Gigantic monsters were pummeling massive robots into skyscrapers, and all I could think about was the smallest sequence in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Midway through the Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures summer blockbuster, a cheap hallway stage becomes the centerpiece of a brutal fistfight between Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and rival Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky). It’s confusing to me that the best scene – in a film filled with miraculously epic battles – is one that could have been shot in a garage. It’s also one of the main reasons I have trouble getting behind the wildly overenthusiastic critic mob scene. While Pacific Rim clearly needs and deserves our support (it’s a pretty awesome movie), it’s also important not to ignore the film’s flaws. Flaws that have been littering (more like destroying) Hollywood in recent years.
Pacific Rim takes place on the brink of the apocalypse as giant monsters, known as Kaiju, are randomly appearing through an underwater portal to Earth. The humans’ attempts to destroy said portal are futile, and thus the Jaeger program is initiated. Jaegers are giant man-made robots that are operated by two human pilots. The mental link (known as a neural handshake) to the robot is so overwhelming that it takes two minds (half a brain from each pilot) to operate. In an early moment, Becket loses his brother in battle and retires to build city walls to stop Kaiju penetration. Flash forward a few years; in a bleak last-ditch effort to save mankind, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits Becket to help aid a team to close the portal forever.
In terms of the screenplay, the neural handshake is underused as a way of the characters battling their personal demons, but also utilized as a serviceable device to let Dr. Newton Geiszler (played by the tremendous Charlie Day, who delivers a hilarious performance in the vein of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) learn what the Kaiju’s master plan is. It’s also worth noting that, no matter what anyone else says, I think the majority of the characters are bland and underdeveloped; the Russian team is straight-faced and angry, the Asian triplets play basketball (seriously), and the American is noble, ethical, strong-willed, and unpredictable. I dare you to compare the foreign Jaeger pilots in Pacific Rim to the fighters in the 1988 character classic Bloodsport. The problem for me is that, when one of their family or team members perishes in battle, I don’t really care… at all.
With that said, huge props (no pun intended) to del Toro for the death toll. One of the biggest problems with summer blockbusters is that the films never feel like there’s anything at stake, and that there’s any real danger. In Pac Rim, people are being crushed by buildings, eaten by monsters and torn apart in battle. It delivers quite a punch of much-needed realism. It’s also important to note that this summer blockbuster doesn’t feel “empty” – part of creating realism is filling rooms and streets with extras so it looks like the real world. The movie (and the earth it depicts) feels refreshingly “lived in,” suggesting a planet whose environment is the ultimate result of our ongoing disregard.
It’s just too bad that the world created here occasionally clashes with del Toro’s overuse of CGI, which makes much of the film (especially the comparatively anticlimactic final battle) feel like a video game. While the CG work has an undeniable weight to it, it would have been nice to see del Toro hark back to movies like Godzilla and Robot Jox with the use of miniatures and physical props – even Steven Spielberg mixed physical dinosaur pieces with his CGI creations in Jurassic Park. By cutting between something real and something digitally created, the brain will assemble the two into one coherent, believable object (this is also a fairly typical trick for horror gags).
I keep thinking about the early 00’s when movies like Hostel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Saw littered theaters – at some point we became desensitized to the violence. I feel the same way with the bloated overuse of CGI in recent years – films like The Avengers, Man of Steel, Transformers and various others end with entire cities being destroyed. It’s slightly unfortunate that Pacific Rim comes after these, as it’s a movie where the destruction makes sense. It’s built on the conceit that these giant robots and monsters would destroy entire cities. The organic way in which this stuff is implemented helps me shake the negative feelings surrounding the dense fight scenes that litter the movie.
Perhaps I’m being hard on the film’s shortcomings because everything else on deck works so well. It’s frustrating to watch a movie that’s so close to being great, so I should really clarify how much I loved most of it. Pacific Rim, beyond its flaws, is truly a gorgeous, stunning and magnificent summer spectacle. It’s balls-to-the-wall batshit crazy – a must-see summer extravaganza that delivers more than what’s promised in the trailers, and will also tickle that childhood nerve that begs to be nurtured.** And while Pacific Rim may get lost in this summer’s sea of overindulgent superhero movies jam-packed with boring-as-shit fight scenes, it’s the one film this season that will become an instant cult classic among cinephiles everywhere.
*One final note that didn’t quite fit in my review, but felt it was pretty important: I really recommend paying for the 3-D experience. While there’s quite a bit of post-conversion, the layers help drive the realism of the giant robots in an all CGI world.
**The Jaeger and Kaiju designs are so unique and cool that I promise some of you are going to buy all of the toys.