Everything about Pacific Rim on paper tells me I should love this movie. I like mecha anime, I like science-fiction, I like attention to detail, I like new franchises rather than old ones growing stale, I like Idris Elba, I like action set in cities other than New York.
But Pacific Rim failed to capture me. It failed to capture me on an emotional level, it failed to capture my engagement, and even at times my attention as I endured the climactic last action scene that was going through the motions in the most dour environment possible. In screenwriting, a great action scene progresses character and plot, and Pacific Rim only barely gets by on that front. Action scenes can also progress theme, but don’t look for much thematic resonance here. It’s pretty simple: humanity coming together in the face of alien terror, putting aside differences, sacrificing for the greater good.
Incredibly, even this simple theme is not espoused properly as the film does not show humanity coming together. Other nations are caricatures and ignored. Humanity as a whole has one scene early on, trying to build a wall to keep monsters at bay, and we never see them again, either helping our heroes or providing a consistent threat to them. The premise: “can humanity come together?” is not answered, because the film lacks humanity.
Disclaimer: Guillermo del Toro’s films since The Devil’s Backbone don’t do much for me. He is a very skilled director with a great visual sense, but his stories have lacked an essential ingredient required to connect me to what is happening on screen. Blade 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth are my ‘favourites’ of his, but even those I can only admire, but not love.
I am forming a theory for this, as I believe it’s not just me, but the masses in general that can’t connect to his material. As of writing this, the film which has made the most money of his filmography is Blade 2 with $82 million dollars. This is interesting, he hasn’t broken past $100 million, despite some pretty big exposure on geek-friendly properties, a few sequels as well. For someone of his stature you’d expect him to be accepted by mainstream audiences, and not be so decisive. You’d expect Pacific Rim to be making ridiculous amounts of profit, but as of writing this review it’s looking very underwhelming on that front. So what’s going on here? He’s a great director, he doesn’t go wildly over budget, his films are visually sumptuous, he tackles unique stories, and he seems like a great guy to boot.
My theory is this: del Toro is a fan favourite and adored by self-professed geeks, because he is a geek just like them. That’s precisely the problem. He directs actors as a genre fan intent on splashing on screen comic book panels, rather than a director intent on telling a story impartial to how he’s viewed by fans. Directors like Spielberg and Cameron are restrained enough to understand what works for the story, not what works for the fans or inner geek voice.
I’m never in the shoes of his characters, I’m never up close and in their heads, I’m always distant to them. The actors are acting in some kind of subtle way that’s stylised, like del Toro is trying to recreate how he thinks comic book characters talk and walk, but to me it’s a subtle interference that my subconscious picks up on leaving me restless.
He approaches filmmaking with questions like, “wouldn’t it be cool if mechs battle monsters under water?”
In literature sure, but as a climax to a movie it’s really boring. Watching CGI creations tussle around in the murky depths of an ocean? After two hours of watching CGI creations tussle around in the dark above the ocean? This is incredibly tiring to watch, and ultimately I just didn’t care. I knew how it would end, and was waiting for it to be over already. The film already reached a climactic moment earlier when a character got revenge for their dead family, it was an emotional moment that somehow punched through del Toro’s directing style and got to me. The movie never lives up to it and continues to bash its way in the rainy dark to its inevitable end.
Travis Beachem’s script manages to build a world and convey concepts that although may not be new to seasoned sci-fi fans, is still not seen much in Hollywood cinema, and he does it relatively concisely with economical exposition. The concept of two pilots connecting their minds and memories to attune to a mech is great, but unfortunately not utilised as much as it could have been. There’s one major flashback shown as a result of this technology, and it’s probably the best scene in the film, but unfortunately the flashback appears to be the only function of the technology in the script.
Having characters in each other’s heads could have been mined for great conflict and spectacle, and there could have been some emphasis on using zen-meditation as a force, but these ideas are not explored. The movie just wants the mechs to have fisticuffs with the kaiju monsters, which is also weird considering some of the weapons available to them, such as a giant sword which seems to be a one-hit kill weapon.
Unfortunately Pacific Rim’s characters are painted with broad strokes, with only two standing out as compelling, namely Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori and Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, with a unique father-daughter dynamic fuelling their relationship and subsequent conflict. And yes, he’s really called Stacker Pentecost, just nod and move on.
My fear was that Kikuchi would be treated like the inscrutable Other that philosopher Edward Said wrote about in Orientalism, but she is a relatively strong female with clear goals. She emotes the strongest, so she was my anchor to this film, without her I might have tuned out completely. Unfortunately she does know martial arts and yet does have a guy fight for her honour, and isn’t allowed to kiss a white guy, but hey at least we got a Japanese female in a main role for a blockbuster. Small beginnings…
Everyone else around them is an archetype, stereotype, caricature, and a cartoon. Appropriate considering the kind of tale being told sure, but as film fans we would like everyone to have some depth to them and avoid cliches. There is an Aussie father/son duo which have a decent pay-off, but its just window-dressing to Charlie Hunnam’s main character Raleigh Becket, who is devoid of personality, yet is the atypical wild cannon, who actually isn’t really that wild in this film.
He is brought back into the Jaeger mech program after 5 years of wandering around mourning his brother’s death in the opening prologue. He ultimately recognises Mori’s skill as a mech pilot and campaigns Pentecost for her. There is a decent foundation for a relationship there but it’s very thinly sketched and by the end lacks a satisfying pay-off, due to the film pulling its punches regarding his character arc.
But let’s face facts, this movie was made with the promise of action on a massive scale, and it somewhat lives up to it. The action is ambitious and really gives a sense of scale to the destruction wrought by the giant machines and monsters. The machines are all very distinct and have pretty decent array of weaponry. Anime fans will appreciate seeing mecha realised by Hollywood. I’d suggest they stick to Bokurano or even Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann than Pacific Rim to be honest, at least you get over 20 episodes of characterisation to go with the destruction of cities.
The kaiju monsters are devoid of personality, they are a faceless enemy with only one goal, to wipe out humanity. They are sometimes indistinguishable from one another, and the fact that they mostly appear at night does not help matters. The frustrating thing is that there are a few scenes where we see them in daylight, and they look fantastic, but for some reason the majority of action is at night. After Michael Bay’s daytime mayhem with Transformers 3, it’s hard to understand why Pacific Rim opts for night, it couldn’t be a technical reason surely…
Ramin Djawadi’s soundtrack does have a few memorable themes, that coincide nicely with the comebacks and victories of the mechs, but it feels like video game music too, which is appropriate, but not good for an epic movie this expensive and big in scope. I’m not exactly sure what I even mean by video game music, but it basically doesn’t feel as bombastic and heroic as you would expect from a major blockbuster. Just like the film, it’s not bad but is missing something.
Everything about this movie should be something I dig, but del Toro continues to hold me at arms length, preventing an emotional connection to the story and characters. The film is inert, lacking spark and drive. Michael Bay gets a lot of flak, but he has a very distinct voice as director which is infused in his films. It’s not a particularly pleasant voice, in fact it can get quite ugly, but the point is he has a voice and it’s loud and clear.
Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic voice is in another language I can’t understand or relate to. Pacific Rim is not a bad movie at all, and unlike the Transformers movies is not offensive and obnoxious. It’s full of hope and thankfully shows technology as a way to save humanity, but the movie lacks a neural bridge with my mind and heart.