Each week in this season of mega-budget movies I’ve come a little closer to making the comment, “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ‘em all”. Of course, that would be a major backslide for me as a critic (I’m still trying to dial down my use of the word “cliché” in my reviews), but as I watch one big CGI spectacle after another being used as a veil for some bland, cookie-cutter soap opera, I realize how few of these films could actually be sustained on the characters – or even the storyline – alone. In other words, special effects have become the principle player, and everything else is just ancillary, if not entirely unnecessary. At least, that’s what it feels like.
“Pacific Rim” is certainly no exception, but for a film that focuses on robots fighting monsters, it works surprisingly well. It’s evident that director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”) isn’t trying for anything more than a modern-day monster movie here, and with all the characteristics of a 1960’s “Godzilla” flick amped up to the tune of roughly $200 million, it can be quite an immersive experience (though I wouldn’t suggest spending $17.50 on an IMAX/3D ticket). Hell, this one might have been even more fun without people involved; the mass casualties are little more than a vague number mentioned in the film’s opening exposition.
Still, we need humans if it’s going to be any kind of story, so del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham (the “Clash of the Titans” remake) create an easy “Top Gun” parallel with the typical character designations: loose cannon, sacrificial lamb, egotistical antagonist, among others – these functions are just about the extent of their depth, but fulfill the formula nonetheless. And on with the big, apocalyptic show.
Here’s the set-up: It’s the year 2020, and Earth has been in a seven-year war with the Kaiju, giant pre-historic looking creatures that periodically emerge from a mysterious portal beneath the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on us (it’s mentioned that this might have something to do with the dinosaurs and global warming – more on that later).
Having set aside our differences, the various nations created giant machines called Jaegers, named from the German word for “hunter”, each having two pilots that operate the gargantuan humanoid robots via a neural bridge called “the drift”. The pilots absorb each other’s memories and bond with the machines, physically maneuvering them with two state-of-the-art elliptical devices located inside (I think it’s explained why they can’t be controlled remotely – who knows). They must be mentally compatible, otherwise the neural link won’t work, or in some cases, will backfire with devastating results. Ironically, this script is the antithesis of “cerebral”.
The film focuses on Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), the “Maverick” of the group, who loses his brother and co-pilot – we’ll call him “Goose” – in a disastrous confrontation with a Kaiju off the coast of Alaska. Flash forward five years, and the Jaeger program is about to lose funding, deemed no longer effective against Kaiju attacks that have increased in frequency and intensity. The governments have decided instead to build giant protective walls to keep the monsters out of their respective cities; it seems that in unity, the world is destined to completely lose all common sense (one of the creatures takes down a newly erected barrier like it’s made out of drywall).
Becket is sought out by his old boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to join him in Hong Kong where the last several Jaegers remain – one Chinese, one Russian, one Australian, and Becket’s now archaic nuclear powered “Gipsy Danger” (they’re all either named like race horses or death metal bands). There he meets the remainder of the pilots, including the apprehensive Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) – we’ll call him “Iceman” – and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young female trainee who is destined to fill the “Merlin” slot. Anyway, Pentecost has a master plan that he believes will eradicate the Kaiju threat for good.
“Pacific Rim” never comes close to the mishmash of moving parts and hyperactive camera work that makes films like “Transformers” so thoroughly annoying. In that regard, it’s surprisingly careful to stay focused, and the robots and creatures are well-rendered; the choice of having the battle sequences take place at night in the rain or underwater keeps things from looking too cartoonish (my usual pet peeve) without getting too muddled. Remnants of del Toro’s dark style are visible amidst the more typical computer-generated mayhem; in my opinion, the gray/blue tones distinguish it just slightly from similar large-scale action epics. Beacham and Del Toro don’t insert anything into the story that isn’t absolutely necessary to prepare us for the next big action sequence (even the mind-meld serves to deliver a big revelation about the monsters, though the attached cautionary tale about the environment is a bit much). I use “action” as a loose descriptor of anything being blown up, smashed or thrown; aside from that, don’t expect anything other than the typical alpha-dog displays of testosterone and big, generic speeches that could’ve been used in at least four other movies this year.
The trailer for “Pacific Rim” promises giant robots battling monsters, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Sure, it has more than its share of ridiculous plot points and overworked action sequences, but at the very least it’s going to appease those folks who just want to “check out” for a couple of hours. For a mindless summer blockbuster, “Pacific Rim” manages to be more entertaining than tedious. But it also had me asking, “Where’s my “Ultraman” movie?”