Co-writer and director Guillermo del Toro‘s passion for classic japanese monster movies — the kaiju genre to serious devotees — translates well into his upscaled edition of the same, PACIFIC RIM. Audiences primed by its many trailers and TV spots to witness some towering fights between unworldly behemoths from the ocean depths and human-built giant mechanical defenders will get exactly that but not a great deal more. How that deal translates into viewer reactions and box office dollars depends entirely on if people want more from the film, though FilmEdge couldn’t help expecting del Toro to squeeze a little more heart out of his super sized tale. If summertime audiences seek titanic battles between monsters and robots for sheer escapist fun, there is no doubt PACIFIC RIM fills that bill with visual bravura. But if some viewers hoped for a little more humanity from the normal-sized characters driving this cinematic machine, they might feel short-changed at times. PACIFIC RIM is a Guillermo del Toro film that maddeningly, disappointingly almost fulfills its potential to be more than the sum of its nuclear-powered, hellspawn-invading parts.
The plot is unabashedly simple and, in ways, pleasantly uncluttered: these massive kaiju monsters periodically spew out of a trans-dimensional rift in the ocean floor of the Pacific to wreak havoc in the coastal civilizations of humankind. As our best military defenses and attack forces become powerless to stop the ever-evolving species of monsters — categorized one through five scaled by height and destructive power like living hurricanes or tornadoes — humans quickly figure out that size indeed matters in this war. Countries combine their military and industrial forces to initiate the Jaeger program (from the German word for hunter), building huge bipedal mechanical soldiers piloted by humans who fight back from inside their giant robot avatars. Two pilots inside the Jaeger’s control cockpit in the robot head fight as one, and those pilots who work closest in unison prove triumphant in destroying the monsters. Except each new category of monster that arises from the ocean floor seems to adapt to our robotic offenses and defenses, standing taller, fighting more powerfully and becoming increasingly harder to kill. With the kaiju war in its second decade of Earth history, the bulk of PACIFIC RIM’s story takes place in this crisis atmosphere where humanity is quickly losing the battle and the increasing kaiju attack schedule spells doom for us all.
One such Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), is a veteran of the early war despite his age, having lost both his pilot brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) and his will to fight in a disastrous defeat near Alaska. Raleigh hides from the world and his past as part of a crew building enormous defensive walls along the North American Pacific coastline, since a number of battle defeats has all but halted the Jaeger program. The defensive strategy proves a tragic failure for one Pacific Rim nation, so Jaeger-meister and veteran pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) must pluck Raleigh out of his wasteful obscurity and recruit him back into the fighting robot forces in what may become humanity’s final, desperate battle.
At Pentecost’s side through Raleigh’s fitness testing is skilled but inexperienced pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) along with a pair of eccentric, twitchy scientists Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who battle each other to pitch their disparate strategies to defeat the kaiju once and for all. Not only must Raleigh pass muster with the unforgiving Pentecost, he must also overcome his tragic reputation as a defeated Jaeger pilot — a tough task for Becket since he bears the emotional and psychological scars of his brother’s death. The younger half of the father and son Australian Jaeger pilot team, Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), bears a strong disdain for Raleigh as a quitter who skipped out on his duty to defend humanity. Raleigh’s only remaining supportive ally is the Jaeger ops commander Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who was there at the Becket brothers’ tragic failure years before.
This has the storytelling makings of a clever, inventive upgrade of the giant monster/robot genre, right? All the pieces for an entertaining, satisfying film are there on the board, we just await Guillermo to play out his game. Seeing early trailers and previews of PACIFIC RIM, one couldn’t help but be encouraged by his specific plot point, what the story calls drifting: establishing a high-tech neural connection between the thoughts (and feelings) of two synchronized human brains to power these gigantic robots that are too big for one person to handle. With the pilots’ minds each taking on one operational hemisphere of their Jaeger robot to walk, throw punches, slam armored fists and unleash weapon arsenals, del Toro’s metaphor of humanity joining together for their own survival seems plainly, somewhat ingeniously complete. Deep down, behind the monstrous war shaking the screen, PACIFIC RIM would be about human connections and how we as a species are stronger, better when we work together than we ever can be as individuals. The film itself even relates in its action-packed prologue that the world community quickly dropped their petty political divisions after the first attacks, uniting their labor and resources together for a common goal of survival at all costs. Great.
Ultimately the problem is that Travis Beacham‘s story and script co-written with del Toro never quite capitalizes dramatically on that ingenious, inspired idea amid all the kaiju-bashing chaos. The characters at hand, especially Raleigh and Mako, should embody this concept of united humanity better than they do once writers and director established that paradigm for them in such a visually obvious way as Jaeger co-pilots. Yet while Raleigh and Mako’s backstories mesh conveniently for the film, as people they never really develop the on-screen chemistry to sync their emotional power as well as their fighting prowess. All the right pieces are on the board but, compared to several of his previous films, del Toro seems to be playing under-speed in PACIFIC RIM, perhaps so occupied by the herculean task of creating this larger-than-life world that the full dose of human emotion available in this scenario is never fully exploited.
Of course, the classic Japanese monster movies from GODZILLA onward were never great human dramas either, so in this respect del Toro is simply being devotedly true to the art form he loves. But one of PACIFIC RIM’s most intriguing aspects was del Toro’s uncanny skill for making the most fantastical, otherworldly stories (from CRONOS to THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE to HELLBOY) believable, investing the strangest creatures and restless spirits with a humanity that made audiences identify with and even root for them. No, we’re not buying a ticket to sympathize with PACIFIC RIM’s monstrosities at all, but we should be more on board with the humans piloting the Jaegers ostensibly defending us against the beasts. Worse, the science-packed scenes between Geiszler and Gottlieb are played at such frenetic dialogue pace you wonder if they’ve been sped up to help curtail the film’s 132 minute run time. It’s as if del Toro wants to rush through these exchanges to hurry back to the titan-fighting action, which relegates both their somewhat crucial characters to jittery comic relief, further undermining the film’s human touch in a very unnecessary way. In this respect, Ron Perlman‘s kaiju-parts dealing Hannibal Chau is woefully underutilized which is shocking considering their previous collaborations.
Industrial Light and Magic led by John Knoll have rendered this world of fighting robots and ocean-dwelling monsters magnificently and believably as possible while maintaining the crucial fantasy element that keeps such a tale elevated slightly beyond reality. If there’s one disappointment in their work, it’s del Toro’s apparent insistence that nearly all the robot/kaiju battles take place at night or in heavy rain, most likely both unless they’re at the bottom of the ocean all together. Sometimes the director shoots these battles at extreme dutch angles to keep it visually interesting (which is debatable itself), but too often it feels like del Toro is hiding these magnificently designed monsters in the dark. If there’s one thing classic kaiju films from Japan celebrated, it was their men-in-suits monster designs as they were the main attraction for audiences, often fighting in broad, studio simulated daylight. Del Toro does raise the stakes with his monsters toward the end of the film as they evolve, but viewers may never escape the feeling that the film is always saving full reveal of the monsters for later, and later, and later. The problem with that is audiences have now paid to see the full monster monty, yet the creatures too often remain couched in the shadows to give a full payoff: eventually mystery should turn into undiluted menace for PACIFIC RIM to reach its kaiju-loving potential, and it never quite does.
Fighting robots and gargantuan monsters reach dizzying heights in PACIFIC RIM, but the story falls a bit short of that towering mark on the human side. A far more satisfying film than any of Michael Bay’s TRANSFORMERS epics, Guillermo del Toro has clearly enjoyed telling such tall tales at this height — we just wish he had given 10% more effort on depth. Primed as a solid entry in the summertime movie market and guaranteed to fill the monster movie quota of any kaiju connoisseur, the film meets its basic expectations which is no small feat at this cinematic scale. But what is good could have been greater, and many in the audience might wish PACIFIC RIM had met its potential to be that much bigger and better. FilmEdge gives it 3½ stars for good summer entertainment and monster-bashing bravado, but wanted to like it much more.