Movie Review: Pacific Rim
By Matthew Huntley
July 16, 2013

Best. Archaeological. Dig. Ever.

If there’s anything worth taking away from Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, it’s the special effects. They are top-notch and exceptional, blending seamlessly with their practical surroundings and the human actors in front of them. Any time a Kaiju (the Japanese word for “beast”) or Jaeger (the German word for “hunter”) appeared on-screen, I was convinced these two elephantine creatures were really there, duking it out in the ocean or in the world’s most populous cities. And since the movie’s primary objective seems to be bringing these entities to life, it’s all the more imperative they look credible. For anyone craving an effects-laden summer actioner, Pacific Rim is your movie.

On the other hand, for those of us desiring anything more than a technical exercise, Pacific Rim proves to be a disappointment. Despite the context under which I was seeing it - the summer blockbuster season, a time when movies of this type are meant to thrive and function as “mindless fun” - I walked away unfulfilled, which was even more shocking considering del Toro (the Hellboy films, Pan’s Labyrinth) was in the director’s chair. A “mindless” movie-going experience can often be fun, but it isn’t necessarily impervious to being “derivative,” “uninspiring,” “lackadaisical” or just plain “bad,” and these are a few words I’d use to describe some things in Del Toro’s movie that weren’t digitally rendered.

What’s most disheartening is underneath all the movie’s negative qualities is del Toro’s ceaseless enthusiasm. His fervent energy pulsates throughout every scene and we can imagine how giddy he must have been making a monster movie of this magnitude, like a kid in a candy store (or in del Toro’s case, a born filmmaker in a movie studio with everything you can imagine at his disposal). The problem is that it gets overshadowed by a secondhand story, one-dimensional characters and often goofy, laughable dialogue, even for a summer blockbuster. These were things I simply couldn’t tune out, even though I wish I could.

The movie takes place in the not-too-distant future, after mankind learns the hard way a portal has opened up deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, serving as a bridge between our world and the world of the Kaiju, a race of huge, horrific-looking monsters with limited intelligence and an overt tendency to eat, yelp, and go on destructive rampages, à la Godzilla. Our first encounter with one of the beasts ends with six cities getting destroyed, before we finally take it down with traditional tanks and bombs. To prepare ourselves for future Kaiju attacks, the world’s nations unite and develop Jaegers, which are equally large, humanoid machines (think Transformers) controlled by two pilots linked in a neural drift. The pilots exchange everything down to their deepest, darkest memories so they’re in perfect sync to control the Jaeger.

For a while, the Jaeger program proves successful and humans are able to put up a decent fight, so much that the Kaiju battles become somewhat routine and glorified, going so far as to generate a thriving commercial industry with reality shows and action figures. But “then everything changed,” according to Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a young, reckless soldier who pilots a Jaeger with his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenoff). During what would have been a standard mission to destroy a Kaiju approaching a nearby city, the two brothers disobey a director order from their commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), and the ordeal ends tragically with Yancy’s death.

Five years later, the Kaiju appearance rate has increased and the monsters have learned to adapt all too well to the Jaeger’s techniques, making them that much harder to defeat. Pentecost is informed by the powers-that-be the Jaeger program will be terminated in six months, in favor of a “Wall of Life” project, which is a futile attempt to fortify the Earth’s continents with a steel wall. In a last-ditch effort to avoid an all-out apocalypse, Pentecost initiates a clandestine plan to destroy the portal bridge with a Russian nuclear warhead. For the mission, he gathers the remaining Jaegers and best pilots at the Shatterdome base in Hong Kong, including the hesitant Raleigh. We’re also introduced to Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who, like Raleigh, is emotionally scarred and seeks revenge against the Kaiju for killing her family. I wish it went without saying that Raleigh and Mako eventually team up and play an integral role in saving the planet from total annihilation, or that they develop a romantic relationship.

The comic relief in the movie comes courtesy of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who play a couple of antagonistic scientists. Day’s character, Dr. Newton Geizler, has been studying the brains of Kaiju and has developed a way to mentally drift with them the same way a human does with a Jaeger. What he discovers about the beasts, I’ll leave for you to find out, although if you’ve seen Independence Day, from which this movie borrows heavily, right down to perfunctory grandiose speech and the means by which the humans infiltrate the alien world (not to mention a predictable human sacrifice), it’s not all that interesting. In the end, Pacific Rim doesn’t really add up to much story-wise, and we can pretty much size up the characters and their trajectories the minute we lay eyes on them.

I was hoping the movie would have gone off in directions that were different from what we’ve come to expect from the genre, but the filmmakers are once again under the impression the only thing the audience cares about are battle sequences, mayhem and special effects. Personally, I was more interested in the science and emotional and physical ramifications of the neural drifting and the how the characters’ recent tragedies affected their motivations. But the screenplay merely brushes over these points and settles on stock, superficial pathos that doesn’t really make us care about anyone or anything.

We know well in advance how everything is going to pan out, and that honestly makes the movie dull.

There will be many who claim Pacific Rim perfectly fits the mold of silly summer fun, but therein lies the problem: because it fits a mold so well, the movie comes across as moldy. While its effects go above and beyond, everything else about it feels dumbed down and templatized. Even with the summer movie-going season factor taken into account, I’m tired of hackneyed plots with one-note characters. Because Hollywood has come so far technologically, the industry needs to put it upon itself to be more creative with its storytelling so grandiose special effects take on new meaning. Simply throwing greater visual and aural qualities at us isn’t enough. How about raising the narrative bar too?