Movie Review: Can Guillermo del Toro Wrangle Pacific Rim, a Digital Blockbuster Beast, Into an Enjoyable Godzilla Homage?

It has been interesting to watch the early critical reactions to Pacific Rim in light of the recent panning of The Lone Ranger considering that both films succeed and fail and in very similar ways. Pacific Rim is a Transformers-meets-Godzilla super-sized blockbuster that, like The Lone Ranger, is crowded with concepts, themes, and references; it is endlessly visually busy; and its plot alternates from attention deficit disorder action overloads to mumbling and endless plodding detours. And yet, there are some key differences. For one, Pacific Rim has a better pedigree; it was co-written and directed by Guillermo del Toro, who built his reputation on sizzling, gory cult indulgences that score well according to the Fanboy criteria. The Lone Ranger is the product of a more cynical Hollywood machine (Bruckheimer/Verbinski/Depp). That difference makes Pacific Rim’s indulgences more palatable and visual satisfying. In in a mess of a film like Pacific Rim, del Toro knows how to get enough glowing brains and oozing flesh on screen to make the thing feel like it has texture.

Like The Lone Ranger, Pacific Rim draws its premise largely from a mix of readymade, pop cultural sources: Godzilla, War of the Worlds, etc. In the new film, the world is under siege by an alien race, who have tapped into our planet via an underwater dimensional portal. The beasts that spew forth from that deep sea fissure are enormous, vicious, and seemingly unbeatable. A very long prologue – a good twenty minutes of action and plot transpire before the title “Pacific Rim” flashes on screen – sets up the scenario. The beasts came and destroyed much of the world. But then the world joined forces to fight back, developing enormous machines that do hand-to-hand combat with the massive Godzillas. At first, things are going well. The robot pilots became heroes. But now the beasts are coming more often, and they are getting stronger. The politicians want to build giant walls (that we know won’t work) to keep them out, and they decommission the massive robot program.

You could write a long, boring book picking apart all the allegories, metaphors, visual quotes, and social overtones del Toro unleashes in his film. To start, there’s the bomber pilot hero worship syndrome, the industrial dystopia, the echoes of World War II genocidal combat, steam punk aesthetics, Japanese horror homage, globalization optimism, soft bureaucratic jabbing, and martial arts infatuation. None of these leitmotifs really amount to much, nor do some of the more overt narrative scenarios at play. To power the robots, the aces need to undergo a neurological “handshake,” which matches their brain waves, making two pilots operate as one. (We wait for someone to call this brain sex, but alas, Pacific Rim is too self-serious and witless for that.) To get the robot program back and running, General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has to bump heads with his superior (another plotline that seems like it is leading somewhere before it evaporates). To beat the bag guys, the multi-national motley crew of pilots have to learn to get along, which they kind of do, or sort of, almost, and then the film just loses interest in that dynamic. And to save the day, two scientists need to tap into the brains of the beast, which almost adds another interesting element, until the end result is a feigned electrocution followed by babbling of meaningless sci-fi blather.

There are lots of half-character stories too. After he’s been out of the game for a while, superstar pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has overcome the death of his brother to get back in the ring (he kind of just does it). The young female Japanese aspire pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), has to overcome almost being killed by a beasty when she was a little girl, a seemingly key back story that is portrayed in one of the film’s longest, most dull flashbacks. The Australians have some father-son issues that are chewed and never gobbled, and the film suggests Stacker may have some past issues, which, after waiting for the reveal, are ultimately just brushed under the carpet. All these character elements are lacquered on thick, and every single one of them goes no where.

What does advance the film, though, are the spectacular CGI showdowns, which are incredibly detailed, lush, and almost beautiful in a made-for-a-computer-desktop-wallpaper sort of way. The film had me thinking of critic J. Hoberman’s term “Cyborg Cinema,” which he uses to describe a new era of moviemaking that so seamlessly blends animation and photography that we can no longer call film the art of capturing something in front of a camera. Instead, what we get is a hybrid art form that combines elements of theatrical cinema with digital design, and more often than not, the machine – the digital acrobatics – dominate the humanity on screen (Terminator 2 is one of the first and most metaphorically rich examples of this kind of movie.) Pacific Rim is fully indulgent cyborg cinema straining for some kind of qualitative redemption, but it can’t resist the temptations of pure, meaningless visual spectacle.

Yes, there’s a plot. Once Raleigh’s back in the game, he has to team up with Mako Mori, fight beasts, maneuver the skeptical army brass, and save the day. While this is happening, the two scientists search for the theoretical ingredient to the alien monsters’ demise. That leads Charlie Day’s Dr. Newton Geiszler into the Hong Kong underworld, where he tries to buy beasty body parts from Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau. The Perlman / Day scenes, which take place in a very City of Lost Children-like underworld, are disappointing if only because they are the movies best, and they make you wish the entire film consisted of just Perlman and Day moving through this dreamy, Jeunet-esque setting.

Instead, we are wrenched away again and again to the matter at hand: an action sci-fi plot that raises more than the usual number of premise red flags. In an age of drones, why would we buy that people actually have to be inside the massive robots to pilot them? And in an age of laser guided nuclear weaponry, why would mankind invent such a hulking, obviously vulnerable weapons to fight back the beast-driven apocalypse? And why is hand-to-hand combat the preferred means to orchestrate the defense of the future of humanity? The answer, we fear, is only the idea came first – Mr. Exectutive Producer, how about a summer film that pits giant robots versus Godzilla beasts, and we can get that Hellboy guy to do and make it good – and the details were sorted out later.

The Godzilla films are great because they are more campy, less ambitious, simpler, conceptually cleaner, and the sci-fi more easily translatable to relate-able human emotions, fears, and aspirations than the anything muddy Pacific Rim musters. Godzilla is a David and Goliath story set against the backdrop of nuclear paranoia. Pacific Rim is Goliath versus Hollywood set against the backdrop of every cliché character motivation you can squeeze into a few lines of dialogue. When the climax includes a messianic suicide bombing, the tangled mess of allegorical references short-circuit in the brain. It’s a cue: stop thinking, sit back, and just let the cyborg cinema wash over your synapses.