by Tony Dayoub
Pacific Rim—as hulking and earnestly dumb a blockbuster as are its robot Jaegers—represents a bit of a concession to box office realities from its director, Guillermo del Toro. While Del Toro is not exactly unknown, anyone outside of the most ardent film buffs or fanboys will probably not have heard of him. His finest films, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth are both foreign language fantasies that mostly played in art houses. His previous stabs at box office respectability, Blade II and the Hellboy features, are horror tinged masterpieces of the comic book variety, released way before the popularity of superhero films really hit its peak. And just before he was to direct The Hobbit films for producer Peter Jackson, Jackson took the movies back for himself to helm. Well, he may have dodged a bullet with that last franchise, but you get the picture. Del Toro's a talented filmmaker with the worst kind of luck, still trying to prove to studio honchos that he can place the butts in the seats. So it's ironic that the well-reviewed Pacific Rim, as honest an attempt by Del Toro to prove he has what it takes to both excite and attract audiences, has been tracking so poorly in most box office forecasts.
Set about two decades from now, Pacific Rim's future is right out of Blade Runner, one of many visual acknowledgements of the lineage stretching from Godzilla to anime to cyberpunk futurist films to this one which brings it full circle. Buildings are tall enough to scrape the sky, they're all lit with Tokyo levels of neon, and diffused by acid rain that confirms we'll never get our environmental act together. Then, as if to take the Earth away from we undeserving souls, the first Kaiju shows up. Less reptilian than the gargantuan monsters of post-atomic Japanese cinema, Kaijus more closely resemble the Lovecraftian Old Ones the director is so enamored with, somewhat similar to the behemoths that Hellboy usually ends up grappling with in the final acts of his respective movies only larger. Invading our world from an undersea dimensional breach in the Pacific, the frequency of the Kaijus' incursions appear to be increasing exponentially, just as the funding for the giant exo-skeletal Jaegers begins to dry up for the usual political reasons. Only the Jaegers can stop them, and perhaps seal the Breach once and for all.
It's a lot of exposition to swallow in Pacific Rim's first act, but once Del Toro knows you've got it the movie's pace is relentless and its character interactions are simple enough. Too simple, I aver. Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) plays a variation on the broken boxer called back to the ring for one last fight. The blank Rinko Kikuchi is the vengeful novice with something to prove. Their ornately monikered commander, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), steals the movie mostly because he's channeling Louis Gossett, Jr.'s drill sergeant from An Officer and a Gentleman. Between the thin stereotypes and the Pixar-quantity CGI (I swear the human actors are only onscreen for 40 minutes out of the 131-minute running time), a lot of ground that might have been reserved for deeper characterization is lost. What might have given Pacific Rim more heart was a nuanced exploration of the Drift, a sort of mind-merging that must occur between the Jaeger pilots—in this case, Hunnam and Kikuchi—in order for them to operate the robots with out receiving a neural overload.
Some might say I'm missing the point. Yes, Del Toro is self-aware enough to include clever visual puns in the midst of all of the fighting—fish flopping to their deaths underwater when a nuclear payload explodes; a Newton's cradle in a building mostly demolished by a fighting Jaeger and Kaiju being nudged just enough to set its balls in motion and no more. Pacific Rim is supposed to be a brute piece of pure cinema a la, say, Avatar, which I reviewed positively despite its lack of concern for such depth. But unlike Avatar—which I likened to a piece of R & D that broke new ground in a more entertaining way than it really had to—Pacific Rim isn't really giving us anything we haven't seen before. That it goes out of its way to avoid the likely messy romantic complications that might arise from Hunnam and Kikuchi's drifting is proof that Pacific Rim is strictly targeted at adolescent minds. While that may be the reason Pacific Rim strokes you into complacency while you're watching it, it's good to remember that's about as far as it goes.