I don’t know about you, but I prefer my action to involve actual human beings; hand-to-hand combat, chase sequences, and the like. Executed poorly, as they often are, it can be just as tedious as anything else. Executed well and there’s a chance I’m watching in awe. Big-scale action set-pieces involving monster and machine (or Kaiju and Jäger), all conceptualized and constructed with CGI can only interest me so much. Once the human element goes chances are, so does my investment. This is not to disregard the countless men and women who poured their sweat, blood and souls into these special effects. Because I want to be clear; the special effects work on Pacific Rim is often stellar and all-encompassing. Creature design, machine logistics and how the two meet and try to destroy each other on the battlefield is top-notch from a technical standpoint. My aforementioned preferences make it tempting to write Pacific Rim off as an ‘it just wasn’t for me’ miss. But there are far too many fumbles, including piss-poor writing and combative redundancy, for that to be the case. Putting it simply, too much is too much; at a certain point Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em overkill renders everything onscreen null and void.
To very simply sum up the story, Pacific Rim is set in the near future where Kaiju, Japanese for strange creatures, have come through tectonic plates in the Pacific to attack major cities. The bulk of the film takes place in Year Seven of the attacks which show no sign of stopping. By this time, mankind has responded by building giant machines, or Jäger, which are manned by two co-pilots who must build a neural bridge, or handshake, so they can physically operate the machine. There’s a cast of characters headed by Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a has-been who hasn’t piloted in five years.
The groundwork for something worthwhile is here, spearheaded by Guillermo Del Toro’s giddy reference-littered boyhood passions. Del Toro’s obsession doesn’t quite transfer to the screen (though it’s concentrated in the Charlie Day character) instead existing in sheer volume, a staunch unwillingness to let up or trim the fat. The idea of the anticipatory build-up is not a concept that appears in Pacific Rim, making everything we see unearned. He gives the audience what they want right out the starting gate and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. This kind of structure simply does not work. Everything we see gets appreciated less as a result and any sense of trajectory for the audience is lost. When the fighting does let up, it’s only for table-setting and painfully lazy character arcs and dynamics.
An example of necessary fat-trimming: the fifteen minute prologue sequence featuring Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother doesn’t need to be there. Keeping the initial voiceover narration and saving other world-building elements for later would have yielded the same result. It is clear from the first moment how this will end. All that time is poorly utilized, failing to establish any investment in Raleigh and his brother. We could have learned about his past the same way we learned about Mako; during the drift. Mako’s flashback is far more effective than Raleigh’s prologue sequence even though it substitutes the predictability of revenge motivation for character development. It also helps that the girl they cast as young Mako has freakish emotive abilities.
Back to the original point; extract the emotional essence of that first sequence and save it for later as a memory. Then we’d first meet Raleigh on the wall. When Stacker (Idris Elba) helicopters in to see him, it could have been an intriguing introduction for both characters. Make us wait for the first battle. There is no difference between the opening set-piece and the next couple outside of the prologue’s use of editing to demonstrate the necessary cohesive teamwork between co-pilots and Jäger. But Del Toro has such an itchy trigger finger, immediately laying everything out on the table. Instead of a gripping opening set-piece, it is a trailer for what is to come, the answer of which is more of the same. And then, then the title appears. We’re supposed to think, ‘I can’t wait to see what else is in store’. But my thought was ‘Good Lord, we’ve only just begun and I’m already staving off waves of disinterest.’
Most of the fights lack interest due to a blandly monochromatic color palette which makes movement, sense of space and action murky to look at. The Kaiju and Jäger often fight in the rain and in the ocean, giving everything we see onscreen a dark blue-grey tint. It may help the effects work smoothly blend in with environment, but it washes over design detail and makes the causal effect of fighting blurry and therefore uninvolving. The later set-pieces improve on this. One set-piece late in the film, which takes place on the emptied streets of Hong Kong, is legitimately fantastic. Awash with a reflective neon rainbow backdrop, the Kaiju and Jäger become color-hued monstrosities that interact with their environment on a level other than destruction. It is no coincidence that the meat of the fighting becomes easier to discern as well as far more engaging to watch.
What is so upsetting about Pacific Rim, is that Del Toro clearly fancies this a humanist film. Believe it or not, he actually does care about the emotions behind these characters, what drives them and brings them together, the teamwork and completely underexplored connective tissue of the drift and how the Kaiju affects humanity on a global scale. But such a harmful imbalance of priorities leads to far too much of what could have been a good thing and far too little humanism, clearly meant to be a major contributing factor. What we get are cardboard archetypes led by a bland-as-can-be-lead, apologies to the talented Charlie Hunnam who is unable to turn nothing into something here, and some unforgivably stilted dialogue. I’m not looking for great characters in a film like this; but archetypes need to be well executed and these decidedly are not. The surrogate father-daughter bond between Idris Elba, who is unsurprisingly able to get a lot of mileage out of his character, and Rinko Kikuchi has a lot of potential (what’s there is quite good) but is given short shrift. The script uses characters as a delivery service for packaged up largely artificial emotion and it is too little too late.
There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro world-builds like a master. But his sense of proportion leaves Pacific Rim a mostly hollow sluggish experience despite having an excellent director, a wonderful diverse cast of actors, top-notch effects work and a solid premise. With so much talent on display everywhere you look, it is a shame I was fully unable to appreciate its more successful elements (production and creature design, effects work) because I was too busy being suffocated by redundant cacophonous destruction.