Giant robots vs. giant monsters should equal blockbuster entertainment in Guillermo del Toro’s science-fiction epic Pacific Rim, but the movie shoots itself too often in its giant foot to ignore its old-fashioned ideas.
Set in a near future in which kaiju (giant monsters of mysterious origin) arise from under the sea to terrorize mankind, the development of jaegers (giant robots controlled by pilots whose minds are linked by neural bridges) stems the destruction until the monstrous beasts develop their own defensive measures that neutralize the capabilities of the mechanical creatures. The world’s governments, who came together to build the jaegers, decide that the best hope for survival rests with the construction of giant walls to protect the last bastions of civilization; when those are completed, the last few remaining jaegers will be retired from service.
This sets the stage for del Toro and his army of cohorts to create what should be tremendously exciting action sequences. Alas, the choreography is so choppy that it’s difficult to tell kaiju from jaegers, much less being able to differentiate the multiple varieties of kaijus and jaegers. We’re told that these differences matter, but what we’re shown is too confusingly presented to matter much. Sometimes a certain kaiju wins, sometimes a certain jaeger loses, but we must always wait for the champion to be declared in the post-mortem to know whether to cheer in victory or wail in defeat.
Pacific Rim appears eager to stir strong emotions without daring to plunge beyond all-too-familiar riffs on apocalyptic futures and the characters who live there. The trio of leads all have carefully delineated back stories that provide easy to understand motivations for their actions: the ex-pilot whose brother and fellow jaeger pilot was killed in action (Charlie Hunnam); the wannabe pilot whose family was killed by a kaiju (Rinko Kikuchi); the military leader whose suspicious nosebleeds are a none-too-subtle indicatator of serious health problems (Idris Elba).
The same applies to supporting characters, such as Kooky Scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman), Angry Australian (Robert Kazinsky), Competent Guy Who Provides Computer Updates (Clifton Collins Jr.), and Merciless Mercenary (Ron Perlman). In some of these characterizations, it feels like they are disguised refugees from comic books, waiting to unmask, reveal their true colors, and run amuck like the supporting crew in del Toro’s Hellboy movies. But then they get stuffed back into more ordinary suits of clothing and act like minor plays in a blockbuster movie.
The visual storytelling talent that del Toro has displayed in past films is largely absent here, turned over to computer-generated imagery that overcrowds the screen with gigantism. It’s satisfying in small doses, yet the smashing continues unabated far longer than warranted, to diminishing returns.
Without dynamic fight scenes, we turn to the characters, and they are equally wanting, which leaves the story, which is derivative in unflattering ways, and that doesn’t leave much more than occasional moments of superlative quality that almost seems accidental in their nature.
And that’s very disappointing, because the 12-year-old boy inside of me really wanted to enjoy himself watching giant robots fight giant monsters.
Pacific Rim opens wide across the Metroplex today.