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.

Normally, when a film provides characters as underdeveloped as these, the solution is to spend a little more time letting us get to know them. But in Pacific Rim the problem is that we already spend far too much time getting to not-know them. Let's face it: We're here for the robots and monsters, and pretty much every minute--and there are many of them--that del Toro wastes on underfed romance, clunking stabs at grace, and awkwardly manufactured interpersonal conflict is a minute that we're not able to enjoy the Global Ultimate Fighting Championship, Behemoth Division.

It is worth noting here that a central element of the movie's plot is that a single human being cannot withstand the psychic strain of operating a Jaeger alone, so two pilots, latched into mechanical harnesses side by side within the massive robotic cranium, must get into one another's heads via "neural bridge" to operate the machine together. (Duos adept at such bonding are called "drift compatible," which seems a phrase better-suited to surfing than to repelling alien invasions.) It's a hokey conceit--though many films have made do with worse--and del Toro does it no favors by larding it with metaphorical meaning. "Either we get along or we die," he told The Boston Globe. "The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together."

It's an admirable sentiment, I suppose, though one not much in evidence in the actual movie. Far from offering a melding of different types, the Jaeger teams generally seem an exercise in genetic overlap. Of the four crews we meet, one is made up of two brothers, another of father and son, and a third of two Russians sharing a last name (whether this denotes marriage or siblinghood is unclear); the only team featuring non-nuclear family is the one comprised of Hunnam and Kikuchi's characters, who are gradually (and unpersuasively) revealed to be proto-smooch-buddies.

In the end, this all-in-the-family ethos seems like yet another prong in the movie's international marketing strategy. We know all the usual panders: limit the comedy (which often doesn't translate), go wild with the explosions (which always do), and don't worry too much about the central plot. But Pacific Rim adds a new wrinkle with its constant recourse to familial motivations: a brother avenging his brother, a daughter avenging her parents, a surrogate dad protecting his surrogate daughter, an Aussie father-and-son team swapping sacrifices, a boy offering his life for the girl he loves, and on and on. Forget culture-specific incentives such as honor or glory, let alone motivations more complex: Here, it's all about defending the tribe, on levels micro and macro alike.

As noted, Pacific Rim is visually spectacular, and those curious should endeavor to see it on the large screen. But the film also serves as a cautionary tale of the compromises entailed in trying to be all things to all peoples.