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Aug 9, 2013

Film Review: PACIFIC RIM (2013): Del Toro + Blockbuster Formula Fun

Idris Elba Rinko Kikuchi Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013) Film Review, a movie directed by  Guillermo del Toro and starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day, Clifton Collins Jr, Ellen McLain, Max Martini, Robert Maillet, Burn Gorman, Rinko Kikuchi, Heather Doerksen, Larry Joe Campbell, Jake Goodman, Diego Klattenhoff, Brad William Henke, and Robert Kazinsky.

Plot Synopsis

Giant monsters have been popping up off Pacific coastlines (hence title), and going Godzilla. Giant robots are built to battle them, requiring a neural linked pilot, who in turn, requires a compatible co-pilot to share the load, thus, preventing brain loss through the nose. It is a global effort, so co-operation becomes the main theme, throughout. After some initial success, a new wave of more powerful monsters turn the tide; so now, a handful of teams are left at a single location, intent on providing a last line of defense, until a winning offense can be implemented.

Film Review

I would be receptive to the main idea of Pacific Rim, were it not such an apparent rip-off of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and a lazy one, at that. I guess I didn’t play enough team sports to see the synchronized co-pilot concept as anything other than a plot device, meant to turn the audience into cheerleaders (–and you thought they couldn’t make an action movie out of “Dance, Dance, Revolution.” Tsk). I would even find one or two characters appealing, if they didn’t have attributes that seemed tacked on, to make them more relate-able. The demure Asian that loses it over family honor and daddy issues, paired with the hero out to redeem a dead partner/ brother, and the robot he died in– chemistry brews on their way to co-operation. Scientists are boring, so let’s make one an occasionally clueless goof-ball American (“The two-way mindlink, I specialize in, works both ways when used on the monster? Oops!”), and the other a stuffy, socially inept British caricature– throw them in a room together, and hilarity ensues on their way to co-operation. A father’s authority is challenged by the son, resentful to be under his father’s thumb– tension mounts on their way– etc.

The phrase “formulaic Hollywood blockbuster” has become a something of a cliche, ironically enough, but every so often you find yourself – sometimes subconsciously – checking off a list of prerequisite elements to the movie you are watching. From “potential victim backs into killer,” to “someone in the group snaps and turns on / compromises the rest,” and “witness / accomplice openly threatens to tell on villain, to villain’s face,” you will find these by-the-numbers constructs in pretty much every genre, on every kind of budget, and certainly in any film built for mass appeal.

Pacific Rim was clearly built for mass appeal. It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to imagine the pitch process:

“What sells, these days?”

“Giant robots having massive throw-downs.”

“Been done.”

“Giant robots throwing down with giant monsters.”

“Better. Transformers meets Godzilla.”

“Could be big….”

“Think overseas. Think China & Japan.”

“This’ll be huge!”

“–Produce the whole thing overseas; use local talent; no need for costly Hollywood names….”

“We could clean up on the overseas sales alone!”

“We will ‘saturate’ market it domestically, of course.”

“Of course.”

“Approved!!”

“Sweet.”

Okay, likely more thought, heart, and soul went into the conception (at least before it got to a studio committee) but the execution begs the question, if only in hindsight, that the above scenario would seem to answer. No doubt there are still enough movie goers who accept – even demand – formula in their entertainment diet. There are ironic hipsters, who have some sadomasochistic appreciation for bad/ lazy film-making that keep the hacks employed. I am not one of them. I react to formula and I don’t play drinking games, so Pacific Rim draws the Hanging Judge.

Before we even get to dissecting this Turducken of a movie, there were clear formula warning signs, to the savvy / wary, from the film’s promotional materials. The two most recognizable actors, Idris Elba and Ron Perlman, are in second / third string roles; all the SFX highlights are shrouded in darkness and LOTS of water; and all the plot / dialogue highlights seem fairly interchangeable with any number of other would-be blockbusters.

Going into this film with those warning signs in mind, I braced myself for a formula force-feeding and I must say, Pacific Rim did not disappoint. It opens with a historical recap – no need for suspenseful reveal or expansive set-up, cut to action for protagonist’s back-story. Personal angst established, our once-and-future hero withdraws to quiet civil duty, meant to make his previous warrior occupation unnecessary but well beneath his skill set, only to find the new job useless and the old job wanting him back. You know the story: biggest bad-ass suffers loss, retreats to humble peacemaking / constructive pursuit, receives the we / the world needs you / you-can-do-more-good-being-bad line. After clearly impressing the lone female lead (’cause they always hold out for the-one-that-got-away), and establishing a rivalry with the resident hotshot (’cause professional, highly trained soldiers can’t control their own testosterone), he is ordered to find a new partner to pilot his old machine (’cause a former bad-ass has to face some very personal demons to become a future baddest-ass, right?).

Don’t get me wrong, there is some cleverness to it all, sure. The robots are called Jaegers (I’m a WW2 buff, so the name resonates), and the monsters, Kaiju. It’s a catchy combo (even if it does draw attention to the Robot / Ultraman v Godzilla theme). Maybe I’ve seen too many formula films because I notice things like the Russian Jaeger looking like a nuclear power plant smoke stack. The possible brain storming process behind these “creative” decisions keep popping into my head:

“Who can we use for bad guys, that won’t offend anyone?”

“Aliens.”

“Done to death. Monsters from the sea?”

“…Yeah, okay. But, wait– how do giant monsters live in the ocean without us ever knowing they’re down there?”

“…Interdimensional rift… at a fault line. They’re being sent through as a vanguard.”

“So, aliens.”

“Yeah.”

Idris Elba, director Guillermo del Toro, and Ron Perlman (a Toro regular) were all wasted here. Del Toro has earned considerable trust in the sci-fi/ fantasy genre but having the main draw to a SFX film partially obscured by darkness and various forms / densities of water, in almost every action sequence, suggests a distrust of the material (e.g. Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). Elba knows how to throw his weight around in any given role, but his two highlight moments seemed carried over from other films (“cue cheering applause” speech from Independence Day, and the ultimate act of nobility, from Prometheus, undertaken by… Idris Elba). There wasn’t a single plot development or twist in Pacific Rim that wasn’t telegraphed or familiar (heck – the entire closing to the climax could have been lifted from Independence Day). The characters were set up as props for these moments rather than being driving forces in them (e.g. Perlman’s character plays into the old “back from the dead for one more scare” routine).

There are movies that are crowd-pleasers, and movies designed to be crowd-pleasers. If you couldn’t care less about the difference, you should at least take care not to let your audience see the seams of your construct, or taste more ingredients than concoction. I would have enjoyed “Pacific Rim” a lot more had I not spent the balance of the film rolling my eyes and curbing thoughts of yelling at the screen.

Rating: 4/10