PACIFIC RIM is a blockbuster of a curiosity. A film top-heavy with plot, but one that plods along at a oddly pedestrian pace as it charts the end of the world as we know it. It is also oddly populated with leads that are wafer-thin characters, and supporting players that, while not necessarily deep, are more interesting by leaps, bounds, and xxxxx.
We are in the near future, where an unfortunate rift in the time-space continuum has opened in the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean. From it have emerged kaiju, monsters who come ashore bent on wanton destruction. In response, the governments of the world have united to fight back, eventually coming up with jaegers, human-operated robots the same size as the towering kaiju. So massive are the kaiji, that it takes two people in neuro-synch to pilot them. So effective are they that the pilots become rock stars, and, in due course, the media trivializes the kaiju. Until the kaiju evolve, which is where, after 20 minutes of exposition, and the death of the brother of the films hero, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), the film really begins.
Thence the predictable brew of world-weary commander (Idris Elba) at odds with the civilian authorities and his favorite rogue pilot, Raleigh, of course, making one final push to save humanity. There are the requisite beautiful girl, Maki (Rinko Kikuchi), who dreams of proving herself as a pilot, the eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman who threaten to steal the movie), and the rival pilots (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) who give Raleigh a hard time for walking away from the program for five years. Theres also a bulldog, for no readily apparent reason except to be there, and a wonderfully subtle performance by Clifton Collins, Jr., as the Elvis-coiffed guy tracking the jaegers as they fight. He brings much more to the character than what is written on the page with a commitment to finding and bringing forth the inner life of this guy.
Alas, the same cannot be said of Hunnam or Kikuchi, who settle into their clichés with a dignified resignation, something broken only by a quick scene wherein Mako accidentally sees Raleighs chiseled abs from across the hall that separates their rooms, and hormones kick in with an almost audible click. Fortunately, Elba has a fine melancholy gravitas, del Toro regular Ron Perlman leaps off the screen in an extended cameo as a black-marketeer with interesting sartorial choices and no room for morals. Then there are Day and Gorman, the biologist and physicist with no respect for each other or each others profession, bickering with extreme prejudice and exhibiting textbook egocentricity about the arcana of their callings.
Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the screenplay, brings us his love of Japanese monster movies. Its an unrestrained passion that prevents this from being so much an homage to those low-rent films where fanciful monsters erupted from the sea to stomp Tokyo into pulp, as a direct copy. The camera zooms in on the action for no readily apparent reason, and clumsily at that. As clumsy as the guys in rubber monster suits rampaging through scale models of Tokyo in those old film. The budget is certainly more sophisticated, but the treacle-filled subplots mixing unselfconsciously with the social-commentary subplots are not. The anti-nuclear message of the original GODZILLA is still more bone-chilling 60 years on. Instead, the film focuses on all those nifty man-made monsters, the jaegers, that humankind built to fight off the kaiju, and on those outsized special effects involved in depicting the similarly outsized battles between the two. That last is characterized by confusion, darkness, and wearing out its welcome by being overlong. Even del Toros obvious delight in the minutiae of how the jaegers work become tedious after the first several iterations, despite a few stabs at social commentary, with walls, cinematic call-outs, and jaegers flattening as much of the eponymous land area as the kaiju they are tasked with eliminating.
He succeeds far better when he is infusing the story with his trademark biting wit. They are tiny but important and most welcome touches that bring the action to life better than a ship being lobbed by a jaeger at a kaiju, or finding out that there is a time limit on humanitys existence thanks to that ci-mentioned evolution. Quirky humans trump stalwart courage at every turn.
PACIFIC RIM cant be faulted for a lack of imagination. There is a great deal going on, and much of it is visually inventive, but it never quite blows you away. Instead, it is a plucky breeze that huff and puffs with an admirable but ultimately futile persistence.