When giant monsters from another dimension pop out of a hole in the middle of the Pacific, humanity finds itself on the brink of extinction. But just when it seems all hope is lost, mankind finds itself united in this fight against a common, alien foe. And the fighting is being done with a bunch of giant robots…in Pacific Rim.
ANI-MAYBE TOO MUCH
Directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a love-letter to classic Japanese movies, comics, and cartoons. In fact, the only thing truly missing from Pacific Rim are men in molded rubber suits crashing about a miniature replica of the various cities destroyed over the course of the movie. But while those lumbering costumes are replaced with CGI, they fortunately retain a lot of the weight and force that those classic practical effects provided. However, the overall look of the special effects in this movie are a lot more in line with animated series like Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion–bright, colorful, and not at all realistic by design. And given the campy nature and spirit of the film, the film’s visual design is consistent with everything else.
That said, I’m not sure that’s entirely a good thing.
Pacific Rim is colorful, kinetic movie with lots of fun, exciting set pieces. There’s a lot there for fans and non-fans of the various geeky toy boxes Pacific Rim draws its ideas from to enjoy. This is a film that actively appeals to children and the child in all of us. Everything is big, melodramatic action and monologuing. Lots of posturing. Lots of on-the-nose dialog that sounds clunky and as if it were written by someone who only reads old comic books. Lots of two-dimensional archetypes walking about, talking and acting like they’re following old, worn out paths. Lots of little moments that make little sense and are intended to serve the action or comedy or melodrama at the expense of a more coherent, engaging narrative and characters.
Anime and manga have their charms, their strengths as mediums and styles that make them unique in the world of pop-culture. But they also often come with a lot of tired, dated issues that are a continued detriment. And Pacific Rim is such a perfectly crafted piecemeal adaptation of del Toro’s favorites that it retains both the good and the bad. It’s true to the spirit of the original material, which is all sorts of fun in and of itself. This is a very watchable and enjoyable movie on the whole. But it comes with these weird little moments that feel a little left of normal. These little moments that break the immersion for those who aren’t necessarily fans of or overly familiar with the sort of style del Toro is playing with. Little moments that would have been better executed in–or even cut out of–a better movie.
For example, there’s a moment in the movie where one of the giant robots is at the mercy of one of the giant monsters. And during this fight, a new weapon is introduced that allows the robot and its two pilots to turn the tide in their favor. In fact, the movie stops itself to acknowledge that this is coming out of nowhere with the intent to surprise both the characters and us, the audience.
And it does make for a fun moment. But it’s also a bit weird. It raises all sorts of questions that the movie outright refuses to properly answer. Why wasn’t this secret weapon used until it was almost too late, rather than making use of it earlier in the fight? Why would such a thing be kept a secret from one of the two pilots of the giant robot? You can keep it a secret from the audience, as we don’t have to see every little thing. But not the characters. Not when the movie constantly reminds us that teamwork, coordination, and trust is the most important things in these sorts of situations.
Well in Japanese anime and manga, such a moment is fairly common. Deus ex machina runs rampant. Sometimes it’s used to elicit a strong but brief emotional response from the audience. And maybe that’s the intended purpose in Pacific Rim. But it comes across more like someone wrote themselves out of a corner. Worse, it feels like a wasted opportunity to create a very different sort of fight from the slow, heavy brawling and wrestling we see for much of the movie. In short, this moment–and similar ones throughout the movie–feel like a forced wink and a nod to the source material rather than something organic. A brief flash of fan-service rather than something meaningful.
A big part of the movie is the way the monsters somehow adapt to the various efforts of the humans. An in turn, the humans have to adapt to continue surviving this unending war. Had the moment with the secret weapon been presented as perhaps a surprise reveal that the humans are actually and finally ahead of the curve, there would be a long-running impact. It’d be a pivotal moment in the film itself. But as it is, it’s just a fun little throwaway that never comes up again.
But, again, that’s not the way of Japanese anime and manga. Thus, it’s not the way of Pacific Rim.
And this approach unfortunately results in the aforementioned flat characters, many of whom lack any sort of charm or screen presence as a result. Like exposition and deus ex machina plot twists, archetype characters are prolific in anime and manga. There’s the powerful leader with a heart of gold he hides behind a stoic attitude who doesn’t really grow or change. There’s the generic, blank-slate hero who never really grows or changes. And then there’s the troubled rookie (a young Japanese woman named Mako Mori, played here by Rinko Kikuchi) who has a vendetta against the bad guys and never really grows or changes.
Aside from a powerful rallying speech, Idris Elba is ultimately wasted in the role of a prominent military leader when all he really does is mug and growl for the camera. Charlie Hunnam is boring to watch as a stoic, yet broody partner to the stoic, yet broody rookie who replaces his dead, yet somewhat charming brother. And given how fun and silly every other aspect of the movie is, it’s a surprise to find the actors and their characters are the only ones acting like everything is so serious.
And because so many characters are flat, overly-serious archetypes, performances from actors like Charlie Day and Ron Perlman stand out like a sore thumb. They’re colorful, over-the-top, very loud characters. They’re clearly the comic relief. But it’s such a drastic shift, such a stark contrast with the rest of the characters that it’s hard to not wonder why everyone else is such a stick in the mud. Day and Perlman are second only to the big monster fights as far as entertainment value go. Their characters are likable, flawed, and wholly entertaining.
And that really does sum up all of Pacific Rim. There is so much fun, so much color, so much silliness, so much excitement to be found in this movie. But much of it is floating brightly in a dark sea of uninteresting blah–lifeless characters, lifeless dialog, lots of explaining rather than showing, lots of detours and tangents. The highs are high, but the lows are very low. It’s an uneven tone that has the movie resetting itself scene after scene. It’s hard to become invested in a story and movie that doesn’t know if it’s supposed to be somewhat serious or embrace its wacky cartoon roots. The best anime and manga know to pick one or the other as their foundation. But del Toro and company tried to split the difference, and it doesn’t work out for the best.
Pacific Rim is not del Toro’s best movie, not even close. But it is easily his most fun. It doesn’t quite live up to the best of the various movies and cartoons that it attempts to emulate, but it does rightfully earn its place on someone’s “Best of” list of such things. And for fans of such things, Pacific Rim is a definite CHILL. But for those who don’t care for things like Godzilla, Ultraman, or even Power Rangers, Pacific Rim might not be the first or second thing to consider for your next movie night.