Pacific Rim is not a film based on rocket science (although there are plenty of rocket elbows to go around here); it’s a loud, visually comforting and thrilling film that is an ode to giant monster and robot films of the past. However, the shortcomings lie in a rather lazy narrative with poorly constructed characters and, at times, an inconsistent plot. It is clear that time and care was put into the visual elements of this summer blockbuster, but it sacrificed the story. This is the kind of film that splits an audience between those coming simply for the sizzle of the steak rather than the presentation.
The plot benefits from being simple to understand and also rather ingenious at the same time. However, at various moments what’s being explained isn’t clicking with the rest of the film. In the not too distant future a rift in the Pacific Ocean has opened a portal to another universe allowing gigantic Kaiju beasts to wreak havoc on the Earth. When all military defense fails to bring them down the governments of the world ban together to create the Jaegers, gigantic robots big enough to take on the Kaiju. Since one person cannot control it alone, two pilots are needed which function under the basis of a drift, a mental connection that fuses both pilots’ minds to help control the Jaeger in sync with one another. Due to the failures of many of these machines the Jaeger program is on the brink of extinction with a base camp in China acting as the last possible vestige for these creations to finally take out the Kaiju. It is up to one final plan from Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to take them out for good and he calls upon the experience of Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a veteran Jaeger pilot returning to fight after tragedy and a failed mission has left him fragile and out of sync with what he once loved doing.
For all intents and purposes, this is a film where you know what you are getting, but the problem with criticizing a film like this is the automatic backlash from an over eager fan base. Pacific Rim is a film set up by committee for hype, not for a lack of trying, but the insistence before the first reel is even rolled in theaters that it can’t be deemed as anything but wonderful. It’s the basic trouble of modern genre films in a rather expansive and loud culture. Visually you have exactly what is on the marquee: the constant battles of Jaegers versus Kaijus. This works well although the action could have been slowed to engage the battles a little more clearly. It doesn’t help that most of the action takes place at night, in the rain, and under limited visual light. On one end this adds to the mystery of seeing these juggernauts clash but on the other end it pulls away from the visual craft that clearly has gone into the rather expensive budget.
But Pacific Rim isn’t simply about the visual element of robot versus alien because even with a rather simple plot idea a Guillermo Del Toro film is never lazy on its narrative. No one is pining for a Citizen Kane when you are dealing with a film that sees a giant mechanical robot tear a sword through the length of a flying beast, but even when Del Toro’s work is at its most visually stimulating and action packed it also balances out a touching narrative. Our emotional investment here lies in a lot of blood relationships as well as adopted ones. Unfortunately, the care isn’t there and a lot of the performances and the characters come off rather bland. The main relationship between Raleigh and Mako shows no heart and merely admiration for their hardships and skills. Mako probably serves the most to gain emotionally but you still find yourself disconnected from her relationships especially with the Marshall, a pseudo father figure that means more to her than let on for most of the film.
Many of the characters are written as stock militant individuals with no difference in personalities. As pilots of the Jaegers they should be Top Gun-esque individuals but their conflict and overall internal struggles are barely given anytime to develop. Why should the viewer care about their relationships when all they do is fight and shout? Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh as rather straight and narrow, but he brings nothing to the character. Rinko Kikuchi’s performance as Mako is intentionally looking for the big-eye, little-girl sympathy but the mix of a military mind and a shattered soul makes her performance rather scatterbrained and a deep connection is never made.
Dealing with military heads in these kinds of films means ignorant and hard headed generals but Idris Elba’s performance as the Marshall is far removed from that stereotype delivering, for the most part, the most honest and interesting performance in the film. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play their scientist lackey parts well but fail at being an interesting double act comprising two very different and at times very dull personalities. There is also a rather memorable performance from Del Toro alum Ron Pearlman, playing Hannibal Chau, a black marketeer who deals in the buying and selling of Kaiju organs.
It’s quite possible this all intentional. When running back through the various kinds of films of the Mecha Anime/Toho genre, many of the characters are rather stick figure normally serving a rather absurd and cheesy purpose, but a regular audience member isn’t going to know these little things. Tone wise and pacing the film’s two hour running time feels rather brisk and, much like Del Toro’s other work, there is a proper balance of humor, and often light heartedness that this dark film needs to keep the film from being too serious in nature.
Pacific Rim has all the makings of a good summer blockbuster and cosmetically the film achieves for the most part exactly what it promises. While some of the visual elements are weakened at times, it works, for the most part, on all cylinders. It just fails disappointingly in connecting the audience with the key players. Some may not see that as important when you go into a film mainly for robots beating up big bad monsters and if that is the case than this is exactly the film you are getting. However, this is still a film and a well-rounded director displaying craft and substance. Because the film lacks a distinct heart, Pacific Rim is simply a niche film for the intended audience and not something on a grander and wider appeal.