens the door for Raleigh to pick up an oil tanker and break it over a kaiju’s head. Gnarly!

Del Toro fully realizes the world of Pacific Rim without giving it enough reason to exist. The Jeager vs. kaiju duels deliver enough. The comedy works some times. The characters push the story forward, but we don’t cling to them like we do the ultimate generic hero, Luke Skywalker. With all the setup, Beacham misses an opportunity to go the extra mile and say something with his futuristic epic. Unlike many kaiju films, the monsters of Pacific Rim aren’t a result of mankind’s quarreling, nor does battling the otherworldly entities require much back-and-forth between nations. It’s an ideal look at the future without any hurdles. An added layer under the rockin’ sockin’ robots could have given the movie a satirical bite like Starship Troopers or even the rah-rah patriotism of Independence Day. Instead, it sits contently in the fluff category. Pacific Rim delivers the goods without firing on all cylinders — which is acceptable, but less than fulfilling coming from the complex and iconographical perspective of Guillermo del Toro.

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Matt Patches
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter living in New York City. His work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Film.com, Hollywood.com, MTV, and he is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room. He continues to love Groundhog Day.