Guillermo del Toro’s emergence from a half decade of production hell might have resulted in his best-made movie. You can’t argue he hasn’t directed the hell out of Pacific Rim. Unfortunately, it’s also possessed of by far his dumbest script (I say his, as he has altered Travis Beacham’s screenplay sufficiently to win a co-writer’s credit; it’s not one he should be proud of). Anyone hoping for a glimpse of the depth and nuance of his Spanish language films is barking up the wrong Kaiju. But even the more feasible wish for the knowing sense of fun found in his comic book forays (the Hellboys, Blade II) is left wanting. Pacific Rim is a relentless assault of macho posturing and narrative clichés so extreme that they even overwhelm the extraordinary spectacle the director has cooked up.
Maybe del Toro was attempting to be too canny. He clearly felt it was necessary to take on material that was overtly commercial. He departed The Hobbit when it was stranded following MGM’s bankruptcy. Lo and behold, it wasn’t many months later that the train spluttered back into life and Peter Jackson admitted that he really was stuck in the Shire forever. And then there was the eleventh hour rug pulling from under his passion project At the Mountains of Madness, set to star the Cruiser. For all the geek love he illicits, del Toro had yet to prove himself as a blockbuster director. And that’s where it counts with studios. Blade II had given him some tinseltown credibility, and it was a director-for-hire affair that became one of the few sequels to outdo it’s predecessor. But the Hellboys only ever had middling success (enough to squeeze out a follow-up, but not to a wider audience).
So you can’t blame him for seizing on a robots-versus-monsters movie. It must have seemed like a smart bet, post-Transformers. And it tickled the guy, with his enormous love for all things Kaiju (let’s just call them monsters, though). It even gave him the opportunity to stir his Lovecraft fetish into the brew (he already slipped such unspeakable horrors into Hellboy, and the trip through the rift in Pacific Rim has a strong whiff of this obsession).
But I can’t for the life of me understand why his pandering to the teenage boy within (in the hope that teenage boys worldwide would respond; little did he know it would be mostly 30-something teenage boys who’d lap it up), required him to seal every delicate or refined sensibility he has in a box and bury it deep beneath the earth. Instead, he attempts to kindle his inner jock.
In terms of visual impact, this might just be the best film of the summer (and it can boast an excellent 3D conversion). The same skill set that stunned in Pan’s Labyrinth is just as present here, tirelessly poring over every frame to make it the best it can possibly be. The palate of the movie is nothing special; we’ve seen these rain-drenched greys and blues and greens a thousand times. Indeed, it’s starting from where Roland Emmerich’s much-savaged Godzilla left off. But del Toro’s attention to detail is mind-blowing. He brings an artistry to play that the script (and again I say, partially his script) absolutely doesn’t deserve.
Right from the off, Pacific Rim batters the viewer with stereotypical characters and hackneyed scenarios. It’s an interesting idea, in an age of origins stories, to begin with a prologue many years into this conflict with the monsters that have emerged from beneath the sea. But Charlie Hunnman delivers his voiceover with the same listless drawl he has in Sons of Anarchy, and plays Raleigh Becket with an even more pronounced swagger. By the time his cocky jockiness costs him dearly and he opts for the blue collar life (didn’t Superman just do this?) we’re already gagging on the stock devices of the hero’s journey. And the movie’s barely started.
This is a picture that reaches new levels of unintentional hilarity. Battleshit had the same thing not going for it in plot and character last year, and it also pitted the US military industrial complex against hopeless extra-terrestrial odds (Del Toro has a few token foreigners, including a couple of Russkies straight out of Rocky IV, but it’s surely as much to do with his being calculating about international box office; and who knows, perhaps the dialogue sounds better when its dubbed – it couldn’t be any worse). Crucially, though, Battleshit had absolutely no redeeming features. And del Toro is a much much better director than Peter Berg (not that he isn’t guilty of the occasional moment of misguided hyperbole; the angelic halo surrounding Elba at a significant moment might be the funniest shot in the movie).
Nigh on every line of dialogue is ripe and rotten, every character is rippling with macho bullshit (except for the token nerd comic relief scientists, who squabble like children rather than adolescents), every backstory is thunderously overcooked and cornball. In that sense, it could be labelled del Toro’s Avatar (but the same fans who are wetting themselves over the glimmer of hope for Rim sequels are unironically scorning the announcement of three Avatarquels).
The common factor this has with Cameron’s movie is that it is all so bloody serious and portentous. Say what you like about Michael Bay (and you can say a lot), at least his bombastic hyperbole verges on self-parody. His films may not be very good but they don’t need spoof versions to let you in on the joke. The debit of whacky del Toro does serve up (the aforementioned scientists) owes a huge amount to the autopilot comic relief found in a Bay movie, or in a DreamWorks animation. You won’t find this lack of knowingness in a Roland Emmerich picture either, so prone is that director before the altar of classic era Spielberg. 2012 is so ridiculous it has to be taken as a comedy. Rim is so earnest that the ultra-masculine posturing can't be taken as satire, and it’s a complaint so prevalent that it nearly proves fatal.
A rundown of a few of the heroic tropes here (and I’m sure I’ve missed dozens) include faltering on the journey, losing a loved one and blaming oneself, being called back to the fight because you’re the best of the best, reliving childhood trauma and coming out stronger, Jedi-like abilities that set the hero apart (one of only two to pilot a Jaeger solo), the thorn in the side who eventually learns to respect the hero, the insubordinate whose success relates requires not doing things by the book, the guru with secrets of his own, the noble self-sacrifice, reclaiming the hero’s crown; we’ve seen these themes in many classics, and they’re essential story markers. But Rim is so crammed full of them, in such unfinessed fashion, that the results invite ridicule. This is a movie that even goes to an “analogue is better than digital” place to describe why an earlier model robot is better than a newer one (I mean, really!) You’re left wondering if there’s no stone of shame del Toro will leave unturned in his quest for vapidity.
Why would you give your characters such ridiculous names (Stacker Pentecost?!!) if you aren’t going to play to the absurd? At least Ron Perlman’s monster-remains black marketer has an amusing reason for being called Hannibal Chau (as well as being a Blade Runner reference). Perlman deserves a lot of credit, as he’s the only cast member to get exactly get how the tone should be; broad with a tinge of self-parody. The rest of the cast are too dour (all the jock types) or too whacky (those god darn boffins). Hunnman and Idris Elba, commanding presences as they can be on the small screen, are completely the wrong fit for this. They disappear into the rote growling and posturing of their characters and emerging slightly wooden (the epitome of this is Elba’s – or should I say Stacker’s – risible “cancelling the apocalypse” speech). Rinko Kikuchi does her best to make Mako sympathetic, but she’s saddled with the same uninterrupted cheesiness of her fellow heroes.
The comic relief is the surest sign of tonally how crude Pacific Rim is. The spectacle aside, they go to reinforce the feeling that this could be any hack director’s movie. I find Charlie Day moderately amusing. His delivery reminds me of a slightly less growly Bobcat Goldthwait and he has an appealingly off-kilter energy. But he’s playing a stock eccentric, and Burn Gorman’s spastic spawn of Norman Wisdom and Lee Evans is only more so. Their affected presence further reinforces how mechanically conceived this is.
There's the occasional glimpse of the fun prime Spielberg might have had; a giant metal fist smashes across the entire floor of a building only to gently tap a metronome at the extent of its reach. But, because del Toro’s been playing so hard, such a frivolous moment ends up looking out of place. The sequence with a baby monster is also full of pep (but then, it revolves around Perlman and Day so it stands far more chance of rising above the routine). Even then, I wondered if del Toro wasn’t about to pull a Godzilla third act and give us some creatures on a human scale. I’m not arguing for a reappreciation of Godzilla but I don’t really see why it gets tarred and feathered while this is venerated.
It’s also a problem of these big-giant-things-smashing-stuff movies that the antagonists lack personality. It’s why you need appetising side dishes like Perlman’s character. Del Toro suggests an unseen motivator behind all this carnage as the plot progresses, and it provides a kernel of genuine intrigue. But he basically reduces everything to big scaly beasties and, for all his talk of distinctly designed robots and monsters, they all seem much of a muchness (the Jaegers have names as stupid as the humans, though; Gipsy Danger’s is a load of arse).
As effectively executed as his set pieces are, the fights inevitably go on too long and are exhaustingly pedestrian in the mini-plot beats they contain. Admittedly, though, the virtual control of the pilots does come off much better than in the trailers, where it looked plain dumb. There aren’t any surprises, except that del Toro’s desire to mix things up with the Jaeger’s weaponry leaves you disbelieving; given how decisive the enormous sword attachment is, you wonder that they only brandish it out in the penultimate smackdown.
And I know the whole movie is the grand conceit of a kid in sandbox, but if it’s so desirous of suspension of disbelief a few questions must be asked. Who had the bright idea of robots anyway; are they really most effective? I can’t see them surviving any of the mash-ups they endure given how fragile the average man-made machine is. If you’re playing for realism visually, you’re scuppered when these great big robots plummet from the heavens or repeatedly get body slammed yet remain intact. Instead, how about a giant rotating corkscrew, an enormous spring-powered boxing glove, or a 250ft pump-action frying pan?
Maybe the best idea in here is the mind meld (although points are instantly lost for calling it that) It has a lot of potential as a concept (two pilots must link with each other in order to operate the machines) but unfortunately it is rendered through the most banal of hallucinations. For someone with such a great visual imagination, del Toro makes this sequence curiously uninvolving. Much better is the subplot of a scientist attempting to “drift” with an alien brain. It’s the vast, uncanny other realms that really get the director’s juices flowing. But, without all-important zest, the presiding feeling is one of over-familiarity. There’s nothing new here, no more than there was in Avatar. In del Toro you’ve got a very talented director making a much more invigorating picture than the material deserves.
Nothing del Toro has made before, even the messed-with Mimic, will prepare you for how aggressively dumb this movie is. The steroidal posing it contains seems like the opposite of anything he would usually be interested in, ought to be interested in. And one can’t help but wonder that he spent five years in the wilderness only to return with this. The scale, and the propulsive editing, keeps it watchable, even if although there’s inevitable battle fatigue (not as much as in Man of Steel, but the metropolitan carnage connection is there to see and the more-is-more approach to effects-laden set pieces is showing itself to be dead-end). I’m not looking to completely demolish the movie; it’s just disappointing to see a talented director put his energies into dreck. The vocal Internet fanbase who love Pacific Rim are drooling at the renewed prospect of a sequel, but I’d much rather del Toro went off and spent his time making something deserving of his vision.