Uneven "Pacific Rim" Mistakes Action For Imagination

That “Pacific Rim” has cultivated so much positive buzz prior to its release shouldn’t surprise anyone. Writer-director Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”) is a beloved figure amongst much of the filmgoing community, and the picture’s shameless approach to pre-adolescent wish fulfillment seems to have struck a chord with that same crowd. In fact, just the idea of a big-budget robot vs. monster movie seemed to be enough to win over many pundits, and many were carrying the film’s water on principle alone. How wrong could an intrinsically talented filmmaker go in pitting man-made robots against a race of otherworldly monsters? In two words? Very wrong.

“Pacific Rim” is stupid. All-caps stupid. So stupid that it willfully evokes Roland Emmerich’s much-maligned “Godzilla” remake (translation: overblown special effects combined with base monster movie tropes), along with countless other lumbering summer tentpoles, the best of which are nothing more than guilty pleasures (e.g. “Independence Day,” another Roland Emmerich joint). In this Saturday morning cartoon come to life, all that matters is destruction, and the audience’s willingness to forgive the film for being so terrible in all other respects. Tonally, “Pacific Rim” puts the “disaster” in “disaster movie.”

Charlie Hunnam, with all the charisma of a limestone wall, stars as Raleigh Becket, a Jaeger (giant robot) pilot in the fight against the Kaiju (giant monsters). Del Toro makes the insane decision to skip over the Kaiju’s origins via montage, leaving any hint of mystery out of the equation. In fact, we’re treated to a full-scale fight sequence before the opening titles. Thusly, what we know about or see of the Kaiju barely changes over the course of the next 2 hours, making it even more miraculous that Charlie Day is able to steal the show as Dr. Newton Geiszler, a scientist-slash-Kaiju-enthusiast – more on him later.

Also along for the ride: Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, the comically stoic Jaeger commander, Rinko Kikuchi as Mako, Raleigh’s combat partner and half-baked love interest, and Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a mythical gangster who makes a living on the black market by harvesting and selling Kaiju organs. The entire cast seems to be unsure as to what kind of movie they’re in, but it’s hard to assign blame because the pic’s various subplots are startlingly disjointed. Half of the film is played deadly serious, while the other half swerves back and forth between camp and broad comedy. Clifton Collins Jr., an undeniably talented character actor, turns in one of the year’s worst performances as a laughably over-eager Jaeger technician. But it’s impossible to say where the character went wrong – whether it was in the writing process, in del Toro’s direction, or in Collins’ choices on-set.

The aforementioned Charlie Day, accompanied by a rival scientist played by Burn Gorman (who acts as though he’s in a real world episode of “Scooby Doo”), gets nearly all of the film’s best moments, sharing much of his screen time with the always watchable Perlman. As the monsters are naturally more interesting than their mechanical adversaries, Day’s character is our much-needed portal into the world of the Kaiju, and his dexterous performance – along with the few glimpses we get of the monsters in broad daylight – are highlights.

If you’re only concerned with the action scenes, they’re fine, if not exactly revolutionary. The onslaught of CGI, while very well done, is just as exhausting as it was in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films, except here there’s even more of it. Entire scenes are comprised entirely of special effects with no sense of gravity to any of it. While del Toro has a better visual eye than most of his contemporaries, it’s still difficult to make sense of machines that don’t and couldn’t exist interact with monsters the size of skyscrapers. While Spielberg went to great lengths with “Jurassic Park” to maintain a sense of scale (and intrigue, and intellect, etc.), del Toro doesn’t seem to care that we believe any of what we’re seeing, because… robots and monsters!!!

“Pacific Rim” is yet another victim of its own hype, a bulky, balky summer actioner that demands we check our brains at the door, for fear that we might recognize its flimsiness. It practically shouts its audience into compliance, only to spend the following 2 hours smugly celebrating itself as the ultimate realization of those rainy Saturday afternoons that many of us spent playing with action figures. But the thing about action figures is that they serve to stoke imaginations, not replace them. Sure, the stories that we wrote for our toys were as derivative as anything in “Pacific Rim,” but they were our stories. They weren’t exercises in childhood-by-proxy, bankrolled by Warner Bros., but they were stories that came from our hearts and minds. And as well intentioned as Guillermo’s del Toro’s latest may be, it’s a lousy stand-in for actual childhood memories. Return to sender.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: July 12, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriter: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language)