Pacific Rim

Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Pacific RimOf all the doom-laden fantasies the studios have rolled out this summer, Pacific Rim is the one pushing itself most aggressively as guilt-free entertainment, offering up an apocalyptic spectacle in a spirit of unpretentious, unapologetic fun. Which it will be, at least for those who measure fun primarily in terms of noise, chaos and bombast, or who can find continual novelty in the sight of giant monsters and robots doing battle for the better part of two hours. Viewers with less of an appetite for nonstop destruction should brace themselves for the squarest, clunkiest and certainly loudest movie of director Guillermo del Toro’s career, a crushed-metal orgy that plays like an extended 3D episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on very expensive acid.

With this gargantuan passion project, del Toro means to fashion a giddy throwback to the monster movies of yore and restore a sense of pure escapism to the summer movie landscape, an eminently worthy goal for a genre master of such inexhaustible imagination and knowledge of the B-movie canon. Yet while the director’s love for his material is at once sincere and self-evident, it’s the sort of devotion that winds up holding all but the most likeminded viewers at an uninvolving remove; although assembled with consummate care and obsessive attention to visual detail, Pacific Rim manages only fitful engagement and little in the way of real wonderment, suspense or terror. It may not reside in the same crass, soulless neighborhood as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, but its sensory-overload aesthetics are at times no more than a junkyard or two away.

Del Toro’s and Travis Beacham’s script lays out the futuristic premise with a burst of breathless exposition: It’s 2020, and for years humanity has been at war with the Kaiju—enormous, lizard-like beasts that arise from the ocean floor to wreak havoc on coastal cities (San Francisco, Manila, and Cabo San Lucas are decimated in a matter of minutes). But the tide turns when the men and women of Earth form the Pan Pacific Defense Corps and begin building Jaegers, 25-story-high fighting robots that ward off enough Kaiju attacks to achieve an uneasy stalemate.

In a plot point that will remind some of Japan’s popular Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, each Jaeger is controlled from within by two humans, one to operate each hemisphere of the robot’s body. Hotshot American brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) make a trusty co-piloting team, at least until their Jaeger engages a Kaiju off the coast of Alaska, spelling a hasty exit for Yancy while granting audiences their first taste of monster-vs.-robot action. The viewer’s level of appreciation for this initial bout will likely indicate how much they enjoy the rest of the picture, with its wall-to-demolished-wall action.

Five years later, a still-scarred Raleigh gets a shot at redemption from well-named PPDC commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who wants him to take charge of his old Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, as the humans prepare to make one last stand against the ever more powerful and dangerous Kaiju. Heading to a massively fortified version of Hong Kong, Raleigh finds an ideal Gipsy co-pilot in Pentecost’s demure but formidable young protege, Mako Mori (Kikuchi), whose appointment sets off literal and figurative sparks.

The story’s most intriguing angle is the trippy process by which two fighters power a Jaeger, requiring them to enter into a unique state of mental and bodily fusion called “the Drift.” That Raleigh and Mako must share each other’s thoughts, feelings and memories is a conceit that would seem to raise any number of tantalizing dramatic possibilities, and there is one memorable flashback to Mako’s childhood—an episode that, in evoking the atomic horrors that spawned the Godzilla legend, briefly recalls the nightmarish fairy-tale intensity of del Toro’s 2006 masterwork, Pan’s Labyrinth.

In all other respects, the script is content to skim the surface. The psychological effects of the Drift are not dramatized but assumed, the progression of the story not developed so much as programmed.

Here and there, Pacific Rim reveals hints of a potentially rich but underdeveloped science-fiction mythology, full of satirical and speculative touches that are ultimately overwhelmed by the fight sequences that represent the film’s raison d’etre. Overkill is not just the goal but also a governing artistic principle, and del Toro takes it on such faith that nothing could be more compelling than his monsters-and-robots mash-ups that he spends almost no time easing us into the fray. The pacing is mechanical, even bludgeoning, in its single-mindedness. Buildings topple and bridges collapse; the mid-ocean battles are so ferocious that mankind would surely be wiped out by the resulting tidal waves, if not the monsters themselves. Yet such is the blithe, upbeat spirit of the whole enterprise (“Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” is the film’s signature rouse-the-troops line) that nothing in these gladiator-style face-offs feels at stake, except perhaps the viewer’s desire to see a Jaeger swing an aircraft carrier like a 2×4.

One of the picture’s persistent problems is that its man-meets-machine conceit never really comes to life, resulting in a strange disconnect between these metal marionettes and the humans at the controls; aside from a few impressive payoffs, as when Mako’s ingenious maneuvering saves the day, the overall experience is not unlike that of watching someone play a highly elaborate videogame.

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