Review: Pacific Rim (2013, Del Toro)

Pacific Rim

This review contains moderate spoilers:

To start off, I prefer my action to involve actual human beings; hand-to-hand combat, chase sequences, and the like. Executed poorly, as they often are, and it can be just as tedious as anything else. Executed well and there’s a chance I’m watching in awe. Big-scale action set-pieces involving monster and machine (or Kaiju and Jäger), all conceptualized and constructed with CGI can only interest me so much. Once the human element goes chances are, so does my investment. This is not to disregard the countless men and women who poured their sweat, blood and souls into these special effects. Because I want to be clear; the special effects work on Pacific Rim is often stellar and all-encompassing. Creature design, machine logistics and how the two meet and try to destroy each other on the battlefield is top-notch from a technical standpoint. My aforementioned preferences make it tempting to write Pacific Rim off as an ‘it just wasn’t for me’ miss. But there are far too many fumbles, including piss-poor writing and combative redundancy, for that to be the case. Putting it simply, too much is too much; at a certain point Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em overkill renders everything onscreen null and void.

To very simply sum up the story, Pacific Rim is set in the near future where Kaiju, Japanese for strange creatures, have come through tectonic plates in the Pacific to attack major cities. The bulk of the film takes place in Year Seven of the attacks which show no sign of stopping. By this time, mankind has responded by building giant machines, or Jäger, which are manned by two co-pilots who must build a neural bridge, or handshake, so they can physically operate the machine. There’s a cast of characters headed by Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a has-been who hasn’t piloted in five years.

The groundwork for something worthwhile is here, spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro’s giddy reference-littered boyhood passions. Del Toro’s obsession doesn’t quite transfer to the screen (though it’s concentrated in the Charlie Day character) instead existing in sheer volume, a staunch unwillingness to let up or trim the fat. The idea of the anticipatory build-up is not a concept that appears in Pacific Rim, making everything we see unearned. He gives the audience what they want right out the starting gate and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This kind of structure simply does not work. Everything we see gets appreciated less as a result and any sense of trajectory for the audience is lost. When the fighting does let up, it’s only for table-setting and painfully lazy character arcs and dynamics.

An example of necessary fat-trimming: the fifteen minute prologue sequence featuring Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother doesn’t need to be there. Keeping the initial voiceover narration and saving other world-building elements for later would have yielded the same result. It is clear from the first moment how this will end. All that time is poorly utilized, failing to establish any investment in Raleigh and his brother. We could have learned about his past the same way we learned about Mako; during the drift. Mako’s flashback is far more effective than Raleigh’s prologue sequence even though it substitutes the predictability of revenge motivation for character development. It also helps that the girl they cast as young Mako has freakish emotive abilities.

Back to the original point; extract the emotional essence of that first sequence and save it for later as a memory. Then we’d first meet Raleigh on the wall. When Stacker (Idris Elba) helicopters in to see him, it could have been an intriguing introduction for both characters. Make us wait for the first battle. There is no difference between the opening set-piece and the next couple outside of the prologue’s use of editing to demonstrate the necessary cohesive teamwork between co-pilots and Jäger. But Del Toro has such an itchy trigger finger, immediately laying everything out on the table. Instead of a gripping opening set-piece, it is a trailer for what is to come, the answer of which is more of the same. And then, then the title appears. We’re supposed to think, ‘I can’t wait to see what else is in store’. But my thought was ‘Good Lord, we’ve only just begun and I’m already staving off waves of disinterest.’

Most of the fights lack interest due to a blandly monochromatic color palette which makes movement, sense of space and action murky to look at. The Kaiju and Jäger often fight in the rain and in the ocean, giving everything we see onscreen a dark blue-grey tint. It may help the effects work smoothly blend in with environment, but it washes over design detail and makes the causal effect of fighting blurry and therefore uninvolving. The later set-pieces improve on this. One set-piece late in the film, which takes place on the emptied streets of Hong Kong, is legitimately fantastic. Awash with a reflective neon rainbow backdrop, the Kaiju and Jäger become color-hued monstrosities that interact with their environment on a level other than destruction. It is no coincidence that the meat of the fighting becomes easier to discern as well as far more engaging to watch.

What is so upsetting about Pacific Rim, is that Del Toro clearly fancies this a humanist film. Believe it or not, he actually does care about the emotions behind these characters, what drives them and brings them together, the teamwork and completely underexplored connective tissue of the drift and how the Kaiju affects humanity on a global scale. But such a harmful imbalance of priorities leads to far too much of what could have been a good thing and far too little humanism, clearly meant to be a major contributing factor. What we get are cardboard archetypes led by a bland-as-can-be-lead, apologies to the talented Charlie Hunnam who is unable to turn nothing into something here, and some unforgivably stilted dialogue. I’m not looking for great characters in a film like this; but archetypes need to be well executed and these decidedly are not. The surrogate father-daughter bond between Idris Elba, who is unsurprisingly able to get a lot of mileage out of his character, and Rinko Kikuchi has a lot of potential (what’s there is quite good) but is given short shrift. The script uses characters as a delivery service for packaged up largely artificial emotion and it is too little too late.

There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro world-builds like a master. But his sense of proportion leaves Pacific Rim a mostly hollow sluggish experience despite having an excellent director, a wonderful diverse cast of actors, top-notch effects work and a solid premise. With so much talent on display everywhere you look, it is a shame I was fully unable to appreciate its more successful elements (production and creature design, effects work) because I was too busy being suffocated by redundant cacophonous destruction.

Little Details:

– Rinko Kikuchi’s introduction is memorable
– The consistency in sound work re: Ron Perlman’s spur-sounding golden-tipped shoes.
– “1. Don’t ever touch me again. 2. Don’t ever touch me again” Also, Elba’s reaction to being touched was pure gold.
– Of course I really enjoyed Kikuchi’s try-out scene.


Weekly Trailer Round-Up

The Descendants – B+: It is really gratifying to have a new Alexander Payne film coming out this year. There is nothing really revelatory about the trailer, but this still manages to look wonderful headed by reliably subdued work by George Clooney.

50/50– B+: 50/50 looks like a solid balance of comedy and drama, headed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is so adept at both. He and Rogen look like they will have great chemistry.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – C+: Guillermo del Toro’s involvement has me interested, but my reaction to this was the same as my reaction to the teaser; indifference. It does not look necessarily bad, but nothing about it stands out. The little CGI seen looks somewhat poor.

The Whistleblower – B-: My hope is that this film does not fit quite as succinctly into the political thriller mode as the trailer makes it look. Anything that brings attention to this issue, even if through a conventional thriller (to call human trafficking a ‘problem’ is the biggest understatement you’ll ever see on this blog), is a good thing. However, from a cinematic perspective, this looks a bit too cliched to be anything outstanding. Hopefully, it can prove me wrong.

The Smurfs 3D– F: This is the first F I have given since writing these short trailer sound-ups. I say this with all seriousness: I would watch Zookeeper over this any day of the week. This looks like bottom-of-the-barrel filmmaking, if we can even call it that. On The AV Club’s Directors You Didn’t Know You Hated installment of Inventory, they cite director Raja Gosnell. Along with the upcoming Smurfs, he is also responsible for directing Big Momma’s House, Scooby-Doo and its sequel and Beverly Hills Chihuahua. The comedy here looks about as lazy as it gets. Children clearly deserve better than this. After seeing this, I will bet that the most average of children’s films will seem like a breath of fresh air. Neil Patrick Harris looks particularly annoying. Hank Azaria as Gargamel looks appropriate cartoonish, and thus, moronic. The Smurfs themselves do not blend in at all, and they seem more annoying than anything else here. The amount of times “Smurf” is injected into their vocabulary is grating. Just because they make a joke about it, does not mean you will not have to listen to their repetitive ‘Smurf’ lingo. And as if you need another reason to not see The Smurfs, Katy Perry is voicing Smurfette. Oh. My. Smurf.

I Don’t Know How She Does It-D-: Again, I say this with all seriousness; I would rather watch Zookeeper. I get that this is going to appeal to busybody women who want to feel appreciated for all the running around they do. Nothing wrong with that. Having Sarah Jessica Parker doing Sex and the City narration complete with breaking the fourth wall does not help. It really looks like she will just be her zany self, running around for about ninety minutes. Why would I want to watch this?

Happy Feet Two 3D – F: Oh boy. The second F of this week. For the third time; I would rather see Zookeeper. Poor poor “Mama Said Knock You Out”. You have been unfairly destroyed in less than a minute. I am not sure I have seen a worse teaser than this. Ever. I have never seen Happy Feet. I never care to see Happy Feet. The teaser is loud, crowded, nonsensical, obnoxious, a little bit creepy and completely bewildering.

John Carpenter’s The Ward – C+: This, like so many horror trailers, looks completely forgettable but totally watchable.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front – B+: This is one of my most anticipated docs of the year. This looks like it will have an excellent insight into eco-terrorism, balanced with a humanistic approach that offers no easy answers. That makes me more excited about it, docs that are too broad can become easily problematic. That it is called “A Story” as opposed to “The Story” makes me hopeful that this will live up to my expectations.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – A+: This is, for my money, the best trailer of the year so far. I really enjoy this book (much less crazy about the final two installments). The Swedish film left me largely unimpressed, but Noomi Rapace’s spectacular performance alone had me against a US interpretation. By the time Rooney Mara was cast as opposed to a big name, and David Fincher on board as director, my opinion had completely turned around on this project. My initial worry that the film would tone down the more brutal and disturbing aspects of the film look to be untrue by the feel of this teaser. Can I just say how happy I am that Fincher is getting back to the kind of material he is most comfortable with? My adoration with The Social Network aside (as well as my very conflicted feelings towards Curious Case of Benjamin Button), this pessimistic world of violence and grime is where he is at home. By the looks of it, he has wasted no time with this teaser, showing us that he is coming back with a bang. His visual motifs look right at home in Stieg Larsson’s world. The Trent Reznor/Karen O “Immigrant Song” cover is just as sick and fierce as one would hope. The tagline rules. Craig and Mara look perfect from the little we can see of them. And Entertainment Weekly’s observation that the teaser lines up chronologically with the story looks to be pretty much correct from what I can tell. This is going to be far from an easy watch, but if Fincher’s vision holds up, it’ll be more than worth it.

Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World – D: The one thing I like about this trailer is that kids this young are never really given key roles in children’s action adventure films of this scale. They are almost always several years older. So in a way, I think it’s nice that kids this young can be front and center instead of the protagonists’ being 12 and up. That being said, this looks like it should be straight-to-DVD fodder. I am still trying to figure out why there was a Spy Kids 2. Oh yeah; money. This looks awful.