'Pacific Rim' review: Dumb movie made by smart director
As summer tentpole films become increasingly reliant on the international box office to earn back their enormous costs, certain elements synonymous with good cinema tend to get left out. Character exploration, clever humor, and well-crafted dialogue don't necessarily translate across borders, so they're replaced with culturally agnostic elements like CGI fisticuffs. As a result, you wind up with, let's say, Zack Snyder's Man of Steel. But in the hands of a master like Guillermo del Toro, over two hours of unalleviated CGI fisticuffs can become one of the more unique summer movie experiences of recent vintage.
Pacific Rim, del Toro's first directing credit in five years, is a future-set tale of giant manmade robots fighting to save humanity from enormous marauding aliens. Relentlessly loud and preposterous, the movie is a humorless, character-free parade of nonstop destruction – and yet it is so audaciously, shamelessly, and hypnotically cacophonous that you have no choice but to give yourself over to it. Pacific Rim is a dumb movie made by a smart, if not visionary, director who has alchemized impersonal ingredients and created an oddly personal paean to the beloved Japanese monster movies of his youth.
Many will equate the visual and aural hammering of Pacific Rim to the nonstop pounding of the Transformers series. That comparison fails when you consider the men who directed those films: Transformers director Michael Bay is a crass and meritless purveyor of machine-tooled juvenilia; Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) is one of modern cinema's great fantasists. He is a builder of gothic art-horror worlds that ooze detail and mood. His gift is the supernatural ability to plug directly into our collective nightmare visions. Given that, it's actually a bit of a disappointment that he chose to make as his first film since 2008's Hellboy II such an ostensibly disposable slab of studio idiocy. But fear not. Utilizing his skills in a totally new context (and with a much bigger budget), in Pacific Rim del Toro creates a tight, propulsive, immersive, outrageous, and super-masculine apocalyptic smack down.
Pacific Rim: The Ultimate Godzilla movie
Pacific Rim is the ultimate Godzilla movie, featuring monsters way scarier, resourceful and, unfortunately for humankind, more numerous than the legendary Gojira. Unlike Godzilla, who was a product of an irradiated post-World War II Japan, the Pacific Rim monsters are hell-bent on taking over the planet because our polluted atmosphere has made it an attractive place for them to live. In a voice-over prologue de rigueur for these sorts of movies, we learn that seven years earlier, a single monster sprang from an inter-dimensional tunnel at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and destroyed San Francisco with a few swipes of its gargantuan, scaly hands. Over the years, ever-more monstrous Kaiju have attacked with increasing frequency until the nations of Earth, edging towards extinction, joined forces to design robots big and powerful enough to fight back.
These robots are called Jaegers (German for “please buy the action figure”) – 25-story-high metal behemoths equipped with every type of armament imaginable. Because Jaegers are so enormous, it takes two people to operate them. One controls the left half of the Jaeger and the other controls the right half. To insure smooth operation, the minds of the two pilots are connected via a process called The Drift that requires each one to pass through the memories of the other. As brothers with plenty of shared memories, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) make a formidable team until Yancy meets his end during a pre-title dust-up with a Kaiju off the Alaskan coast. It's an opening battle that establishes the eye-bulging amount of numbing action we're in for. It's also our first inkling that Guillermo del Toro is trying to entertain himself as much as the audience, so it's better just to buckle up and not ask any questions.
After losing his brother to the Kaiju, Raleigh went off the grid for five years only to be called back into service by his commanding officer, the improbably-named Stacker Pentecost (an imposing, riveting Idris Elba). After Raleigh disappeared, the Jaeger program was cancelled in favor of a new strategy that has proven ineffective. So Pentecost needs Raleigh to co-pilot one of four remaining Jaegers (one each from Russia, China, Australia, and America) in a last-ditch effort to save the world. His co-pilot might be a rookie who has her own history with the Kaiju, the reserved yet capable, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).
In focusing almost entirely on lumbering, clanging, roaring fight sequences, Guillermo del Toro knows what he's sacrificing and, in his quest to bring childhood favorites like Godzilla and War of the Gargantuas to big-budget life, he obviously doesn't care. In other words, no one will be mistaking Pacific Rim for a character piece. The Drift could have been a compelling way to reveal dark secrets and buried trauma, but it's an opportunity del Toro and co-screenwriter Travis Beacham thoroughly waste, except for a striking flashback that reveals a key event in Mori's childhood.
As for the handsome, adequate Charlie Hunnam, he's given an uninteresting part to play and he's surrounded by an equally uninteresting group of macho flyboys, including a father-son team from Australia (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky). Two scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) charged with assessing the enemy's weaknesses are played so over the top, you wonder if del Toro wasn't trying to capture some of the overemphatic acting that added a charming layer of cheese to the Kaiju films he loved as a boy in Mexico. The Pacific Rim performance that pops the best is provided by del Toro regular Ron Perlman, who plays an underground trafficker of black-market Kaiju body parts (turns out the smallest amount of Kaiju feces has enough phosphorus to fertilize a field).
The key to Pacific Rim's satisfying spectacle: Guillermo del Toro
The first question audiences may ask upon the conclusion of Pacific Rim – once their ears stop ringing – is “Why does this empty, noisy summer spectacle work, while others are just empty and noisy?” The answer is both obvious and surprising: Guillermo del Toro is the key, even if Pacific Rim lacks the magical, fantastical, and political elements that deepened previous triumphs like Pan's Labyrinth. That said, his eye for tone and detail remains undiminished and the film has such heavy momentum you're compelled to get caught up in it. Most importantly, you can sense del Toro's glee as he breathes tremendous life into the sights and sounds of his monster movie-filled youth.
Yes, Pacific Rim is an assault on the senses. And the nocturnal battle scenes are often unnecessarily murky. But as you watch a 250-foot Jaeger tussle with a colossal, acid-spouting Kaiju, don't be surprised if you find yourself ever-so slightly dodging and weaving in your seat with every punch.
Pacific Rim (2013). Dir.: Guillermo del Toro. Screenplay: Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Diego Klattenhoff, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky, Clifton Collins Jr, Ron Perlman, Brad William Henke, Larry Joe Campbell, Mana Ashida, Santiago Segura.
Pacific Rim Kaiju attack image: Warner Bros.
Pacific Rim Jaeger image: Warner Bros.