Lines are being drawn in the sand as we speak and people are taking side—and if the chatter is to be believed, the entire fate of the movie industry rest in the hands of one very big, wet, hulking mass of a high-concept movie. It’s distracting, but one can’t really discuss Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming science-fiction action adventure “Pacific Rim” without addressing some of the baggage it’s arriving in theaters with this weekend, at least for a certain (probably very small) sect of the movie going public. If “Pacific Rim” fails, if this “original” movie cannot win at the box-office and if it (gasp) loses to the nefarious, made-from-pure-evil “Grown Ups 2” from comedy Satan himself Adam Sandler, the cinematic universe will implode and will come to an end. The LucasBerg prophecies shall come to pass, theaters will topple to the ground and 3D will melt off the screens with a bitter hiss. James Cameron will plummet past you in flames screaming as he falls to his fiery doom. Ladies and gentleman, if you do not see “Pacific Rim” this weekend, you are not doing your civic duty as a movie-loving cinephile and you are therefore siding with the forces of reboots, remakes, reups, sideways sequels and other tools of the Hollywood Devil.
Melodrama aside (much of which is rather fitting), some of this might be true if “Pacific Rim” were actually original and not just a large-scale pastiche of different pop culture references including Japanese manga/anime (“Voltron,” “Robotetch,” etc.), video games (“Half Life”) and “Godzilla“-esque monster movies where creatures rise from the deep and try and destroy Tokyo (or in this case, the Pacific rim of Earth, which you bet, includes Japan). Not that there’s anything wrong with pastiches of any kind, but it’s a little glib to cling to the idea ‘Rim’ is a wholly singular work. Some of this might matter if original ideas were exclusive to good movies. Point being, Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” is being touted, by some, as the make or break film to champion, lest original, true, honest and authentic cinema be burned to the ground for all time. Much of this partisan lobbying is conveniently blind to the fact that “Pacific Rim” is rather generic, familiar and cliche-ridden; ambitious ideas and spectacular designs wrapped up in a banal and tediously told story that’s as clamorous, loud and disorienting as any Michael Bay movie (though thankfully, not as vulgar).
Set in the near future of approximately 2023, “Pacific Rim” could stand to come with a field manual and a glossary. There’s kaijus (monsters), jaegers (big ass robots), a neuro-bridge called “the drift” and plenty of sci-fi mumbo jumbo that will confuse anyone not fluent in nerd-ese. As it is, the movie features a 20-minute opening to explain how monstrous Godzilla-like creatures from the deep rose out of the sea and threatened the very existence of mankind by wiping out some of Earth’s most populated cities. The global response: fight fire with fire and build massive robots to fist fight with monsters. (Because obviously, how else would you stop monsters other than creating supersized robots to street fight with them on public streets? Seems rational…) Concurrently, the audience is told the backstory of Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a former Jaeger pilot now adrift after losing his brother (Diego Klattenhoff, Mike from “Homeland”) in a battle that saw their robot mostly destroyed.
Flashing forward six years, global bureaucrats are sick of funding Jaegers. This billion-dollar effort is failing and allied governments have decided to erect gigantic walls as counter measures instead. But Jaeger General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is not really having it, taking his remaining robots and dwindling resources and creating a resistance to fight back against these apocalyptic monsters. Of course, in uncertain times, with your back against the ropes, sometimes you have to call on unlikely heroes. Cue the “washed up” Hunnam, the scientist Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who means much more to the General than anyone knows, and a thought-to-be obsolete model of Jaeger (they’ll be kicking it old school eventually, natch).
Initially, del Toro’s movie doesn’t seem interested in anything other than getting monsters to fight robots, eschewing how those sea monsters came to earth—other than a brief mention in the prologue that they’re travelling through an interstellar portal. But “Pacific Rim” quickly reveals that it’s actually interested in telling the story of the key humans tasked with fighting back these beasts from the deep. Rooted in character, beating human hearts and interpersonal dynamics, this would seem to be wise idea in a movie about monsters vs. robots, if it weren’t for the fact that every character in the film has the emotional maturity of a teenager.
Look, the audience understands that it’s the end of the world and stakes are high, but the film’s angsty melodrama is a serious deal breaker. Most of the character conflicts within feel like high school drama, every situation dialed up to a panicky 11 and characters are constantly shouting in a small variation of distressed histrionics. And none of the characters (or caricatures rather) are particularly unique, involving or especially interesting (and Hunnam as the lead is flat). The two Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are obnoxiously shrill anti-comic relief and Day’s bleating is so piercingly odious you’re praying he’s going to get crushed like a bug. Every electioneering speech that comes out of Idris Elba’s mouth is seemingly taken from the hammy “Henry V“/”Braveheart” monologue auto-generator and Ron Perlman is once again playing the requisite eccentric Guillermo del Toro Ron Perlman character (Clifton Collins Jr. and Max Martini also co-star).
“Pacific Rim” also has cliches to spare. Many of them seemingly swiped rather obviously from “Top Gun.” There’s Charlie Hunnam’s maverick character—he’s too unpredictable, doesn’t follow orders and “improvises”—and all the other jarhead teams are worried his incalculable nature will spell their doom. One teammate (Robert Kazinsky) is completely frosty to Raleigh like an ice man, mocking and goading him on, but of course by the end of the picture his respect has been earned and he’ll be his Jaeger wingman any time. Of course the one man who believes in him is his chief pilot instructor Viper…errr, his former General Pentecost.
Guillermo del Toro is a masterclass world builder; his creature and mecha designs are impressive, even stunning to look at and a lot of “Pacific Rim” looks sensational (when you can actually see it). But it’s certainly not enough to make for a compelling movie. Milieu and visuals being del Toro’s forte, the director strangely loses ground with fight sequences; the one area he should always be excelling in. The murky 3D doesn’t do any favors to sequences set at night, in the rain, or under the dark ocean, but many of the battle scenes are surprisingly incoherent and muddled. Every fight scene contains an 11th hour rally back from defeat that feels tired and predictable by the final fight. (Oh, look they robots have an ace up their sleeve! Wait, why weren’t they using them the whole time?). The collateral damage levels are high too, but strangely enough, unlike “Man Of Steel,” constituents of the film don’t seem to care because its “fun” factor is much higher.
A movie seemingly specifically created to deliver a wet dream for the Comic-Con crowd, “Pacific Rim” is underwhelming and actually fairly unimaginative in its storytelling considering the amazing universe it creates. It remains to be seen if regular civilians are going to cotton to the movie like online audiences already have (and it seems very doubtful). “Pacific Rim” will be a total fun dumb blast if all you crave is the promise of a big messy brawl of gigantic robots and monsters from the murk with a scrappy crew of humans to save the world too. “Pacific Rim” rewards you with all that, but the implication of something more is deeply stifled. If your basic movie needs demand a little bit more—logical premises; interesting, marginally original characters; dialogue that doesn’t reek of throaty, aspirational monologue after monologue—“Pacific Rim” will leave you feeling hollow and wanting. [C-]