MOVIE REVIEW: Pacific Rim
PACIFIC RIM-- 3 STARS
There are movies that come along, particularly during the blockbuster summer months each year, that are pure roller coasters rides of entertainment. They have that singular purpose and effect. The movie-makers involved pile on the style and visual effects and, most of the time, leave the smarts and compelling story at home. The ingenuity present stops at the cool concept being explored. Those kind of movies require us to turn off our brains, strap ourselves in, close our dropped jaws, and ingest the countless grains of salt required to suspend the necessary disbelief. We do it because they are fun. Nothing more. Nothing less.
The really good movies that fit this description don't skimp on the compelling plot or smarts and become classics for wowing us and moving us at the same time. We can all name those classics like the original Star Wars trilogy, the Indiana Jones series, the first Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, the Harry Potter series, and even Independence Day. They achieved enough spectacle and heart at the same time to never get old. They had the magic of both.
The films that don't reach that level, and the list is numerous, are either instant gratifications of momentary coolness or some lucky ones hang around enough to become "guilty pleasures" instead of revered classics. They are the movies, down the road, that we sometimes are embarrassed to say we enjoyed. For a generation of kids in the 1980's, that designation likely spanned from Top Gun and Robocop all the way deep to Flash Gordon end of the barrel.
A decade later, in the 1990's, it was probably the horrendous cheese of Armageddon or it veered lower to Starship Troopers. Carrying it into the next century and the 2000's, look no further than the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchises and all of the branches of the ugly tree in between down to Snakes on a Plane and Cloverfield.
The latest giddy summer spectacle, Pacific Rim, will be the torch bearer of guilty pleasure for the decade of the 2010's. Mark my words on that. Plenty will love it now and, don't get me wrong, there is plenty here to love. Still, an equal plenty will regret it later and increasingly roll their eyes with every repeat viewing as the movie gets overshadowed by the next shiny object birthed by Hollywood hit factories.
Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket (no, not an extra character from the town-named heroes of Zombieland, but close) a pilot for the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. In an extended prologue, he narrates the twelve-year war between Earth and invading alien beasts, named the "Kaiju" (Japanese for "giant monster"), that have come rising out of an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. They make Godzilla look like an inflatable pool toy and bring destruction and havoc to both the Asian and American coastlines. If you had a problem with the skyscraper body count from Man of Steel, Pacific Rim will have you skydiving without a parachute.
What Becket and many other warriors like him pilot are "Jaegers" (German for "hunter," not licorice-smelling drunk frat boys, but close), enormous 25-story-plus robots that are the combined defense resources of the unified countries battling the Kaiju. They have action figure-ready, WWII bomber-style monikers like Gypsy Danger, Crimson Typhoon, and Striker Eureka. They make Michael Bay's Transformers look like Micro Machines and they creatively do battle in massive hand-to-hand combat with the beasts. In order to control such a huge robot, the technology requires a "neural bridge" between two matched pilots who "drift" to link their memories (conveniently for the only background character development we get in the film for any character) and fighting abilities into the virtual steering controls for the robots' movements.
With the Kaiju evolving stronger and occurring more frequently, the Jaegers have been losing and the major nations have decided to pool their resources into sea walls instead of the Jaeger program. Corps leader Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba, who should get that awesome name tattooed on his ass for toughness) has just a few months left with his remaining pilots and robots to protect the coastlines while the walls are completed and the program is shut down. He calls Becket, who's been away from the Corps for five years, to pilot his old third generation fighter with a new co-pilot, the bright trainee Mako Mori (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi). With the aid of a pair of quirky scientists (Horrible Bosses's Charlie Day and The Dark Knight Rises's Burn Gorman), Pentacost has a last-ditch plan to actually close the portal under the ocean.
Now, if that wasn't lengthy enough, just remember that absolutely all of this is done with a straight face and with no regard, and even less explanation, towards plausible science, physics, and logic, but, remember, that's not what why you come to movies like Pacific Rim. The B.S. meter is off the charts (robots are your best idea for weapons?). Turn off your brain and kick back. If you can believe that cyborgs that look like Arnold Schwarzenegger can inefficiently travel back through time to kill one person or that someone actually thought it was a good idea to remake Godzilla in 1997, then you'll be fine. You can handle Pacific Rim.
In borrowing a few too many obvious nods and retreaded pieces from movies like Top Gun, Avatar, Transformers, the aforementioned Godzilla, and (my cheesy favorite comparison) even the obscure Robot Jox among others, the visionary storyteller that is normally director Guillermo del Toro is actually slumming it here compared to the extraordinary creativity and originality he gives his movies like Hellboy, Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the grossly under-seen Pan's Labyrinth, and his right-hand man assist on Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy. Without a doubt, del Toro is the best creature-creator right now in the movie business. He would make the recently departed visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen proud with Pacific Rim.
This is the robot movie those 80's kids with Voltron and Robotech growing up have always dreamed of. This is the monster movie we deserved instead of Roland Emmerich's disastrously bad 1998 Godzilla remake and the underwhelming Cloverfield from 2008. With many night and underwater scenes, skip the dimming 3D and go to a regular show.
Pacific Rim nails visually what is essentially the coolest adaptation of a child with an action figure beating it against its bad-guy monster counterpart. The movie has some great wow moments, but little else to grab onto in-between. The characters are uninteresting and the acting is terrible, as expected. Idris Elba, while always pretty dependable for a tough guy, shouldn't steal the thunder from the lead. Charlie Hunnam, like Taylor Kitsch a year ago, has the moxie and looks to move from TV stardom to movie stardom, but this isn't going to be his launching pad. He's better than this. Even a fanboy-nod supporting role for del Toro muse Ron Perlman isn't enough panache to banter with Charlie Day to break the dire tone of the flat leads.
Pacific Rim will earn its guilty pleasure status with millions of dollars of blockbuster earnings on the backs of robot destruction, but Guillermo del Toro missed the mark on tugging enough (or any) heartstrings that separate the guilty pleasures from the true classics. Again, the true classics have to have the magic of both.
LESSON #1: FIGHTING MONSTERS WITH MONSTERS-- Pacific Rim, of all the creature features out there in the Godzilla mold, has the wildest cinematic plan yet to fight back against monsters of that size. Screw fighter jets and tanks. Screw nuking them. Let's spend likely trillions of dollars to build big-ass nuclear-powered robots that can lay the smack down one-on-one in person! Clearly, it means more that we can beat the monsters to death with our own two robotic hands instead of pushed buttons on better defenses.
LESSON #2: HOW TO CANCEL THE APOCALYPSE... I THINK...-- Apparently, according to Idris Elba's ballsy leadership and the movie's most repeated quote from the trailers and commercials, taking these aliens out and closing the portal between us and their invasion cancels the "apocalypse." I don't know if This Is the End would agree with you, Stacker, on whether this is the apocalypse or not. It doesn't seem biblical enough. Kidding aside, I just see some aliens busting up random coastal cities in just one ocean of the whole planet and never venturing inland. I feel just fine and non-apocalyptic sitting here in Chicago in my cuddly vintage GoBots knockoff pajamas. This whole invasion thing is California's problem. That's too bad for them.
LESSON #3: GAINING THE TRUST OF YOUR PARTNER-- In the deepest this shallow puddle of character development that is Pacific Rim goes, the success of the Jaegers relies on the solid neural bridge and "drift" between the two pilots. They must push aside their fear and memories and work together on the focused task at hand. The unfortunate side effect is that they see, feel, and share each other's memories and fears, hence the need for those things to stay bottled up. However, understanding and respecting what makes your partner tick is eventually what creates the mutual trust necessary to be an effective team.