In terms of sheer wish fulfillment, perhaps no movie this year is as committed to appeasing our inner 10-year-olds as Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. A love letter to both the kaiju and mecha movies most closely associated with Japan, the director’s highly-anticipated monster grudge match is without question a slickly efficient, visually stunning product, though the woefully malnourished script fails to leave much of a lasting impression.
A portal has opened up in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, allowing giant Lovecraftian monsters called kaiju to rise up and attack Earth. The world’s countries put their differences aside, pooling their resources to build giant robots called Jaegers, which are scarcely capable of taking the beasts down. Led by sturdy military leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the fate of humanity might just rest in a washed-up former Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), and his co-pilot, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a very personal score to settle with the kaiju.
There’s a certain irony to the fact that, though to more casual viewers Pacific Rim might have been marketed as just another Transformers movie (albeit with Godzilla thrown in for good measure), the expectation for many was that Guillermo del Toro’s presence would ensure a wealth of substance attached to all that style. Curious it is, then, that the chief complaint leveled against Michael Bay’s robot films – that they’re overstuffed and poorly written – is just the same issue that holds Pacific Rim back from being anything approaching a classic.
Now, does it suffer with these maladies as badly as the Transformers trilogy? Absolutely not; there are some thrillingly conceived ideas here – namely the idea of a “neural bridge”, that the Jaegers have to be piloted by two people to share the mental load of tethering one’s mind to the controls – and the characterisation – particularly between Elba and Kikuchi’s characters – has its moments, but there’s simply too much feckless filler serving as downtime between the elaborately-staged battle sequences.
After the initial seaside battle scene, del Toro spends far too long setting up the next fight; it’s a good half-hour before we’re back to any substantial action, going beyond merely establishing the characters and premise to wasting screen time on superfluous scenes. A silly martial arts fight between Becket and Mako, for instance, adds very little to the film yet helps push the run-time to a doughy 132 minutes.
Indeed, the first half of Pacific Rim isn’t as action-packed as one might hope, instead focusing on world-building, loose characterisation and some hit-and-miss humour that fleets from giddily goofy to cringe-inducingly cheesy (though it will in that stead likely appeal to children).
The comic relief duties primarily rest with Charlie Day’s Dr. Geizler – a scientist best described as a kaiju fanboy – Burn Gorman’s foppish Dr. Gottlieb, and Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, a black marketeer trading in kaiju organs. Once we acclimate to Day’s irksomely highly-strung vocal register and the overt silliness of these scenes, there are a few laughs to be had, though too often these daft scenes simply foster impatience for the next scene of wanton destruction to abound.
The bulk of the movie’s action occurs in the far more satisfying second half, boasting a level of property damage that easily shames the year’s prior hands-down winner, Man of Steel. These almost entirely-digital battle sequences are given dynamic, coherent coverage by del Toro, and because we’re seeing two very distinct objects attacking one another, the director escapes the same charges leveled against the Transformers movies, that the action equates to just an amorphous mess of CGI objects colliding together.
During these lengthy monster brawls, even the most ardent cynic would be remiss not to harness their inner child and marvel at the sheer insanity of it all. These superbly-designed scenes of large-scale mayhem – rendered in decent if needless 3D, no less – are almost enough to make you forget about the hash writing job, but not quite.
Verdict: So, is Pacific Rim the monster movie masterpiece we had all been hoping for? Absolutely not; it’s unexpectedly hollow and corny as Hell, but set your brain to cruise control and it also delivers (eventually) on its promises of crowd-pleasing, rock ‘em, sock ‘em action. For all of the film’s problems, it’s difficult to imagine many other directors capable of reining in such a bizarre Hollywood blockbuster.
Pacific Rim is released worldwide this Friday.
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