The most “summery” of summer action films has arrived in the form of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, or as it’s known by the general populace, Monsters vs Robots. So what can you expect from the 2+ hours smashdown?
Let’s bitch it out…
Mild spoilers follow…
It’s been a rocky summer for action films. Iron Man 3 has been the most successful, though many fanboys were disappointed with the film’s “twist” on the Mandarin and, if we’re being honest, whole sections of the film don’t really work. Star Trek Into Darkness is basically just a yawnworthy redo of Wrath Of Khan and Man Of Steel is too busy destroying entire cities without a care and committing character assassination. And so with only a few options left to open (The Wolverine and Elysium), Guillermo del Toro is next up to bat to salvage the reputation of action films for summer 2013.
It’s been five years since del Toro’s last directorial gig, the better-than-it-should-be sequel to Hellboy. In the interim the creature feature director has had a number of false-start projects. Now he’s finally back with Pacific Rim, his approximately $200 million passion project. As an action film, this is more or less exactly what you’d expect: lots of fights and sh*t blows up real good.
The plot of the film is fairly threadbare. The logline is this: a “breach” has developed in the Pacific ocean, allowing a cacophony of monsters called Kaiju to enter our world and attack coastal cities along the Pacific. Humanity has united to fight the Kaiju with the help of giant robots called Jaegers. The Jaeger program requires two pilots to mind-meld in the “rift”, but the program is on the verge of extinction after the Jaeger’s efficiency in eliminating Kaiju begins to dwindle. In a last ditch effort to close the breach before funding runs out, the remaining Jaegers converge on Hong Kong to launch one final assault.
And that literally is the whole film. What we learn in the opening exposition dump is as much as we learn about this near-future world. For a traditional action film, this is par for the course. For a del Toro film, though, it’s a little disappointing. The scale of the film is global – new Kaiju are constantly coming through the breach to threaten the safety of the world – but what’s missing from the film is the human dimension. The trade-off for mind-blowing monster vs robot action appears to be giving two sh*ts about humanity.
Screenwriter Travis Beacham has obviously made an effort to give the characters some depth, but the simple fact is that the film is one long string of action movie conventions. Despite the back stories (some of them surprisingly convoluted), none of these characterizations are more than skin-deep. If any of them die – and surprisingly few do – you won’t get even a little misty. Perhaps its a testament to del Toro’s strength as a director that when the battles are taking place, nothing else matters. It’s only when characters open their mouths to speak that you realize you truly do not care about any of these people. Whether this ultimately negates your ability to enjoy the film will depend on how much you need to have someone to care about. If you’re simply interested in well-executed action sequences with occasional tone-deaf dialogue, then this film is an astounding success. If you need three dimensional characters, the film is still enjoyable, but there will be a few rough patches.
Of all the actors, Rinko Kikuchi fares best as the awesomely named Mako Mori. Although at times she struggles with her English line delivery, Kikuchi has easily the most interesting backstory and makes the most compelling protagonist. It doesn’t hurt that female action stars remain few and far between and Beacham and del Toro wisely refrain from having Mako engage in the typically requisite romance. Instead she’s simply allowed to be an emotionally wounded, kick-ass soldier who more than holds her own.
Max Martini and Idris Elba also do solid work as Herc Hansen and Stacker Pentecost, respectively (Side Note: If you haven’t noticed, names in the film are especially enjoyable. This extends to the Jaegers and Kaiju, who all have unique names). Martini is a stabilizing character who grounds the film when he’s on screen. Elba performs much the same role, but he’s saddled with the weight of being the “figure of responsibility” who has a tendency to speechify. As the leader of the Jaeger program, he’s required to spew out the most propaganda-esque lines Indepedence Day-style (ie: groanworthy “Cancel the appocalypse!”). Strangely Elba’s line delivery is stuck between two extremes: throughout the film he’s either calm and reassuring or yelling at the top of his lungs (there is no middle ground).
As the film’s protagonist Raleigh Becket, Charlie Hunnam is completely perfunctory without being given the opportunity to do more. There’s a weak attempt to make Raleigh an unconventional hero, but the simple truth is that we’ve seen the “somewhat resistant hero/loner who is the only one who can save the world” a million times. Hunnam does exactly what he needs to (including doff his top to reveal a spectacularly crafted six pack at strategic intervals), but you won’t be buying a Raleigh action figure anytime in the future.
This sentiment can be applied to the film as a whole. You’re not rooting for these characters so much as waiting for them to move the Jaegers into position for the next action sequence. And let’s be honest, you’re not going to the film for the complicated relationship between the Jaeger pilots. You’re going because you want to see giant robots rumble with giant monsters. When del Toro abandons the pretense of caring about the people, the film soars. At the end of the day the film delivers exactly what it promises: a great (mindless) action brawl between monsters and robots.
Check your brain at the door and just enjoy the eye candy.
- No matter how much you pay, this is a film that absolutely needs to be seen on the big screen. The fight sequence in Hong Kong in particular is stunning, especially the way the neon light plays off the metallic chrome of Gipsy Danger, Raleigh and Mako’s Jaeger
- Would be nice if even a single action sequence took place during the day time when we could fully appreciate the beautifully constructed CGI creations of Industrial Light and Magic? Absolutely, but complaints from the peanut gallery that some of the action is hard to see is mostly unwarranted. Yes, the watery locations of the fights (and the frequent rain) can obscure some of the specifics, but there’s rarely a time when you can’t understand what’s happening. Plus the water is kinda necessary since these things are coming out of the Pacific ocean
- I’ve always found performances to be the most subjective aspect of any film, so your mileage on the following observation may vary. For my money, the worst performances in the film are the two scientist roles played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Both are complete caricatures who are only present to provide comedy and well-timed exposition to help defeat the threat. Both actors/characters are woefully inadequate. Day, in particular, is disappointing: his performance as Dr. Newt is nothing more than the same manic, high-pitched performance he delivers in everything else he does. This guy really needs to broaden his range. Gorman is just grating and best forgotten
- del Toro mainstay (and audience favourite) Ron Pearlman is basically here for an extended cameo. Hannibal Chau is a fun diversion, but the role is ultimately unimportant. True Blood regular Rob Kazinsky is more memorable, though he’s filling the thankless “egotist with daddy issues” semi-antagonist role. He fares better than Homeland‘s Diego Klattenhoff, though, who gets the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role of Raleigh’s brother
- Comparisons to Transformers are short sighted and ill-informed. While the Jaegars do share a minor aesthetic likeness with Michael Bay’s atrocity of a quadrilogy, the similarities end there. These bots are salvaged from spare parts, and each has its own unique set of weapons, personality and nationality. Obviously the biggest distinction is that Jaegers are piloted by humans in much the same way as Neon Genesis Evangelion. If anything Pacific Rim is beholden to anime and Japanese monster films (Godzilla comparisons are much more apt)
- Finally, though the film’s perspective is obviously writ large with a focus on the epic battle between Kaiju and Jaegers, a part of me wished more time was spent fleshing out how people outside of the Jaeger program deal with impending doom. The Jaeger pilots are described in the film’s opening as “rock stars” and we see them on talk shows and posters. I think a more extensive investigation of the media and societal reactions to the events of the film (a la Starship Troopers) would have gone a long way in making the film more than a monsters vs robots showdown
Your turn: am I off base complaining about the characters in a big budget action film? Did you find the characterizations more compelling than me? Which Jaeger/Kaiju were your favourite? How many anime references did you spot? Is this the best action film of the summer? And where would you like the see the sequel go (should the film prove financially successful enough to merit one)? Comment away below
Pacific Rim is now playing in theatres across the globe