For over two years now, we’ve been hearing about Guillermo del Toro’s “giant fooking robutts versus giant fooking monsters” movie, and for most of this year, fans of both categories have been imagining it would save the summer. Via artwork leaks and recut trailers, we’ve been drowning in Pacific Rim stuff, but that ends now, as it’s time to finally assess the movie itself. There aren’t really any topless robots in it – but there are some armless ones. So is this THE movie for THIS site? It’s time you knew.
For those who don’t want any spoilers whatsoever – not that there’s really anything to spoil in a movie where the plot can be summed up as “monsters fight robots” – here’s the basic deal: the robot versus monster fights look extremely cool, and probably need the added element of 3D, since they tend to happen on rainy nights with water and debris flying around, and only the layer depth of this format really separates every element in a way that helps you process what is happening.
If that’s all you want, go. If you need a bit more than that, your forecast is even murkier than the precipitation-heavy battles in 2D on an old TV set.
Pacific Rim begins almost as if it’s its own sequel, with a brief recap of the history of Kaijus (giant monsters) and Jaegers (giant robots) and their war for the fate of the Earth. Initially, this kind of prologue inspires relief: after so many superhero origin stories, who wants to sit through the “underdog discovers true potential” beats again? Later, it becomes clear that starting the story in medias res means you’ve missed every major beat of character development so we can cut straight to the action. This in turn makes you give far less of a shit about anyone onscreen.
Comparisons with Man of Steel become instructive at this point. Zack Snyder substituted casting for backstory, so that, for instance, you know that Jonathan Kent is a good dad purely by virtue of the fact that he’s Kevin Costner and he owns a farm. Del Toro did not have the same casting budget, so he substitutes TYPEcasting for backstory. Thus do we get an All-American hero with a rebellious streak, a Japanese waif who cries and panics a lot (but is really good at martial arts, of course), a stoic Russian duo with bleached-blond hair, Chinese triplets who all act and look the same and know acrobatics, a prissy and fussy English guy, two aggressive and profane Australians, a goofy Latino nerd with a goofy bow tie…and Idris Elba, who is normally a good actor but here uses the Mike Myers technique of SUDDENLY raising the VOLUME OF HIS VOICE! Also he has a nosebleed, which is as bad as a cough in movie shorthand. Oh, and let’s not forget the massive crowd of extras who are always on hand to deliver an equally massive round of applause any time the heroes do anything.
Storywise, giant monsters come through a dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean, and giant robots initially fight back quite well, until the Kaiju learn counterattacks, at which point the giant robot program is immediately scrapped in a favor of building a giant wall (possible political satire here about illegal aliens, but it never goes anywhere). This is mainly so that del Toro can leap ahead five years, and make everything rusty and leaky as he is wont to do in every movie of his. The walls are failing, but the last few Jaegers still survive. Burnout pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, flat as usual) is brought back to drive his refurbished robot Gipsy Danger, as commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) plans one last big assault to try to force a nuke through the portal. Meanwhile, gratuitously wacky scientists Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) try to figure the Kaijus out, leading to yet another del Toro signature stamp – gross things in jars! Oh, and one other – Ron Perlman, being his grouchy self, and in doing so out-acting everyone around him.
Let me just be blunt: anyone who excuses this movie on the grounds that the action is cool – not that there is anything wrong with that, and I mean it – needs to forfeit the right to ever again complain about Hayden Christensen, Shia LaBeouf or Megan Fox (you also lose ground when it comes to race-baiting concerns against George Lucas and Michael Bay). Because the acting in this, from people who mostly ought to know better, is across-the-board bad, with nationally stereotyped characters less interesting than in any Bayformer or Star Wars prequel flick. If del Toro wants to come out and admit that this is a deliberate choice, to replicate the overacting in vintage Kaiju films and some anime dubs, I might accept that – although the only actors clearly meant to be funny (Day and Gorman) are so obnoxiously unamusing that I am skeptical. If you like this, own it…and understand that others can excuse many things you dislike on almost exactly the same grounds.
References to other movies abound – alas, some of them are Roland Emmerich movies – but I did like one touch that not only seems to be tweaking Power Rangers, but Man of Steel too. While cities do get trashed, it is made very clear that the falling buildings are empty, via scenes of mass sheltering after the warning siren, and interior shots of empty offices. It’s the abandoned warehouse district redux…not unlike the Spanish Announcers’ Table in WWE.
If you’re in any way a stickler for science, dear god, abandon all hope now. The battleship-as-baseball-bat is nothing next to the way Gipsy Danger survives an electromagnetic pulse by being “analog,” whatever that means in a robot that links two people’s brains by computer plug-in (they seem to think it means having your own power generator. It doesn’t). Later, the effects of nuclear bombs are, as usual, entirely convenient to the plot.
As for the Kaiju – designs are decent, but they have no personality, and frankly Todd McFarlane would have grounds to sue them all as rip-offs of his Urizen character. So as fun as the giant rasslin’ matches are, you are in the end talking about robots piloted by actors with no charisma (that they have it in other movies is irrelevant here), fighting monsters with no real distinctive characteristics. I love movies that build worlds effectively, but the glimpses we get of Kaiju World seem half-assed next to Snyder’s Krypton and the future Earths of Oblivion and After Earth.
I also once loved the idea of Guillermo del Toro finally getting a budget he wanted, but now that I’ve seen it, I’d say he needs to go back down to creatively finding cheap solutions. Like so many other filmmakers who get what they always wanted, it’s clear he worked better when people with power sometimes told him “no.”