Even with million-dollar rocket boosters, this 60-foot behemoth gets pulled down by its own weight
The first giant robot I saw was Bumblebee in Michael Bay’s Transformers (2007) and it filled me with a huge sense of awe: the way its gears, nuts, and bolts clicked together to become perfect combination of transport vehicle and total badass, its sleek metal glistening in the light and the sheer weight with which it interacted with the world. But upon seeing the mountainous Jaegers (German for hunter) of Pacific Rim, I feel detached and lost, even though these robots have men and women on the inside (so what does that say about them?). Maybe it’s because the equally massive Kaiju (big, ugly monsters, Japanese for strange creature) can simply rip them apart as if they were made of plastic and not metal. Or maybe we hardly ever get an accurate sense of scale.
The idea for Pacific Rim is simple: giant robots fight giant monsters. But around it is the kind of flaky, half-baked plot that surrounds recent summer blockbusters. In the near future, monsters emerge from out of the Pacific, through a hole in spacetime called ‘The Breach’. They don’t like Earth so much and destroy cities, and none of the usual bullets, bombs and artillery work against them.
To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own, rambles Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam trying to establish himself as a bonafide action star) in the obligatory world building introduction (honestly, District 9 is a classic sci-fi film simply because it doesn’t have this kind of world building tool), and the Jaeger program is born. The Jaegers are operated by two pilots via ‘a nonsensical Hollywood sci-fi concept’ called ‘The Drift’ where their minds fuse together (excuse me as I try to grasp how the fusing of minds moves heavy machinery).
In the script written by Travis Beacham and director Guillermo Del Toro, he of the fantastic Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth, one of these pilots is Raleigh Becket, the customary handsome Caucasian male action hero, who quits being a Ranger after his brother dies in one of their battles. He’s approached by his old boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, charismatic as ever) to carry out a last ditch effort to save the world with trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as his partner. Aided by Australian, Russian and Chinese soldiers, Pentecost plans to close The Breach once and for all. Let the CGI extravaganza begin.
There are three real problems with the film that envelop it in a miasma of ennui. The first is that it aspires to be more than a robots vs. monsters flick and instead tries to be an operatic epic about the collective might and resolve of humanity as it thwarts villainous forces that threaten its existence. What this means is that there’s less imagery where robot arms transform into chain swords to slash blue tongued monsters in half and more of Elba, Hunnam and Kikuchi trying to get along.
Pacific Rim is an exercise in repetition to generate awe: the monsters start looking the same (different variations of ugly), the combat tactics become well-known (Jaegers punch but they don’t kick), the battles are hard to follow and the stakes don’t get higher (the end of the world is kind of as far as you can go). Shane Black, the master of the action flick, said, “If you make everything go at 100 miles per hour from the outset, it loses any impact or meaning. I mean, if a flying truck lands on the bonnet of your car, it should be shocking and scary. But if stuff like that is happening constantly throughout the film, it becomes mundane.“
Where Del Toro scores with the collective might of humanity is with his international cast and international location (Hong Kong). Other critics have called this blatant targeting at the international markets for more box-office moolah, but I’m relieved that one Hollywood blockbuster chose not to end in a fight to the finish in a metropolis with all the skyscrapers tumbling down. He also manages to keep things light with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are the proverbial odd scientist couple and a wicked Ron Perlman as a no nonsense Kaiju black market dealer. If only Becket and Pentecost could smile a little while they saved the world.
Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside.
But the promise of well-rounded and diverse characters is replaced with perfectly packaged one-dimensional characters who remain ciphers throughout, the second problem of the film. The only reason to take away from the action scenes is to build character, but instead we see the same character trait/flaw brought out again and again…and again. Pentecost’s nose bleeds (terrible secret!), Becket reminisces about his dead brother, and Mori wants to avenge her family. I was upset that the characters survive at the end through a last-minute cheat, but I should have known better. Even with impossible odds, Hollywood values sequels over common sense.
But are the core problems of Pacific Rim more meta in nature? Have we become used to seeing the same flimsy blockbuster characters over and over again that we frown at meeting new ones that are just as flimsy? After a couple more rifts cut through the ocean floor around the world and more Kaiju fight with more Jaegers, will I love Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori even more? Or is this Transformers vs. Godzillas representative of the commercial potential of remaking the same thing over and over again until a franchise is developed (Godzilla is being rebooted as a franchise as we speak)…
Whatever may be the case, the bottom line is that this shiny new toy is filled with rust on the inside. It upsets me that I’m in the minority on this one, or maybe I’ve become bogged down by a disappointing summer slate filled with more misses than hits. I’m afraid the future holds only more sequels, threequels and franchise overkill. And more crazy combinations that involve millions of dollars in CGI pixels.