While watching Pacific Rim, in theaters July 12th from Warner Brothers Pictures and Legendary Pictures, a singular question would float into my mind in the moments between the gargantuan monster-vs.-machine mix-up’s: who demanded this film? This is not to say that when a film displays a stylistic and rich universe filled with gorgeously created Kaiju [the Japanese word for ‘Monster’; made culturally significant through Godzilla, Mothra and their various comrades], unique and massive Jaegers [or mechanized battle robots; culturally known as ‘mechs’] and an internationally united populace that there will not be any excitement for the film; quite the contrary. But before director Guillermo Del Toro unleashed the announcement of Pacific Rim on the world, there was no specified fan-base or subculture that was yearning for a $200 million excursion into a science-fiction / Kaiju subgenre hybrid. Fans of the Kaiju films of old were content with their older films, burned by the 1998 Godzilla attempt from Hollywood, and Del Toro’s fans would have gotten excited by the announcement of any project, following Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (and I can attest, being one of those fans). So before Legendary and WB took a massive gamble on Pacific Rim, the film existed merely as a passion project of Del Toro’s, and one that lent itself to blind faith filmmaking.
And yet while imagination exudes from every frame of Pacific Rim, the film is, unfortunately, not the home run that the concept had to the potential to be, lost in a sea of high expectations and an influx of information too indiscernible to attempt to explain. Had the film gone closer to the work of Terry Gilliam, who has dealt with Sci-Fi and Fantasy subgenres without the necessity of exposition via the confident establishment of universe, Del Toro would have had a truly unforgettable blockbuster on his hands, one with the action scenes to inspire wonderment in audiences around the world and the dramatic, old-fashioned flair of adventure films to appeal to the female and older audiences that blockbusters find difficulty in connecting with. The concepts shown are innovative, and the fact that an original film of this scale exists is an admirable concept worth supporting, the lack of focus on the people within this world hurts the set pieces by which Pacific Rim firmly roots itself beneath.
Despite my expectations not being met with the film, even further disappointing is how much promise is evident in the film’s human element. The cast is, for the most part, serviceable with the material they’re given. Charlie Hunnam makes a sound impression as the lead, proving that he is, in fact, capable of being movie star material, although he’s may be more suited for a Snake Plissken-esque antihero than a “lawful good” ruffian. Idris Elba, however, proves why he’s one of the best and dependable actors in the business, selling every word and action of his character’s ridiculous dialogue and, in turn, stealing the movie. Aside from those two, the performances become quite spotty: Rinko Kikuchi seems equally vulnerable as she is distant, albeit clearly trying her hardest to grasp the material; Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini and Clifton Collins Jr. equate loudness and quirk with emotion; And Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Ron Perlman excel in their scenes, the only ones who understand what kind of movie Pacific Rim is trying to be.
And what is Pacific Rim trying to be? It took me quite a while of reflection, but it’s actually quite simple: Pacific Rim is trying to be a live action Anime, embodying every larger-than-life, borderline nonsensical trope seen in action-heavy Anime past. And even though the film is a visual juggernaut in that regards, displaying incredible special effects, gorgeous cinematography and gripping creature design, Anime is often not the genre to aim a grounded, human tale. The reason why cinematic anime like Akira succeed with such grandiose and inane logic lapses and over-the-top set pieces is because there is an unwavering feeling of humanity to the characters, and a loss of humanity is felt when they drift further and further into the world of mechanic body modification and the supernatural. Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham struggle to convey that humanity through these wounded characters, rarely displaying desperation or hopelessness in the characters we’re supposed to sympathize with. Instead, the film plays like a series of hard-shelled characters in a series of logistically unsound places discussing impenetrable science with one another. There’s very rarely a sense of danger to the proceedings, just by the nature of the genre, but luckily, the action sequences are not quite like anything I’d seen before; fun, ambitious, and jaw-dropping, gripping the viewer whenever they’re lucky enough to glimpse it.
I emphasize that last part because one of the main disappointments in the piece, outside from cookie-cutter dialogue, is that the action is mostly obscured, either blocked from view by the darkness of night, the grayness of digital rain or the thickness of the ocean. And while this adds to the mystery of the monsters, this, in turn, makes those creatures far less frightening, as the most threatening beasts are those we see in the daylight, stomping with aimless destruction throughout ashy coastal cities. Had the film removed the excess of exposition within the first half-hour, given the characters more motivated and distinct voices and orchestrated action that was as fun and invigorating as it is beautiful and clear, then Pacific Rim might have had the potential to be the next Star Wars.
Instead, Pacific Rim is devoid of the checks-and-balances of studio filmmaking, resulting in a logically unsound cinematic equivalent of a child who gets every toy that he asks for: good natured yet egregiously not personable. Easily, Pacific Rim is a fascinating old-school adventure film, twisted with some original sci-fi action, and it’s unmistakably Del Toro’s most bold and epic film to date, building a believable world of monsters, men and machines. But Pacific Rim gets wrong what Avatar had successfully achieved years ago in that Avatar‘s story refuses to progress without respect to its viewer and allows the audience to put together its universe without an abundance of expository information wedged between its set pieces. In fact, the film is quite similar to Cameron’s epic space opera: both films are derivative of larger niche genres, ambitious and fun in equal measures and dazzling to every sense when at its best. But unlike Avatar, Del Toro stretches the world of Pacific Rim too thin in its narrative and too thick conceptually, pleasing more behind the camera than those in front of the screen. Does this make Del Toro any less of a great filmmaker? Based on his intentions with the film, the answer is no. But for a mind as creatively boundless as his, perhaps some resistance is necessary for his professional maturation.
– By Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine, as well as a contributing writer for Diabolique Magazine and Fangoria Magazine. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on several screenplays spanning over different genres and subject matter, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.