The U.S. summer blockbuster season is finally coming to an end for 2013, and the last film to be dissected and debated over is probably the one whose outcome was the most unclear. Contrary to every other tentpole film this year, ‘Pacific Rim’ is not based on a book, comic or television show, it isn’t a remake or reimagining, and it isn’t (yet) a franchise. The trailer looks strangely familiar or derivative of other films, but it’s also the latest from Guillermo del Toro, one of the finest genre directors working today. With such an expert of popular culture at the helm, and the promise of sweeping visuals, there was just the possibility that ‘Pacific Rim’ might be the best blockbuster of the season.
Earth is under constant attack from giant alien beings called Kaiju, emerging through a portal in the Pacific Ocean. In order to combat the Kaiju and prevent our extinction, mankind created Jaegers, giant robots that are operated by two pilots connected by a neurological link. Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) is a young hotshot Jaeger pilot whose confidence is shattered by an unexpected tragedy. With Kaiju attacks becoming more frequent and the possibility of defeat increasing, Beckett is called back into service by Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and coupled with untrained rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) in one last mission that will mean the difference between survival and extinction.
There were early concerns that ‘Pacific Rim’ was borrowing too heavily from other sources without acknowledgement, especially the Godzilla films and the classic anime ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’. As it turns out, this is the least of the film’s problems, and unfortunately, there are many. To begin with, the screenplay, co-written by del Toro and Travis Beacham, is a cliché-riddled mess, almost self-consciously predictable. Dialogue swings between passable and appalling, and the subplots are horribly underdeveloped. Characters either complete their arcs within the first half of the film or don’t go anywhere at all, giving us vague sketches of people rather than full-blooded creations. It’s a tick-the-boxes narrative that spends a good chunk of the fim focusing on action and then quickly rattling off useless (and often obvious) exposition that lands with a metallic thud. It’s possible this was the point - a self-conscious riffing on the kind of genre pictures ‘Pacific Rim’ is borrowing from (Del Toro’s previous work certainly suggests this may have been the intention), but the ironic wink to the audience is missing; that nod to let us know to not take this seriously, and the lacklustre emotional beats in the final act just feel like pathetic attempts to give the characters some resonance. It so badly wants you to care, but the result is just bad.
Some entertainment is salvaged thanks to del Toro’s excellent direction and use of visual effects. For all the crimes of its screenplay, the film has a strong visual flair, and the action set-pieces, epic battles between Jaeger and Kaiji, are pretty spectacular. The sight of great sentinels engaged in fisticuffs definitely creating a strong sense of awe. The use of 3D is also some of the best we’ve seen this year, and add to the visual texture of the film rather than detracting. The Kaiji designs most definitely carry the DNA of del Toro’s creature designs: wonderfully organic, complex and impossible. Compared to the rather pedestrian designs of the Jaeger, they’re the design highlight of the film. Between these colossal conflicts, however, we return to the sketchy characters and crappy dialogue, and as hard as del Toro tries, the film never recovers from their banality. It also doesn’t help that Ramin Djawadi’s music is ordinary at best, a colour-by-numbers action score devoid of surprises and more than happy to let us know what is going to happen next before it actually does. With all the money thrown at this film, you think they could have forked out for a better composer.
A strong cast might have been able to overcome the screenplay’s failings, but either they're just too great or the cast isn’t strong enough. Charlie Hunnam certainly looks like an action hero, but lacks any of the necessary charisma, and looks like he’s trying a bit too hard. Rinko Kikuchi has some spunk hidden in there, but she isn’t given much to work with (turn up, look vulnerable, hit Hunnan with a stick). The real victim is Rob Kazinsky as rival Jaeger pilot Chuck Hansen. Not only is he given nothing to do but get in the way, but for some bizarre reason, his character is Australian and, for all his skill, the Brit cannot successfully carry an Australian accent at all. The least they could have done is changed the script so he didn’t sound so ridiculous. Idris Elba has enough gravitas to maintain some dignity for most of the film, but again, those lame emotional beats catch him towards the end, and even he can’t recover. Thankfully, Ron Perlman is on board for some brief comic relief, along with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a pair of hapless scientists.
The screenplay is a cliché-riddled mess.
It seems the flavour of the year to get up in arms over some controversy in the current crop of blockbusters. ‘Star Trek: Into Darkness’ got in trouble for a 1.37 second shot of a woman in a bra, and ‘Man of Steel’ has been damned for blowing too much stuff up. Whatever inevitable punches are thrown the way of 'Pacific Rim', I doubt it will have the energy, unlike the others, to weather them. What should have been an exciting genre thrill ride turns out to be thoroughly lacklustre, and unintentionally funny without any sense of irony. The visual effects might be spectacular, but visual effects do not make a film, and when the foundation stone - its screenplay - is this poor, even a great director like del Toro can’t make it work. ‘Pacific Rim’ is a little too lame to be harmless fun, and not brave enough to be admired for ambition. It’s as clunky as an empty metal drum, and just as satisfying.