A Beautiful, Disappointing Pacific Rim

As its title suggests, Guillermo del Toro's latest film is precision-engineered for the international market.
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Heading into the summer, there was perhaps no Hollywood blockbuster that appeared to have as low a floor and as high a ceiling as Pacific Rim. On the one hand, the cast is notably second-tier and the plot--giant, human-operated robots fighting giant, alien sea monsters off the coast of Hong Kong--seems like a cross between Battleship and the Transformers movies. On the other hand, the movie is directed by Guillermo del Toro, whose prior achievements--both pop-cultural (Hellboy) and high-cultural (Pan's Labyrinth)--are beyond reproach. Adding weight on the negative side of the scale were a series of underwhelming trailers. But on the positive side, again: The movie is directed by Guillermo del Toro.

So now that Pacific Rim has landed ashore, which is it? A feebly written special-effects-fest explicitly engineered for the international market? Or a work of next-generation visual imagination? The answer, I fear, is both--though the balance tilts somewhat toward the former.

The story begins in the near-future, when an interstellar portal opens up deep in the Pacific Ocean and belches forth a lumbering monstrosity that lays waste to San Francisco. Though this "Kaiju"--the term is a genial nod to the Japanese giant-monster movies of the 1950s and '60s--is ultimately defeated by the military, another materializes six months later, and then another, and another. Humankind quickly comes to the conclusion that (tagline alert) to fight monsters, we must create monsters of our own--specifically, towering mechanical men called "Jaegers." (The word is German for "hunter.")

This arrangement works out nicely for several years, with the implicit contest between Japanese Godzilloids and German engineering consistently favoring the latter. But in 2020, the balance of power shifts as a new and more formidable species of Kaiju surfaces. Within five years, the Jaeger program is all but abandoned. Though a few brave robot-jockeys continue to fight the good fight, the program is largely mothballed, with the governments of the world instead investing in the construction of a giant "Wall of Life" intended to keep out the transgalactic interlopers. (Let's see: liberal filmmaker, border wall intended to keep out "aliens"--I'll give you one guess how well this works.)

Let's begin with the good: Pacific Rim's visual effects are extraordinary, in particular an early Jaeger-Kaiju battle that takes place off the nighttime coast of Anchorage--an irresistibly kinetic and immersive churn of metal sinew and lizard flesh and sea foam. (Eat your heart out, Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla.) The final half-hour or so of the film is similarly spectacular--more Jaegers fighting more Kaijus--even if it doesn't quite reach the heights of that initial confrontation.

The problem is pretty much everything that takes place in between. There are a few nice visual moments scattered here and there: a gag involving a Newton's cradle; a scene of workers sitting on the girders of the half-constructed Wall that recalls iconic Manhattan skyscraper photos; an introductory shot peeking under an umbrella in the rain that's reminiscent of a similar shot in Hellboy. But overall, the plotting is tedious, the characters drab, and the dialogue evidently contrived with the specific intent of losing nothing in the process of dubbing or subtitling. Indeed, almost every element of the film seems designed for a seamless translation to foreign audiences, and while in some areas this is not a bad thing (the international cast, the Hong Kong setting), for the most part the result is a bland narrative appeal to the lowest common denominator. The movie's visual achievements notwithstanding, Pacific Rim's greatest breakthrough may be that it's the first Hollywood blockbuster to sport a title less descriptive of its plot than of its intended market.

Charlie Hunnam (of Sons of Anarchy) stars as Generic Caucasian American Hero Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket--yes, I know, but be forewarned that the names only get worse from here. In the early going, Raleigh is essentially indistinguishable from his brother/co-pilot Yancy (Homeland's Diego Klattenhoff), though the film solves this problem by killing the latter off about 10 minutes in. Raleigh's stiffly upper-lipped boss in the Jaeger program, played by Idris Elba with an uncharacteristic lack of charisma, is Stacker Pentecost (I told you!); and his eventual new co-pilot and budding love interest is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel). Rounding out the cast are Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a mismatched pair of Kaiju researchers, and Ron Perlman as a black marketeer specializing in Kaiju organs.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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