On the Shoulders of Giants, by David Bax
Most of the people who will go to see Pacific Rim in the theater know what they’re in for. The advertisements and the months of pre-release buzz have made the premise undeniably clear. This is a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. But there’s more feeding the buzz than that. The real source of promise is that this is Guillermo del Toro’s movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. The guy who brought Hellboy to life; the guy who made the best Blade movie; the freaking guy who made Pan’s Labyrinth: this is the alchemist of arty/pop/junk/genre/trash perfection who was to bring to mature but fun life the dreams of geeky kids with mixed and matched toys and action figures. It was destined for pure cine-geeky triumph. Yet it seems the size of the warring behemoths was too overwhelming and the auteur’s vision was blocked out like the sun. There’s despairingly little of del Toro to be found in Pacific Rim.
For the uninitiated and un-inundated, I’ll provide a quick summation of the premise. In 2013, a mysterious dimensional rift appears at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and from it emerges a monstrous creature, perhaps 300 feet tall, who lays waste to the city of San Francisco before finally being felled by tanks and fighter jets. Over the coming years, the attacks become more frequent and so humanity develops countermeasures in the form of equally gargantuan mechanic beings, each piloted by two persons, who share the neural load of controlling the beastly machine. The bulk of the story takes place twelve years after the initial attack, when the monsters – called Kaiju – have begun to adapt and overcome the robots – called Jaegers. Those behind the Jaeger program decide to mount a last stand.
In a better film, this bombast would be the arena in which the individual human dramas would play out. Technically, I suppose that is what’s happening in Pacific Rim but the depictions of personal relationships, flaws and idiosyncrasies are both dense (in the way you’d politely describe a poor student) and feather-light. There’s the seed of an idea about the sharing of brain-space as a metaphor for familial bonds but the family dynamics presented (“I’ve never been able to tell my dad I love him”; “I miss my dead brother”) are so blandly familiar and haphazardly sketched, it’s difficult not to chuckle at their plain lack of invention. It’s as if the skeleton of the story was constructed – the characters painted in the broadest of strokes with the intention of building them out more fully at a later date – and then no one got around to finishing it. What does exist on screen often seems to have been curiously borrowed from the locker room pissing contests of Top Gun. It certainly doesn’t help that the cast is almost entirely male and that most of the characters look alike.
So that leaves us with Pacific Rim’s only remaining reason to exist: giant robots fighting giant monsters. With the exception of an overlong stretch in the middle, there’s a pretty good deal of it. Sadly – much like the dialogue – there’s not much innovation and as a result – much like the plethora of white guys in the movie – most of the fights look exactly the same. With one notable exception, the battles all unfold in the same general terrain. What cleverness there is can be found in the motif of both robots and monsters revealing, mid-fight, that they possess tricks and capabilities of which we were previously unaware. Sometimes this is cool but just as often the effect is silly. Anyway, they mostly just punch each other.
Pacific Rim’s roots, of course, lie in the strain of films from which the monsters take their name. Kaiju movies feature very large creatures terrorizing cities and occasionally pummeling one another. I’m not an expert on the genre but I learned from Godzilla that the appeal lies not just in the size of the beasts but in their size in comparison to everything else. The enormity of the threat – and therefore the direness of the stakes – is sharpened when we see that the only hope to defeat a towering foe comes in a human-sized package. When people are replaced with machines that are equally scaled to the monsters, the drama disappears. Add in the location of the middle of the ocean and we may as well be watching any two cartoon figures duke it out.
Some bits of del Toro’s personality can be salvaged from the mess. When Charlie Day’s screeching, non-comic relief takes a detour into a Hong Kong slum built up around the bones of a fallen Kaiju, a tactile sense of place finally registers. The film doesn’t shed the lame-brained dialogue in this section but it does at least feel like del Toro at last developed an idea beyond step one.
If you go to Pacific Rim to see giant robots fighting giant monsters, your wish will be fulfilled. But it will be the fulfillment of the sort granted by those ironic genies in old, lesson-teaching tales. You got the movie you wished for but you forgot to also wish for it to be good.