Guillermo del Toro is right about one thing. There is not only a dearth of live-action mech/giant monster movies, but even when they do get made (the 1998 Godzilla, Michael Bay’s Transformers films), they’re often insufferably bloated, throwing all their dollars and efforts towards special effects while ignoring characterization, plot or narrative coherence. Unfortunately for del Toro, Pacific Rim doesn’t exactly avoid all the pitfalls of these other films; yet, as with most of his work, the passion and thought he puts into it is enough to dull the glare of its biggest faults and as a big, dumb summer action movie, this one at least gets the action right.
The plot is kept relatively simple: kaiju (giant monsters with a variety of different characteristics) are consistently appearing from the bottom of the ocean and, at the film’s start, humanity is battling them with humongous mechs, called jaegers, which must be controlled by a team of two people who “drift” (aka mind meld) in order to control it together. The film’s central characters, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a mech fighter struggling in the aftermath of a tragedy, and the aptly named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the head of the Jaeger program who, along with Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), his protégé of whom he is exceedingly protective, help lead the battle against the ever-insistent kaiju. With the additional help of a duo of dueling scientists, played with excessive quirkiness by Charlie Day and England’s answer to early 80s Crispin Clover, Burn Gorman, and a pimped out black marketeer, accounting for the pandering and inevitable yet humorous appearance by Ron Perlman, the humans battle the kaiju both intellectually and physically, although it doesn’t take long to realize that Pacific Rim is really only concerned with the latter.
Despite the relative care taken in the film’s early sequences to set up this vast array of characters and backstories, most of it quickly falls into same broad, clichéd and shallow drama of similarly mediocre big-budget blowouts. Raleigh’s need to prove himself to his jaeger nemesis who just doesn’t think he can cut the mustard and Stacker and Mako’s father-daughter surrogacy feel like they could have been ripped straight from the script of a half-dozen recent genre films. But even the smaller characterizations like the bumbling, quirky scientists and the other countries jaeger duos are thinly conceived clichés. The strength of Elba and Perlman’s performances is enough to salvage those characters, the former by sheer authority and the latter through joyous, unbridled sleaziness, but the others don’t fare nearly as well.
But while Pacific Rim stutters fairly often in its attempts to mine meaningful human drama, or really during most of the scenes where humans are together and talking, it succeeds quite well in terms of pure breadth of scope and in creating a visual coherence and fluidity to its action sequences, both qualities that are becoming depressingly less common in American action cinema. As always, del Toro has put great care into the production design and effects of his film and unlike Michael Bay’s ADD-prone Transformers films, the long shots give a true sense of the massiveness of the kaiju and jaegers while also providing an appropriate amount of time to process the beauty and detail of the effects and design work. Because of this, the action sequences actually feel as enormous and epic as they’re supposed to be. However, what is exciting, even truly thrilling, the first couple times becomes tiresome when repeated over and over with little modification as the onslaught of kaiju-jaeger battles bludgeon you into submission. Of course, if you’re slapping twelve dollars of your hard-earned cash down to watch giant monsters fight for over two hours, you will get your money’s worth, but if you were hoping for del Toro to take a cartoonishly fun but ridiculous and often shallow sub-genre to the next level, you will be sorely disappointed.
The plot holes regarding the portal or the kaiju’s relation to the Earth’s dinosaurs are hardly worth mentioning in a film like this as the absurdity and silliness of all the science involved is meant to be taken with repeated blind leaps of faith. It’s an understandable strategy, but in introducing these elements only to leave them all but completely unexplored aside from a few brief mentions, del Toro only provides even more signposts pointing to the weaknesses and overall shallowness of his script. Perhaps kaiju/mech films aren’t expected to delve into any of the more logical or scientific elements of its central ideas, but if they’re not conceptually sound or entertainingly outlandish, than what else to make of them? And that’s problem; there’s nothing to make of them, so the inevitable result is a merely a more competently made version of a mediocre cinematic model. In one sense, Pacific Rim is a step up from its recent predecessors, but I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been had del Toro not been so firmly attached to all the pre-existing genre tropes. The jaeger’s metal may be colorful, shiny and new, but too much beyond that is the same old recycled crap that gets carted out this time of the year.