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Josh Reviews Pacific Rim!

The first feature film adaptation of Hellboy back in 2004 was my introduction to Guillermo del Toro.  I have subsequently watched all of his films (except Blade 2 — I just have absolutely no interest in those Wesley Snipes Blade films) and pretty much loved every one of them.  Through the magic of DVDs/blu-rays, it has been great fun to track Mr. del Toro’s progression from his smaller-scale Spanish films, Cronos (click here for my review) and The Devil’s Backbone (click here for my review) to a slightly larger budget and canvas with Hellboy, Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (click here for my review), and the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, which right now stands tall as my very favorite of Mr. del Toro’s films.

But it’s been quite a while since Mr. Del Toro has helmed a new film.  He spent years developing The Hobbit films with Peter Jackson, only to withdraw from being their director when it seems that the films would never emerge from legal limbo.  He then turned to the development of what he described as a dream project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but after about another year pursuing that project, it too fell through.  Ironically, the Peter Jackson-directed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey made it to theaters before Mr. del Toro’s new film.

That new film is Pacific Rim.  It is a movie that comes tantalizingly close to greatest, but unfortunately falls short.

Pacific Rim is a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots.  If that premise excites you, then despite the film’s flaws, you are going to enjoy this movie — particularly if you see it on the largest movie theater screen possible.  If that premise sounds boring to you, then this is a movie you should skip.

Pacific Rim brings to big-budget life the Japanese genre of Kaiju — big monsters.  Godzilla would be the most famous Kailua, but there are many many Kaiju films featuring many many different Kaiju.  Clearly Guillermo del Toro was a fan, because what he  has done is create a love letter to this type of film, taking the b-movie “man in suit” concepts and translating them to big-budget action spectacle.  I have read a few breathless internet reviews of Pacific Rim that compare the scale of the world-building in the film to that of Star Wars.  I like Pacific Rim, but I think that’s way over the top.  However, Pacific Rim does remind me of Star Wars in the way that both films have taken old-fashioned, b-movie concepts, re-mixed them, and brought them to life using cutting-edge special effects.

In the world of Pacific Rim, a mysterious chasm on the ocean floor has proven to be a gateway to another world, through which giant monsters (Kaiju) have emerged to wreak havoc.  Conventional weaponry proved ineffective in defeating these giant creatures, so the nations of the world banded together to create a new defense: giant robots called Jaegers.  After years of war, most of the Jaegers have been destroyed, and it’s down to a motley crew of the surviving Jaeger pilots (each Jaeger is controlled by two human pilots, working in concert and joined mentally through something called “the drift”) to try to stave off humanity’s annihilation.

That sounds to me like an awesome premise for a film, and indeed it is.  I am pleased that the movie follows through on the promise inherent in that premise.  There aren’t just one or two small action sequences — no, the movie is stuffed full-to-bursting with spectacular, jaw-dropping Jaeger vs Kaiju battles.  And those battles are extraordinary.  Pacific Rim is, by far, the biggest-budget film Mr. del Toro has ever directed, and every penny shows on-screen.  It is incredible to see his visual imagination unleashed on such a large scale.  I meant what I wrote before about recommending that, if you see Pacific Rim, you see it on the largest screen available.  I saw it in IMAX 3-D, and it was extraordinary.

The problem with Pacific Rim is that, while I was captivated by the spectacle, I found the stories of the human characters to all be utterly boring and predictable.  I was stunned because I have always felt that one of Guillermo del Toro’s greatest skills was that he has been able to anchor his weird, fantasy stories with compelling human drama.  Sadly, compelling human drama is 100% absent from Pacific Rim.

Let’s take the main character, Raleigh Becket, played by Chralie Hunnam.  I have enjoyed Mr. Hunnam’s work since Undeclared (Judd Apatow’s second amazing but failed TV show) and loved seeing him as the lead hero in Pacific Rim.  Mr. Hunnam tries, but he has nothing to work with.  Raleigh is given a good set-up: he and his brother are successful Jaeger pilots, but Raleigh is devastated when his brother is killed while their minds are still joined together in “the drift.”  Now, of course we know that Raleigh will eventually be pulled back into the Jaeger program to become a hero again.  But the movie is shockingly halfhearted in the way it tells that story of Raleigh’s healing and return.  After the prologue in which we see his brother get killed, it only takes about five minutes before Raleigh is found by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and pulled back into the program.  Literally two scenes later.  Ok, I thought, so maybe the narrative arc won’t be what it will take for Raleigh to realize he should return to being a Jaeger pilot, it will instead be that, now that he’s back, he may WANT to be a pilot but the emotional scars from his brother’s death will be difficult to overcome.  Nope again!  We don’t really see Raleigh have ANY difficulties piloting a Jaeger — the problems all stem from his partner, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi).

Mako is an equally problematic character.  Whereas Raleigh has no character arc to speak of, Mako has an arc, but one that is painfully predictable from the first moment we meet her.  It’s devastatingly obvious that she will become Raleigh’s partner, and all the plot machinations in the middle section of the film that create reasons why she CAN’T be Raleigh’s partner were entirely unconvincing and borderline silly.  It’s all such fake drama.  Do you think Mako will eventually be selected as Raleigh’s partner?  Do you think the two of them will be able to overcome their personal demons and successfully pilot a Jaeger?  Although they are kept out of the final mission at first, do you think they will eventually be called into action as a last, desperate hope for victory?  Do you think they will succeed?  All of this is so dreadfully obvious, I was almost stunned at the over-simplicity of the story.

The one bright light amongst the human characters is Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire!) as the head of the Jaeger program, the bizarrely-named Stacker Pentecost.  Mr. Edra is dynamite, a live-wire of charisma.  He commands every scene he is in, bringing the stories of the characters around him to life by his sheer force of will and personality.  He’s stupendous, magnificent, and I just wish to hell he was performing in a better movie.  Ultimately his character’s story is just as predictable as all the rest, it’s just that he is so fantastic that you sort of don’t mind.

Actually, there is a second bright light among the human cast of characters, and that is Hellboy himself, the great Ron Perlman.  Mr. Perlman creates  a wonderfully entertaining, idiosyncratic character: the dealer of Kaiju-parts Hannibal Chau (love that name).  I loved all of his scenes — I wish we saw a lot more of him in the film!!

I am really bummed that a Guillermo del Toro film has these sorts of problems.  I am at a loss as to how to explain it.  The action and spectacle of the film is so strong that I still quite enjoyed Pacific Rim despite all these problems.  Not only are the Jaeger vs Kaiju fights incredibly visceral, kinetic sequences, but the is a level of visual poetry on display in the depth of thought that has clearly been put into every aspect of the world in which the film is set (this is the Star Wars-esque world-building that, as I noted before, many review have praised) that is extraordinary.  Maybe not Star Wars level, but extraordinary nonetheless.

So I can only contemplate how unstoppably amazing Pacific Rim would have been had those awesome fight scenes, and the extraordinary world-building, been coupled with a story that gave us some characters we could really invest in, and about whose struggles we actually gave a damn.  Oh well.  It’s still pretty awesome.

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