We’re roughly half way through the summer season with Man of Steel and World War Z recently past and Elysium and The Wolverine shortly approaching (among others).
As such, a little $190 blockbuster about giant robots vs. giant aliens could well pass under the radar: less superfluous than Disney’s The Lone Ranger but by no means a guaranteed money-maker, it makes sense that fantasy horror legend Guillermo Del Toro would be asked to bring some much-needed credibility to the project.
With a concept you could fit on the back of a postage stamp – more or less Godzilla meets Transformers – GDT signed up to direct a week after his long-mooted, high-budget adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness was shelved. Given how different Pacific Rim is from his usual fare – he tends towards ghosts and goblins over sci-fi shtick – you could almost think he acted rashly out of grief. That is were the end product not quite so entertaining.
Setting out to make the ultimate Kaiju (or monster) movie, GDT’s choice of project seems less unusual when you consider the important role that creature design has played in all of his best known works: from Cronos to Hellboy via, of course, Pan’s Labyrinth, grotesque and fantastical beings have been at the fore of his overall aesthetic.
Furthermore, his favorite video game – which he does consider an art form – is apparently Shadow of the Colossus, which involves the protagonist working to bring down a succession of mountainous beings. In terms of scale, the only thing that doesn’t fit GDT’s repertoire are the robots, the so-called Jaegers, that are humanity’s last defense against the alien aggressors.
As if to compensate for this, he’s assembled an impressive cast mostly best known for their work on the small screen, which includes Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam, the one and only Idris Elba (of The Wire and Luther fame), It’s Always Sunny…‘s Charlie Day, and Torchwood‘s Burn Gorman; not to mention Rinko Kikuchi, the first Japanese actress to be Oscar nominated in fifty years for her role in 2006’s Babel.
If you’ll pardon the extended lead-in, there’s not that much to say about the film itself. So, we have a Hong Kong military base populated with a bunch of lightly sketched character archetypes: Hunnam’s washed-up Raleigh, Elba’s deeply burdened commanding officer Pentecost, and Kikuchi’s vulnerable yet resolved co-pilot Mako.
Though Hunnam is ostensibly the hero and Kikuchi his love interest, it’s very much an ensemble piece with Elba at its heart. The world they inhabit and the action sequences that take place are very much the body of Pacific Rim as the Jaegers go toe to claw with the Kaiju, swiping and clawing at each other on land or out at sea.
The scale is phenomenal with monsters tearing through skyscrapers as though they were sand castles and robots blasting them with heavy, often unexpected ordinance. It’s a testament to GDT’s direction and the script by him and Travis Beacham that you never lose track of the human element – like a little girl wandering (albeit somewhat implausibly) amidst the wreckage of a devastated downtown – especially given that it’s not the star attraction.
These fistfights are grandstanding and percussive, and the use of 3D, though not entirely necessary, is arguably the most immersive since Avatar.
As such, it’s disappointing that the elements that are least effective are the characteristics that GDT brings to the mix. Suspended in a fast-paced, no-nonsense blockbuster like Pacific Rim things that would usually be endearing, specifically the comic relief, prove an irritant in this context.
Case in point are Day and Gorman’s odd-couple scientists, Newt and Gottlieb, a wide-eyed “Kaiju groupie” and a fusty Brit. Though Day is certainly better served by the plot – he, at least, gets something that resembles an independent character objective – but Gorman is given no space, and, as such, Gottlieb comes across as an irritating bundle of tics (he gesticulates wildly and walks with a limp).
Black marketeer Hannibal Chau, played by GDT stalwart Ron Perlman, is somewhat more successful: dressed in a floral-print suit and gold-tipped spats, he, at least, has the luxury of chewing scenery. For the most part, however, Pacific Rim squeezes out GDT’s personality as a director, indeed as auteur – excuse my French – and that’s a shame.
Nevertheless, Pacific Rim is, on the whole, serviceable – more than that, it’s fun. It’s fun in a way that few summer films achieve: breezy without being throwaway, big without being stupid. The closest film I can think of by way of comparison is Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day all the way back in 1996 with Elba’s “cancelling the apocalypse” speech standing in for Bill Pullman’s rousing title dropping speech.
Its ambitions may be more modest but the film is what it intends to be – given which, the team behind the upcoming Godzilla reboot have got to be furious.
In any case, Pacific Rim slots in nicely with morally-tortured Man of Steel and the frantically jet-setting World War Z and, having made back almost have its budget in the first weekend alone, this film should give GDT the cachet he needs to get on with some personal projects for a while.
If not quite in The Hobbit stakes – I, for one, am still mightily peeved we missed out on GDT’s version of Smaug and got stuck with a not very good movie as part of the bargain – this shows there’s hope yet for the original blockbuster movie – which has seemed to be in dire straits – and should provide a tonic for the sure-to-tank Lone Ranger (a Pacific Rim sequel’s apparently already in the works).
Context aside, bring on Hellboy 3!